Chimps may be ‘97% Human’, but they’re 0% Homo Sapiens

Posted on January 30, 2012


Climate Change is certainly unpleasant, but is it wrong?

From a guest blogger: What is it that St. Peter’s Basilica, Climate Change, the Euro Crisis and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy have in common? I shall not keep you guessing. All four demonstrate that humans are not only special, but also without doubt the most special of creatures on Planet Earth.

Consider for a moment what upheaval there would be if it were discovered that a colony of monkeys had created a fully functional church, or started using currency, or were worrying that they were changing the weather, or had written a fairly convincing Wesleyan hymn tune? If they had done even just one of these they would be considered unique among the apes. The argument in favour of basic human rights for chimps would have been lent a huge and potentially compelling argument. Naturalists from around the world would flock to their territory. It might be asked if there was any likelihood that chimps in captivity could develop capacities like those in this territory (which I shall name Chimpanzania), and philosophers and ethicists who have been declaring for decades that humans are nothing special would be buying themselves a large self-congratulatory drink.

At the time of writing none of these things have happened, although there did appear the other day a series of very cute pictures of chimpanzees on the Telegraph website under the heading ‘97% human’ a reference to the fact that humans and certain primates share about 97% of their DNA. But in reality these amount to just another, albeit charming, attempt at saying that humans are just rather clever apes. As images they are not so far removed from Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny and other highly entertaining, if intellectually dubious, aspects of the ‘pathetic fallacy’.

The truth is that humans are not simply clever apes. Although we, like monkeys, are affected by changes in the global climate one would be hard-pressed to assert that chimps saw anything wrong in droughts when there ‘should be’ rain. Drought for a chimp is doubtless unpleasant but we have no indication that a chimp would regard this as wrong even if aware that his own kind had caused such a disaster. Because humans can say something is wrong, as opposed to simply unpleasant, we ought to recognise a crucial difference between ourselves and our co-inhabitants of this planet. The Euro Crisis actually points in the same diection. At its heart is the recognition of moral failing. Banks and governments did not control well enough the vast sums of money entrusted to them by millions of citizens and investors. They bear moral responsibility not only for sorting out the crisis but for preventing it from getting any worse. The fallout from default by Greece and its exit from the Euro would not only be extremely difficult for the poorest in society, but would also represent a moral failure by society’s more powerful members in a way that for chimps, whatever altruism they may otherwise demonstrate, simply does not exist.

Nonetheless, those involved in movements such as the Great Ape Project and thinkers like Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri still assert that there are no unbridgeable differences of a kind that demonstrate we are superior to the less developed primates.

Interestingly, one of the most useful insights in this discussion comes from the philosopher Mikel Dufrenne. In discussing the role of melody in music Dufrenne observes (albeit in rather dense prose) that ‘[melody] is the very meaning of the musical object, a meaning that cannot be apprehended except through perception of the work… [A]nything we may say of it in another language is pitifully inadequate to express what music expresses.’ He continues: ‘this ineffable meaning still deserves to be called meaning, for it is what the musical object says… [M]eaning informs music, making it music rather than an incoherent succession of sounds.’

At the heart of the matter is the question of meaning. The truth is that there clearly is meaning in architecture and religion, just as there is meaning in politics or in a tune by Beethoven, whether or not it is difficult to describe. The idea that the monkeys in London Zoo might declare their enclosures independent territories under their own rule is laughable precisely because of the serious implications of such an occurrence.

For all the song and dance about humans sharing most of our genes with monkeys I am inclined to go with what is clearly more meaningful even if it also more enigmatic. Like most people I hear a meaning in music just as I recognise meaning in friendship and liberty. It may be hard to define exactly how humans are special, but this is no reason to ignore the value of humanity when it is plain for all to see.

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