One of the things I love about the blogosphere is the give and take, the ability of people to comment on each others' work, and the diversity of topics. The conversations that take place in the blogosphere have real value (a value which is so far under-recognized and under-utilized). Without the blogosphere, I would never be exposed to many of the things I read online, such as basic research in neuroanatomy and drug abuse, physiology, and primatology.
Interest in primatology is sort of like love of chocolate---I suspect most of us are born with it. As the Bare Naked Ladies sang, "Haven't you always wanted a monkey?" I suspect that the more an animal appeals to us, either as being similar or being cute, the more we tend to endow it with human characteristics. We are narcissistic both as individuals and as a species, and we see more value in an animal the more "human" it is.
I think anyone would be hard-pressed to say that a bonobo is not more like us than an opossum. But that doesn't mean that bonobos are little people. We are---I think rightly---more likely to respect the needs of humans than other animals, and we tend to create an informal hierarchy of which animals can be treated in which ways, often based on our perceptions of an animal's ability to perceive and understand noxious stimuli. Most of us feel comfortable swatting a mosquito just because it bothers us, but few of us would approve of killing a chimpanzee just because it looks at us funny. A high school biology student may cut paramecia into bits to see what happens and sleep well that evening, but if they were asked to do the same to an ape, they would likely balk (I hope).
These admittedly obvious and somewhat unsophisticated observations arose because of a post I read today over at the Primate Diaries. In it, Eric Michael Johnson uses a clever writing device to argue for a moral stance greater than humanism, one that explicitly places us face-to-face with non-human primates.
I agree with Eric's implicit point that our views and treatment of other animals is more complex than we sometimes realize. In fact, it is my agreement with this general tone that creates for me an impression that his entire post is flawed beyond redemption. For example:
My studies in evolutionary biology revealed that, far from privileging humans as separate from the web of life, we were intricately interwoven within it. Furthermore, the difference between any human and any chimpanzee was less than between that chimpanzee and a gorilla. We are, in fact, the third chimpanzee, a naked ape who donned fine clothing and manners as a way to mask our animal heritage. Humanism, at least in the view of many adherents, removes supernatural justifications for human uniqueness yet emphasizes the importance of "civilized man" as something separate from mere beasts.
Many (but not all) religions view human beings as unique among animals (or even separate from animals). While supernatural explanations for this uniqueness are absurd, there are plenty of non-absurd arguments of why we are not "just another ape". We are, of course, apes, but we are apes with a completely different set of abilities that makes us unique. And we are us, an observation that in itself sets apart from other animals. Finding a non-superstitious way to understand what makes us different from other animals and what this may or may not mean is tricky.
Humanism is appealing to those who eschew the supernatural. It recognizes the responsibilities of human beings to each other and our role in a natural world rather than a supernatural one. There is not any requirement to see humans as "other" than nature, but we are, in an important way, different from other animals.
That difference is very important when evaluating behaviors. Earth vertebrates share many physical, anatomic, physiologic, and behavioral characteristics, but the meaning of behaviors is much harder to evaluate than the function of a voltage-gated ion channel. Humans have systems of examining the meanings behind our behaviors; some are obvious. When I'm hungry, I go to the fridge. But even such a simple behavior in humans can have many other meanings depending on how one views food, one's body image, etc. Other animals may have similar-appearing behaviors, but that does not make these behaviors identical to their human analogues.
Since mind is a brain-dependent phenomenon, there are often anatomic correlates to our behaviors, and even to our beliefs, but since other animals do not utilize complex language, we will never know if they have "beliefs" which correlate with behavior or anatomy. We don't really understand what it means for a human to have post-traumatic stress disorder, so when we say that an elephant has it, there is no way to know if that set of behaviors is anything like our own experiences.
But what really disturbs me about Eric's piece is not the lack of sophistication or naivete; I am guilty of these as well. It is the unwritten purpose behind the piece, the obvious implication: if we are animals, and animals are human, than we must grant them the same rights as we grant each other. This I find impractical and absurd.