Personhood for apes
I have just listened to The Museum of Curiosity on Radio 4 where an anthropologist Volker Sommer said that ants carcasses in the faeces of chimpanzees can indicate religion or identity generating practices; something I am amazed by. He also champions the cause of apes to be recognised as persons and accordingly attributed rights. The fact that they feel pain and anguish was enough to convince him but coupled with findings from the faeces and his research into them does it for me.
Having not read his paper I cannot know how much criticism his religion theory is open to but my first objection was whether he had explored all angles about why chimpanzees eat ants. He dismisses the idea that they eat them to “extend their nutrition repertoire” and goes to great personal lengths to assure us of his thorough research here. However, my initial thoughts were as to whether they ate the ants to aid digestion or to gain some other benefit apart from nutrition.
To elaborate on the practice of eating ants Sommer goes on to say that some tribes of chimpanzees eat only termites and will not eat ants. Indeed the ant eating tribes refuse all termites and eat exclusively ants. This seems to counter the idea that ants aid digestion or provide some other benefit because if this were the case tribes would eat both ants and termites or both tribes would be eating ants.
Sommer suggests that instead of any rational reason, the chimpanzees have created a ritual of which creature they eat to help define themselves as belonging to a tribe. This reflects the not eating of some meats for religious purposes or at least the refusal to eat certain animals (such as dogs in the West) as a defining attribute compared to other societies (such as Korea).
If it is true that chimpanzees have such concepts of belonging and para-religious behaviour aids this then I side with Sommer. Richard Rorty would differentiate chimps from humans not on the grounds of suffering but that we can feel humiliation. Surely the sense of belonging to a tribe or perhaps a religion is the starting point for feeling humiliation. If one is rejected by a group one wants to belong to on the petty reason that one ate the wrong insect one may be humiliated or arbitrary practices could be used to humiliate.
Anyway, this got me thinking of a planet of the apes style SF story. Granting personhood to primates other than humans sounds like fiction and, of course, like all good ideas someone has already touched on it. But just because T.C. Boyle in The Descent of Man does not mean there is not another angle to be had.