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May 28, 2007


What is the moral difference between the right to own chimps outright (which many institutions and individuals already do and very few people question), and having a patent on a class of chimps which prevents others from owning that class without your permission?

I don't see a big distinction.

As for whether a patent should be allowed on a method of making such a chimp, that begs the question: does "society" want such manipulations to be legal at all?

In any event, if a talking chimp can be made this way, expect someone to try to do it, if they haven't already. Then we can ask "deep" questions like whether a chimp has a soul. I imagine Fox News will have a very thoughtful program devoted to the topic.

I think the distinction is human sentience, which is typically detected by language. I think most people would say primates, dolphins and some whales have an intelligence related to human intelligence, but since we can't ask we can't be sure - the gap is as wide for a chimp as it is for a cat, which is why chimps and cats can be "owned outright."

My question is what happens when the chimp can talk, and maybe enunciate in a way humans can understand its ideas and feelings. That creates moral issues, and as it relates to patent law such moral issues are behind opponents of stem cells, gene and transgenic animal patenting. So my post simply was intended to provoke a discussion about that.

Thanks for the comment.

Kevin writes

"My question is what happens when the chimp can talk, and maybe enunciate in a way humans can understand its ideas and feelings. That creates moral issues"

I think most of the "moral issues" are already on the table. I recommend watching Fred Wiseman's classic documenary film, "Primate," for a fairly objective view of the relationship between humans and animals. Somewhat more abstractly, the documentaries "Our Daily Bread" and "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" also touch on the key issues.

Humans and animals are both capable of communicating their "feelings" quite clearly without speaking. In fact, many healthy animals, spectacularly including chimps, are far better at communicating their feelings than mentally ill or traumatized human beings.

Is a verbal conversation with a lab-raised chimpanzee really needed to determine what chimpanzees want or need from humans?

Gosh, I hope not.


I don't dispute that animals can communicate with humans - my cats are very good at telling me what to do and getting me to do it!

Having said that, I maintain that there is a qualitative difference between understanding animals as we do now and actually conversing with another species. And I think the issue would be huge, if only because it would be harder to say "S/he's only an animal" and disregard the animal's feelings. I've had vets tell me that "animals don't feel pain like humans" when trying to convince me to declaw my cats (nothing doing!), and laymen espouse even more ignorant views of the considerations merited by brutes and beasts.

Like it (or agree with it) or not, in my view an aggrieved tirade from an insulted chimp would be a qualitatively different experience, and provoke a qualitatively different response.

Thanks for the comment.

The comments to this entry are closed.

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