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Next of kin

July 7, 2008

Next of kin: the ethics of eating, capturing, and experimenting on great apes

One of the pressing problems of our times is the future of the great apes. All of the great apes – chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans – are endangered. Their habitat is quickly shrinking, but more urgent, their numbers are fast approaching an unsustainable low. Currently, the main threat is the bush-meat trade (which also involves the logging of African forests). It is now thought that the animals will be gone before their habitat is destroyed due to illegal and excessive hunting. Part of the problem is the human view of these nonhuman animals. Instead of being seen as beings valuable in their own right, they are seen as a resource for human needs and desires. Further evidence of this is found in the use of these same creatures, in captivity, for biomedical research and entertainment.

As philosophers, we are examining the current crises faced by captive and free living apes. We are examining the metaphysical views that support the various claims about human-nonhuman relations and specifically our relations with our “next of kin.” There are clearly questions about the ethics of eating, capturing and experimenting on beings who share over 95 percent (chimpanzees share over 98 percent) of our genetic structure.

Both of us have now completed the apprenticeship program at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) at Central Washington University. Erin completed the program during the summer of 1999 during a sabbatical leave, and Lindsey in the summer of 2006. During the apprenticeship program we learned how to care for captive chimpanzees and assisted with ongoing research projects.

Now we continue to volunteer at the Chimposiums held at CHCI. These are educational programs that inform the public about the sign language studies this particular family of chimpanzees has been involved in as well as providing information about the plight of free-living chimpanzees in Africa and the conditions faced by captive chimpanzees in the United States.

Lindsey reports on her experience last summer in the following way:

“As a student of philosophy, I’ve read many of the influential sources of historical and contemporary human arrogance. According to many ancient and modern thinkers, humans are different in kind from all other animals on earth. Along the way we have distinguished ourselves in many ways, not the least of which is the ability to use language. These apparent differences have led us, more often than not, to believe ourselves more important than other species.

“At CHCI I learned to care for the family of four chimpanzees who live there: Washoe, Tatu, Loulis and Dar.

All are famous for acquiring elements of American Sign Language, which they use on a regular basis to communicate with each other and with their human companions. Washoe, Tatu and Dar were raised as deaf human children by human ‘parents,’ while Loulis learned from other chimpanzees.

“Washoe and her family, despite their intelligence and amazing life stories, are in prison. They will be there for the rest of their lives because, having been raised by humans as deaf human children, they are neither fully human nor fully chimpanzee. This experience makes me further committed to challenging long-held cultural and philosophical beliefs about the position that we as humans occupy within the biosphere.”

While learning to care for a family of four chimpanzees at a research center in central Washington, philosophy major Lindsay Webb ’08 started to wonder: where do humans fit in this biosphere? What takes precedent?

So what do we learn from this kind of experience? What do we do?

Specific to our work as philosophers, we presented a paper we co-authored on the bush-meat crisis (“Eating Apes: Virtue Ethics and Pragmatism Applied”) at the recent Northwest Philosophy Conference in November. Lindsey is working on a paper on apes and biomedical research for an undergraduate philosophy conference (“Should Human Well-Being Always be Valued Over Nonhuman Well-Being?”). She is able to incorporate some of this work into her philosophy capstone seminar. We are making plans to visit several sanctuaries that house apes used in biomedical research and the entertainment industry. This experience should deepen Lindsey’s paper on biomedical research and further inform Erin’s next book on animals.

We also had the great privilege of interviewing Roger and Debbi Fouts. Roger Fouts is director of university research at Central Washington University, and Debbi Fouts directs the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute. Together they are co-founders and directors of Friends of Washoe. The book “Next of Kin” tells the story of their journey with Washoe and her family. We were able to ask them to elaborate on this journey in ways that will allow us to apply various schools of ethical thought to their beliefs and actions. We hope to both present and publish this paper (“Washoe and the Ethical Views of Roger and Debbi Fouts: We are Hers”).

One of our hopes in all of this work is to counter the common human assumption that we can leave unexamined the ways in which we treat beings who not only share 98 percent of our DNA, but who are intelligent, emotional and highly social creatures. This work seems to fit well with the purpose of our PLU Kelmer-Roe Faculty/Student Fellowship: “bringing the wisdom of the humanities disciplines to bear on enduring human questions and on the contemporary problems of our time.”

While there are very concrete ethical concerns to be explored here, which philosophy is well equipped to do, there are also larger metaphysical questions about humans’ place in nature and the human-nonhuman relationship. While our work draws on research in biology, anthropology, psychology and ethology, we bring the systematic and sustained examination that philosophy provides by scrutinizing methods, assumptions and implications.

By exploring lifelong questions of meaning, thought and action, philosophy provides a much needed voice in PLU’s mission “to empower students for lives of thoughtful inquiry, service, leadership and care – for other persons, for the community and for the earth.” Philosophy can also challenge humans to think critically about their relationship with the rest of nature – hopefully before it’s too late.

PLU philosophy professor Erin McKenna regularly teaches “Philosophy, Animals, and the Environment” and publishes and presents in the area of philosophy and animals. McKenna and Lindsey Webb (2008 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy) received a Kelmer-Roe Faculty/Student Research Fellowship in 2006. This fellowship, made possible by the generosity of Donald Nothstein, Naomi Roe Nothstein and David Roe, allowed McKenna and Webb to gain new and interesting perspectives as they pursued their project: “The Current Status and Future Condition for Our Next of Kin.”