Taking Exception

What Binti Jua Knew

Binti Jua rescues a toddler who fell into the Brookfield Zoo's gorilla enclosure in 1996.
Binti Jua rescues a toddler who fell into the Brookfield Zoo's gorilla enclosure in 1996. (Wls-tv Via Associated Press)
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By Barbara J. King
Friday, August 15, 2008

A toddler falls over a railing, 24 feet down, into the gorilla enclosure of the Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago. There he lies, unconscious, among seven apes, some with poundage and power exceeding that of an adult man. As one of them approaches the boy, onlookers tense.

But Binti Jua, an 8-year-old female gorilla, picks up the boy, and, carrying him along with her own infant, gently hands him over to zoo staff.

This stunning event in 1996 earned Binti Jua global headlines (and can be seen, if in grainy video, on YouTube). It was an incident that no one who witnessed it -- in person or online -- could forget. But there was nothing about Binti Jua, or any of the chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas or orangutans that exhibit reasoning and empathy, in Russell Paul La Valle's July 27 op-ed, " Why They're Human Rights."

La Valle argued that the Spanish Parliament should not award human rights to apes, as it is considering. He opened with a throwaway line about monkeys in the circus -- and made his first mistake. First of all, monkeys' bodies are smaller than those of apes, their thinking is less complex and they are more distantly related to humans. But a far more serious error was La Valle's assertion that apes are "irrational, amoral."

In an echo of 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes' dualism, La Valle invoked a strict dividing line between humans, who reason, and animals that rely on "instinctual, inherited knowledge of how to survive." It's clear that La Valle hasn't spent much time with apes lately -- or looking into any of the major findings by primate scientists over the past two or three decades. In expressing reasoning and empathy, Binti Jua was not unique; nor was her behavior an artifact of zoo life. Wild chimpanzees plan ahead and carry tools to work sites, where they crack open hard-shelled nuts with wood and stone hammers. They choose sides thoughtfully in ongoing competitions for status and reward friends' loyalties while exacting revenge on their enemies. When close companions suffer wounds or injuries, wild chimpanzees groom and care for them.

(This compassion by chimpanzees, it must be said, is at times matched by their outright cruelty to each other. What species does that remind you of?)

Captive orangutans modify their own gestures according to how much a human companion seems to comprehend their requests. Bonobos use a symbol-laden computer keyboard to discuss with their caretakers plans for the day, as well as to make promises about being "good."

The apes that I have described, and many more that my fellow primatologists write about, are neither irrational nor amoral. The zoologist and ethologist Frans de Waal has argued that the origins of morality can be found in our primate cousins, and my own anthropological work suggests that the evolutionary roots of today's human religiosity can be found in the ape world.

It's important to correct La Valle's misunderstanding of apes, but not because I'm a fervent supporter of legalizing rights for animals. The question is complex and arguable: whether to award rights to apes or to assume responsibility for apes' welfare. But while writers such as La Valle bandy words about and academics such as I discuss the philosophical aspects of rights, the great apes are dying.

The combined forces of poaching, diseases such as ebola fever, habitat destruction and the trade in bushmeat are killing off the apes at unprecedented rates. If we write them off as irrational and amoral animals, we will fail to grasp the depth of their suffering at the hands of our own species -- a suffering that is cognitive and emotional as well as physical.

Barbara J. King is a professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary and is the author of "Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion."

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