Human rights for chimps?

Should chimps be freed from inappropriate, solitary housing as ‘pets’ or as entertainers? Should chimpanzees have human rights? These seem like two different questions, but they weren’t mutually exclusive in a court in New York state yesterday. Steve Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project are attempting to use human rights law to have a chimp, Tommy, removed from his owner and placed in a sanctuary.1

The Nonhuman Rights Project is arguing that members of other species should have legal rights such as bodily integrity and bodily liberty2. They argue that some non-human animals should stop being treated by law as ‘things’ and start to be recognised as ‘persons’. But if a chimpanzee gains human rights, can it do human ‘wrongs’?

Well, the first point to make here is that not all humans would be judged capable of committing a crime. In many jurisdictions there is an assumption that an individual must be capable of reasoning rationally and morally. Some individuals – such as young children or those with certain mental disabilities – are regarded as outside of this.3 Would a chimpanzee ever be capable of passing this test?

Over this summer, along with a range of wonderful, talented people, I have developed a show that is designed to examine this exact question. The scenario is simple enough – a chimp has killed another, something that we know chimpanzees do.4 The audience is the jury, academics are expert witnesses and a couple of us are the lawyers.

The topics are broad. We know that chimpanzees are a remarkable, intelligent and social species, but do chimps have cultural norms? Do they have morals? Do they view others as chimps like them or simply as other objects in the environment? The answers to these questions are complicated to answer because we can’t just ask a chimp what they think. They are also complex because different researchers interpret the results from their observations and experiments differently. Similarly, the questions and debates that the show raises from the jury and witnesses is also complex and change subtly each time we run it.

The issues above are, surely, the same ones that will feature in the judges’ decision making in Albany over the next few weeks. Is chimp cognition sufficiently similar to that of humans to be called a ‘person’? I am not sure of that we can show that it is. I can understand why the Nonhuman Rights Project have chosen to use human rights law and have invoked judgements that brought an end to slavery, but the question remains in my mind: why is there not an animal rights law to deal with this? How is it possible that a chimpanzee in America can be used in the entertainment industry and then discarded to a life of solitary confinement? That shouldn’t need a ‘human right’ to stop it; that should need common sense (and common law).

1 Accessed 9th October
2 Accessed 9th October
3Cubie A.M. (2010) Scots Criminal Law (Third Edition). Bloomsbury Professional, London
4 Wilson M.L. et al. Lethal aggression in Pan is better explained by adaptive strategies than human impacts. Nature, 513, 414-417

What’s the point of practical work?


The other week there was a lot of chat about the government cutting requirements for A-level science practical work. There were lots of individuals and organisations criticising the decision (and, dare I say it, a few who were jumping on an easy news bandwagon). It is a great shame if science, the way in which we find out how our world works, becomes limited to a series of facts to learn by rote, but is practical work always the solution?

I was struck by some really interesting tweets from Alom Shaha, who unlike many of those commenting, is a teacher. He was more measured in his approach, pointing out that practical work can sometimes be an easy option to keep children occupied and give the teacher a break. In that case surely the practical work is just a waste of time.

I took part in a great deal of practical work in my education and know that there were times (e.g. when we were connecting up battery packs to see how many bulbs we could blow before our teacher caught us) when practical work became playtime. However, there are other times when practical work was mind-blowing; I still remember an amazing university practical where we recorded the nerve signals of a locust. We found the ganglion that processed visual information and were able to ‘see’ it seeing us. It was phenomenal.

Now I am the one who is lecturing and supervising student projects. I am fairly new to this and I don’t do too much of it, but it is something that I want to do well. I want to do the best for my students. And of course I worry that I am not up to it. I hope that I will improve at it and provide the students with what they deserve.

I also have concerns about how we are teaching and why we are doing it this way (not at my university, but across the sector). A couple of years ago, as part of work for The Physiological Society, I was involved in a higher education teaching workshop on feedback and feedforward. There is one discussion from that day that often pops back into my head. It was on the aims of different people in the sector – as educators we may have different aims from our students. Of course we want them to get good marks, but we want them to get marks to show that they understand and love the subject, not as an aim in itself. There was a concern on the workshop that too often (and quite understandably), students often have a shorter term objective – getting a good mark.

This is where I wonder if we are doing some practicals correctly. What is the point of doing research projects? Is it just to get a mark at the end or is it to learn how science works and to gain experience of real research? If it is the former then we can trot out the same old projects and not worry. However, if we really want to challenge students and demonstrate what science is really about, do we not have to ensure that we give them a real taste of what research is? Let parts of the project fail and be redesigned? Take on a question that hasn’t really been asked before?

Knowing the facts in your field is vitally important in science, but so too is being able to use that knowledge – being able to devise questions and work out how to test and analyse them. If we treat all university level practical work as simply a demonstration, do we not remove part of our students’ science education? If they have to chase marks and practical project work is treated as just some type of examination, which has a ‘right’ result and a ‘wrong’ result, does that not remove something from the essence of science?

I don’t claim to have answers and I certainly don’t claim to know the field of science education particularly well. I know that there are innovators and I am sure that there are courses that have amazing projects, but I hope that students coming out of the courses that I am involved with know what scientific research is all about, rather than leaving with just a bunch of facts. I am honestly not sure off all of them do.