September 20, 2011

Peter Singer on Project Nim

Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer has chimed in to reflect on the recent documentary, Project Nim, about a chimpanzee that was raised as a human. The endeavour was part of a science project to determine how much language, if any, a chimpanzee could acquire in a human environment. Singer believes that Nim was treated wrong and that such invasive research should be consigned to history:

Eighteen years ago, Paola Cavalieri and I founded The Great Ape Project, an organisation dedicated to the idea of giving great apes the moral status and legal protection that befits their nature. As the work of Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey, Francine Patterson, Birute Galdikas, H Lyn White Miles, Roger and Deborah Fouts, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and many other remarkable scientists have shown, chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orang-utans are self-aware beings, capable of thought, and with rich and deep emotional lives. Our idea is that the great apes, as our closest relatives, could serve as a bridge over the immense gulf we have dug between ourselves and other animals. Once one group of animals is included within the sphere of beings with rights, we hope that the extension of some basic rights to other sentient animals will be that much easier to make.

Fortunately, the idea that great apes should not be treated as tools for research – as opposed to the kind of relationship developed by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh – has made some progress since the time when Nim was sent back to Oklahoma. Experiments on great apes are now either banned or severely restricted in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and throughout the European Union.

In the United States, a bipartisan group of members of Congress is supporting legislation to end the use of chimpanzees in invasive research. Project Nim shows that even when research is not invasive, it can have a devastating psychological impact on an animal. What happened to Nim was wrong, and should never happen again.

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