Monday, August 26, 2002


'We need to place human life central'
By ERIC SUNDQUIST Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, is the author of several books that break down supposed walls between humans and other animals. His "Good Natured" (1996) explored animals' sense of morality. "The Ape and the Sushi Master" (2001) described how animals pass along learned behavior, or share culture.

Yet de Waal does his work at Emory's Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center, a facility often attacked by animal protectionists for its invasive research on monkeys and apes.

De Waal discussed his views last month on people's relationship with animals. Here is an edited account:

Q: Some animal protectionists argue that, if you acknowledge that humans are animals like apes, dogs, whatever, then humans can't say such things as, "We won't do this to human children, but we'll do it to monkeys." But you don't come down quite that way.

A: No, I'm arguing in my book that in any human morality that I can imagine, always the human species will have to be central....I certainly don't agree with the animal rightists who argue that a chimpanzee should have exactly the same rights as a human.

Q: I'm not sure they go quite that far. They wouldn't give chimpanzees the right to vote or drive a car. Many would say they have a right to liberty and not to be killed.

A: There are two arguments. One is that you don't know where that ends. If you give equal rights to chimps, then why not baboons? And why not dolphins? Before you know it you have to give it to everything. And second, it depends on what they mean by equal rights, because equal rights for me would mean that if there's a hospital bed and there's a chimp sick at the field station and you are sick, and there's only one space open, we would have a tossup between the two of you. Is that what they mean by equal rights?

Q: Here you work doing animal behavioral research at an institution that does cause some animal suffering in biomedical research. How do you resolve that yourself?

A: At the moment we have a surplus of chimpanzees, and that is largely because there's less and less invasive research on chimpanzees. So I'm very happy that we have reached that point, where we may not need the chimpanzees so much any more, and can do everything we need to do on rats and mice, or maybe monkeys on occasion.

But if someone would come to me and say, "I can solve the AIDS problem in Africa that affects now 40 million people, and I can only solve it by using 200 of your chimpanzees," and he can convince me that it cannot be done with monkeys and it cannot be done with rats and anyone else, I would find it very difficult to tell this person "No, you cannot do that."

Q: It sounds like a utilitarian balancing of harms and benefits.

A: Yeah, it's the gain-pain balance. And so if you were to use 200 chimpanzees to save one human life, that would be problematic for me. But if you can save 40 million lives, that's something else. And so that's the way I'm looking at the biomedical question. But in the end I'm very happy if someone can say "Well, we don't need the chimp any more." And I think many of us would be very happy if we would reach that point.

Q: Some utilitarians would say if you could take 200 humans, and work on them to save 40 million, it would be worth it, too.

A: No, that would not be acceptable.

Q: What's the difference?

A: The difference is that that's humans....