In the past week and a half I’ve been arrested and charged for a crime I didn’t commit, accused of at least three other major crimes I didn’t commit, and really am starting to feel like I’m living in some terrible mystery-thriller movie with all of these orchestrated events going on around me. It’s quite a surreal experience.
Speaking of surreal experiences, I was at the zoo with my daughter on Friday, and I always wonder what the orangutans are thinking as they cluster around the edge of their cells and stare woefully at the crowds tapping on the glass and taking their pictures. With many of the great apes scoring as high as humans on IQ tests, to say nothing of even very simple animals like crows (who use and invent tools), you have to wonder what their world view would be… It’s as if they’re living in The Truman Show but can see the audience the whole time. Do they realize they’re slaves and prisoners? Or because it’s the only thing they’ve ever experienced, they don’t really think about it? With minds that are roughly equivalent to humans, they must at least wonder about it.
Because there has been some evidence of apes that are taught great ape sign language are able to then teach their children or each other, I’ve always had this fantasy that apes could learn human languages and re-enter the wild, eventually emerging in huge numbers, demanding the right to vote or something. But outside of the fact that this is likely biologically impossible, as Douglas Adams wrote in The Great Ape Project,
There are many members of our own species who live in and with the forest and know it and understand it. We don’t listen to them. What is there to suggest we would listen to anything an ape could tell us? Or that he would be able to tell us of his life in a language that hasn’t been born of that life?… Maybe it is not that they have yet to gain a language, it is that we have lost one.
I mean, we don’t even tend to listen to other humans that demand rights, and it generally takes decades of legal battles (to say nothing of physical resistance) to get even minor improvements… why would we listen to animals? It’s not as if we’ve granted them any rights, let alone human-level rights (or whatever term you want to give to the rights afforded to we sentient beings that share this planet) — to quote Jeremy Bentham from Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation,
The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor… What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but, “Can they suffer?”