Monday, January 30, 2012

Chimps "read" books, chimps aren't books!

I love books. I don’t know any academic who wouldn’t say that they don’t at least respect and admire books. We even defend books. My University has to cut some titles from the library to make more room for other, newer books and there has been a passionate discussion about the value of the volumes we have and how important it is to protect them.

John VandeBerg, the chief medical officer at Texas Biomed, told NBC that chimpanzees are “like books in a library” a quote he echoes from a letter he co-signed with the other three chimpanzee lab directors. Lisa Myers was right on to challenge him in her report on Rock Center.

Though there may be semantic similarities between the discussions at my University about saving books in our library and the debate that is happening about using chimpanzees for research, let’s be clear. Chimpanzees are not in the same ontological or ethical category as books. Books are marvelous repositories of thoughts and ideas. Books are certainly worth preserving. Good books are the sorts of things that one can go back to and learn something new from. But my students are also repositories of thoughts and ideas, and I always learn from them, yet my obligations and responsibilities to my students are on a completely different level than any I might have towards books. Here is one obvious difference – I value books and want to preserve them so that others can enjoy or learn from them. My students are valuable in their own right, even if nobody likes them or their ideas aren’t very good (this is not true of any of my students). What is valuable about my students that makes them fundamentally different from books is that they have feelings and interests and their own lives to live. Books don’t. Chimpanzees do.

It seems silly to have to even write that, to point out that chimpanzees are more similar to my students than they are to books, and it raises serious questions about the thought processes of the directors of our nation’s chimpanzee research laboratories. It makes me wonder about the meaning of their claim that they respect the chimpanzees and have the highest reverence for them. How can they respect a living, feeling, experiencing being if they think of that being as an inanimate object from which knowledge can be extracted? As I said, I respect books, but the sort of respect I have for books is profoundly different than the respect one should have for sentient beings.

In order to treat a chimpanzee with respect, in order to promote his or her well-being, one has to understand that individual’s personality, specific needs, her interests, her fears, her emotions, and her thoughts. Understanding chimpanzees requires a sort of empathetic process, one that these lab directors clearly don’t engage and can't engage if they think of chimpanzees as being like books.

(Photo by Amy Fultz at Chimp Haven)