Most of us have thought at times that chimpanzees seem similar to humans in many respects, that they often behave like us, that they show kindness and aggressiveness, when we view them live or see them on nature shows. A BBC Nature report says chimps and people are similar in five big ways:

  • Neuroticism – characterized by such things as worry, moodiness, envy, and jealousy
  • Extroversion – indicated by developing social connections and seeking leadership opportunities, among other things
  • Openness to Experience – characterized by intellectual curiosity, preference for variety, an active imagination, among others
  • Agreeableness – shown by such things as kindness, cooperation, sympathy, and consideration
  • Conscientiousness – indicated by a desire to do things right, being thorough, careful, or vigilant.

But some say we are projecting our human biases onto chimps and other animals. Psychology professor Clive Wynne at the University of Florida tells BBC Nature, “Human beings have a very natural tendency to project human agency into almost anything that moves. It is very deeply ingrained into our ways of trying to understand the world around us.”


Chimps retired from captive situations live out their lives in sanctuaries. Photo by Jude Gogi Gabe Vick. (Source.)

Chimps retired from captive situations live out their lives in sanctuaries. Photo by Jude Gogi Gabe Vick. (Source.)


The late comedian George Carlin had a wonderful skit about how people mistreat plants. He argued that hanging plants are scared out of their minds by the heights at which they are hung to please people.

But chimp-person similarities have recently taken on a new phase. A 2012 study at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland was designed to remove human bias in assessing human-like qualities of chimps. Mark Adams, one of the researchers, concluded that chimpanzees “have the same social problems that we do, they want to make friends and find mates and sort of gain position within their society.”

A New Twist

Lawyer Steven M. Wise, founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project, represented four chimpanzees in the New York Supreme Court in recent months, asking the court to declare chimps “persons” under certain circumstances. At first people thought these cases were some kind of joke or publicity stunt, but as the cases progressed people began to follow them with serious interest. This included the judges.

Wise began working on this issue in 1985 after getting his degree from Boston University Law School and an earlier degree in chemistry from the College of William and Mary. He has taught Animal Rights Jurisprudence at Harvard Law School, as well as at a number of other law schools. Steven Wise is serious, not joking at all. We all have biases about one thing or another, and I felt compelled to give some extra thought to Wise’s biases toward animals.

The Seattle Post Intelligencer released the following video showing a number of chimps that have been released from captivity into a sanctuary for retired chimps.   It’s worth a look here.

Reuters News Agency reported the story about three lawsuits in New York in a December 2, 2013, article. The lawsuits were on behalf of two 26-year-old chimps and two young chimps. Wise told Reuters that chimpanzees “possess complex cognitive abilities that are so strictly protected when they’re found in human beings.” He added, “There’s no reason why they should not be protected when they’re found in chimpanzees.”

Case Outcomes

Wise did not win, and he was not surprised by the outcomes. However, one of the judges expressed appreciation for the work brought forward in one case. Another said he was not ready to be first to legally declare a chimp a person, suggesting that other legal grounds could be found to bring subsequent appeals.

The Nonhuman Rights Project is preparing those appeals now, with plans to file them in the coming year. These appeals will no doubt be interesting to watch, with potentially wide implications.

Some Thoughts

Chimps are not chumps. They are clearly related to us from accumulated results of studies across disciplines over many decades. They possess ninety-eight percent of the genes that humans possess.

It is not hard to imagine chimps as our relatives when we watch them interact. In fact, some chimps appear much nicer than some humans we all have known. When a chimp attacks a person, the chimp should be incarcerated, just as we incarcerate people who act violently toward other people.

Chimps even seem more law abiding than many humans. They don’t participate in mass killings. They don’t drive cars recklessly. They do not carry out Wall Street robberies of the type we have seen all too recently, by the greedy who consider the rest of us chumps.

Now our challenge is to figure out how to treat our close relatives the chimps properly. This is not only a challenge of the legal and scientific communities, it is a challenge to our old assumptions about humanity.

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