Review: Leeds Salon – Human Genes & Animal Rights

Jeremy Taylor (2009) Not A Chimp

Culture Vulture reader Ivor Tymchak recently attended Leeds Salon and wrote up a review of the event for his blog. We really enjoyed reading it so we asked him if we could share his thoughts with our readers. The topic up for discussion was Human Genes and Animal Rights, which welcomed science broadcaster and writer Jeremy Taylor to discuss his new book NOT A CHIMP: The Hunt for the Genes that Make Us Human, and debate whether the concept of ‘rights’ should be extended to chimpanzees and other primates.

Jeremy Taylor spoke at this event last night, largely to promote his new book, Not a Chimp. His premise was that ‘rights’ should not be extended to chimps because they are not like us.

So, for forty minutes, Mr Taylor went on in excruciating detail about the differences between chimps and humans, citing cognitive, genetic and physical differences. After ten minutes I kept being distracted by that other great intellectual problem of how many angels might be able to dance simultaneously on the head of a pin.

Of course chimps are different from us. So what?

Then after forty minutes he made his point in a sentence which took about thirty seconds to deliver; he didn’t like the way some scientists were anthropomorphising the chimps. He particularly didn’t like the work of Jane Goodall and Richard Dawkins in this context.

The ‘debate’ that followed (it was billed as a debate but in reality it was a presentation with a limited Q & A at the end) merely allowed Mr Taylor to expand on what he had already pointed out.

My question to him was, ‘So what was at stake? What difference did it make to anything if chimps were, or were not, granted rights?’

Mr Taylor seemed to regard this question as one of complete ignorance as if I had wilfully neglected to follow the intricate story twists of the greatest scientific issue since Shroedinger nearly couldn’t make up his mind when he went to the pet shop.

As the questions continued about legislation and morality it seemed to me that the point was being entirely missed. Whether a species shares 98.4% of our genes, or invents tools or not, is irrelevant.

Here is my premise;

» The concept of ‘rights’ is a purely human invention, as is time, property, law and land ownership and as such, is easily ignored when resources are being fought over.

» We are the only species interested in concepts and ideas (as far as we know). In all the experiments with chimps and corvids, the reward was always food. As soon as a species creates or responds to art, then we can start applying a ‘theory of mind’ to that species and involving them in a discussion about their ‘rights’ if we want to take it that far.

» We are human, therefore, we are only interested in what affects us. The extinction of a species only becomes of interest to the majority of us when we can’t eat it anymore, turn it into fancy clothes or view it in a zoo. Anthropomorphism is a natural thing to do. That’s why we like cute and cuddly panda’s and mosquitoes can go to hell.

From that premise I cannot see the problem with extending human rights to chimps (or any other species we care to adopt) should we wish to do so. The concept of rights is a social device and an attempt to raise human consciousness. It has nothing to do with genetic similarity but is a further application of the ‘golden rule’ of philosophy; do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Chimps look like us, they have highly individual faces – like us. It is easy to identify with them. Therefore in an attempt to raise our consciousness even further why not look to the species that most closely resembles our own and afford them our moral respect. Don’t forget, it was only a short while ago that the vast majority of people saw nothing wrong with the concept of slavery. Even today, you can find societies where one sector of the population actually believes that another is sub human and therefore fit for exploitation or extermination. To get people to recognise that we are brothers and sisters requires a change in perception, a new approach. I have no doubt that the abolitionists would have welcomed any idea, no matter how absurd, if it did the practical trick of enlightening people about the immorality of their position and released the slaves from their suffering.

As humans we have a disproportionate impact on the planet. Our consciousness is both a curse and a gift. If we evolve benignly then we will come to respect all life on the planet, realise the connectedness of all things and slowly gravitate towards vegetarianism and veganism. If we evolve malignantly (no more bets please) then we accept that there are no absolute truths, which means that we can dispense with morality and if we decide that the farming of children as a sustainable food source is acceptable – then so be it.

That is our choice. It is the practical application of philosophy that matters now. If the anthropomorphism of chimps by a bunch of scientists leads to a higher state of consciousness for the rest of humanity then I say issue each chimp with a National Insurance number now because inevitably, other species will ultimately follow them and the intelligence of humanity will have paid off in an evolutionary sense.

The original post can be read here and if this taster has left you wanting to read more of Ivor’s insights  then check out his fabulous blog SatNav for the soul® or why not follow his daily twitterings here.

Leeds Salon is a public debating forum which promotes lively and open debate around contemporary political, social, cultural and scientific issues. The next event will be held on 10th March 2010 and the topic is Defence of Poetry – get along and join the discussion> Full details can be found on the Leeds Salon website


  1. I too went to this discussion but have a different take on the presentation, discussion and conclusions of the logic of argument from Ivor.

    I agree that Jeremy Taylor’s introductory remarks were heavily focused on explaining the scientific evidence behind the assertion that Humans are unique in genetic make-up and the way in which the genetic foundation of human existence is applied quite differently at a physiological level, even when apparently similar to other animals. But that should be no surprise to anyone who read Jeremy’s book or is indeed interested in what he has to say, as that was the very purpose of him writing it and why we went to hear his remarks and question his thesis. And I think his argument is very coherent and robust and surely should be applauded for taking the time and devoting what must have been a great deal of intellectual energy to produce the book ‘Not a Chimp’.

    I think Ivor rather belittles the need for such rigour in science without any justification and somewhat damages his own argument in doing so. This becomes apparent when Ivor asserts the fact (and may well be advised to read Jeremy’s book to help substantiate that assertion) that humans are unique and that rights are a human contrust that come out of social organisation. From the rhetorical assertion rather than understanding of the uniquely human character of rights, Ivor then flippantly offers to give these to whatever species wants them, and asserts that this process would lead to us becoming vegetarians. Now there’s a leap without any justification, and somewhat inconsistent from the issue of rights being uniquely human and being applied inappropriately to animals.

    The discussion of rights being uniquely human as a social construct rather than coming from our physiology is the aspect of Jeremy’s rebuttal of those who try and use similar physiology to explain why animals should be granted rights, that is sadly downgraded in his book. I understand that he wrote the book to expose the unscientific and moral basis to those who assert we are similar to animals therefor we should extend rights to to them, but the discussion needs to go beyond science. The discussion at the meeting beyond science was extremely useful though incomplete, but engaging with the scientific argument should be dismissed as worthless or boring as it has its place. Not attempting to understand it is philistine and as we see with Ivor’s inconsistency, likely to get you into a right old mess philosophically.

    1. Simon

      Thanks for this. I accept that I have not read Jeremy’s book, Not a Chimp, but that does not prevent me from commenting on the ramifications of his basic premise.

      I do not suggest that other species “want” rights, as you put it, we simply extend our concept of rights to them because we believe that we have a higher consciousness and an expression of higher consciousness is the ability to acknowledge the ‘rights’ of other species to exist.

      I thought I had sign posted the route I took from slavery to vegetarianism; can we not extrapolate that higher consciousness leads to greater awareness which in turn leads to greater empathy with all of life? In my book, that means applying the ‘Golden Rule’ of philosophy instead of just, well.. philosophising about it. And how is this line of thought, “inconsistent from the issue of rights being uniquely human”? Our perception of ‘reality’ must surely extend beyond the human condition. We don’t live in a vacuum. Everything is in a continuum.

  2. Hi Ivor

    I look forward to your comments after you’ve read the book and considered the importance of the science. I agree that the crucial aspect of the discussion is indeed the uniquely human aspect of consciousness – that you term a higher consciousness. Just on that though, it’s extremely useful to be clear if you think it’s a linear path of higher and lower or higher as in a different scale. That’ll help clarify what all this granting (and just to note it is us humans giving and not ANY OTHER ANIMAL granting) rights which rather exposes the vacuous character of we’re all the same argument.

    So maybe start with being clear and clinical when expressing the ‘higher’ aspect of different consciousness?



  3. Ivor

    Like Simon, I find much of your argument both confusing and contradictory, particularly your notion of raising human consciousness by granting rights to animals. You seem to ignore the fact that this would in turn have the effect of lowering the status of human beings to no better than that of the animals granted rights – hence the link you make between granting animals rights with ending slavery.

    Slavery, in denying rights to fellow human beings, treated those people as no better than farm animals to be bartered and worked; so I suspect that the abolitionists would have found your arguments not only absurd, as you say, but contrary to everything they were trying to do.

    Regards, Paul

    1. Simon

      You have posed a monstrous question; how can we be sure that consciousness is being ‘raised’ and for the ‘better’? This will require a lot of thought. Should be worth the effort though.


      I feel you are hoist with your own petard;
      “You seem to ignore the fact that this would in turn have the effect of lowering the status of human beings to no better than that of the animals granted rights”
      You clearly have a hierarchy of life forms in your world view with humans at the top. This world view is what defines current consciousness. A ‘raised consciousness’ would deny such a hierarchy (I believe) and consider all life forms as equally deserving.

  4. Ivor

    I’m not hoisted on any petard, as I’m clearly implying we are a higher form of being. And it is precisely our consciousness that raises us above the status of all other animals.

    Regard, Paul

  5. Paul

    But consciousness is on a continuum. Elephants have knowledge of self and appear to grieve. Your position suggests that it is OK for higher conscious organisms to dominate lower conscious ones. What’s to stop someone extrapolating from this that it is OK for higher intelligent humans to dominate lower intelligent ones (some might say that this is already happening!)?

    Best, Ivor

  6. Ivor

    Without clarifying what you mean by higher consciousness you will always feel comfortable with your contradictory intellectual approach. You assert a continuum of consciousness between animals and humans but without explaining why, and then go on to use the UNIQUE character of human consciousness as justification of why you would impose humman developed rights to animals. At no stage do you consider the way in which animal demands for their own rights to be understood by humans, or even involving animals in the development of those rights – and indeed how could you?

    However, the articulation that we are just the same as animals is a reflection of a dimished sense of subject in a society that feels increasingly powerless and unable to shape its own destiny. Looking to reduce humans to the status of animals is an intellectual justification for that diminished subjectivity rather than looking to re-assert human subjectivity.

    Intellectually reducing humans to the status unconscious animals through equivalence and continuum actually leaves people in a more passive and powerless position where your scenario of ‘superior’ or ‘benign’ human forces manipulating ‘inferior’ or ‘malevolent’ human lumps more likely. A more assertive human subject is the best mechanism to oppose forces that really do treat us like animals – even cursory glances at the imposition of health campaigns on us animal for our own benefit is a tendency that requires us being viewed as animalistic.

    If you want to be treated as an animal, why don’t you do it in the privacy of your own home or club rather than impose it on everyone else?

    Cheers, Simon

  7. Hi there Ivor,

    I would post a rambling response to your initial post but it’s pretty late and to give it its due was fairly well written. I’ll leave you with a question however.

    If you were to suggest extending rights to chimpanzees as a means of raising our consciousness then by what way would you propose to combat the pitfalls of extending rights to an animal that doesn’t understand these rights. The ‘golden rule’ is a famous example of philosophy with regard to human interaction, but this rule holds merely because there is a consequence to this attitude which is favourable to all humans. However, a chimp cannot reciprocate your action to treat it well, at least not intentionally. Why is it that you would still view this as productive for humans?



  8. Simon

    I’m sorry, but I am having trouble understanding your exposition. But let me try and clarify a few points.

    Philosophy (in my opinion) is an exploration of how we should live. Any ideas deemed worthy are ‘imposed’ upon society, either by force, consensus or necessity. Your last sentence demonstrates a lack of understanding in this regard, unless, of course, you see philosophy as a purely private affair (in which case, why are you publicly airing your views here?).


    I was, of course, being facetious when I suggested we extend rights to animals. It is purely a device to make people think. I accept that it is unlikely that the animals are aware of our largess.

    This device is productive for humans because ultimately, it would promote sustainability for our species. It is precisely our compartmentalised thinking that allows such things as globalisation and slavery to occur. The factory farming of animals has been described as the perfect breeding ground for pathogens to develop which could cause a pandemic in humans. Realising how everything is connected and has its place somewhere, should promote more thorough and more long term thinking; something that is sadly lacking in today’s society. Any sort of debate is better than none.

  9. Hi Ivor

    I think you description of philosophy as mere behavioural psychology explains a lot, though not about the way we understand the world of human consciousness.

    Cheers, Simon

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