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Chimps plan for the future, but do people?

by Andre on 13 March 2009

As you may have heard, a letter by Mathias Osvath from Lund University in Current Biology [summary] describes a Swedish chimp that planned attacks by stockpiling rocks or chips of concrete from its enclosure in a calm state and later throwing them at visitors while performing dominance displays. “Such planning implies advanced consciousness and cognition traditionally not associated with nonhuman animals.” This is an interesting finding and I can’t help but side with the chimp in railing against his viewers.

But this also brings another recent news story on chimps into sharp relief. As reported in today’s Science, the Humane Society of the United States is claiming that they have evidence of 338 possible violations of the Animal Welfare Act taking place at the New Iberia Research Center in Lafayette. I think most people have a sense of recognition when looking at great apes and this is one factor that makes them such controversial research subjects. One researcher was quoted in the Science story saying “We can’t afford to support an across-the-board ban. There are diseases that can only be studied in chimpanzees.” Bearing in mind that this is a one line quote in a news story, it is of course not sufficient justification in and of itself. There are lots of experiments that could only be done in people, but out of the possibilities, we rightfully accept only a small subset as ethical. Ajit Varki of UCSD (who doesn’t do invasive research with animals) gets it about right in my opinion:

He says no research should be done on chimps that we would not do on humans. “On the other hand, I would no more think of banning all research on chimpanzees than of banning all research on humans,” says Varki. “That would be a bad idea for the future of either species.”

This may be important to keep in mind, because a bill is in committee that would ban invasive research on chimps, where invasive includes “any research that may cause death, bodily injury, pain, distress, fear, injury, or trauma.” Again from the article:

Neuroscientist Todd Preuss of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta complains that the bill defines “invasive” too broadly. It would prohibit his and other groups from sedating chimpanzees to perform brain scans or drawing blood for behavioral experiments and endocrinology studies. He calls these interventions “minimally invasive.”

I can’t decide how I feel about this right now and I certainly can’t predict what my future mental state might be! Maybe I’m more like a squirrel than a great ape. I think I’ll go stockpile some food.

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