This summer has seen the release of a blockbuster movie, acclaimed documentary and news-worthy research paper that all—in different but weirdly complementary ways—present sympathetic portraits of chimpanzees, our hirsute doppelgangers. So this is an ideal time for a proposed ban on invasive research on chimpanzees and other apes.
A sponsor of the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, Maryland Representative Roscoe Bartlett, defended it in an eloquent opinion piece in The New York Times on Thursday. A former Navy physiologist who performed medical experiments on primates, Bartlett wrote, "I no longer believe such experiments make sense—scientifically, financially or ethically."
There are cheaper, faster and more effective alternatives for invasive tests on primates, Bartlett notes, "including computer modeling and the testing of very small doses on human volunteers. In vitro methods now grow human cells and tissues for human biomedical studies, bypassing the need for whole animals." Given that "chimpanzees experience pain, stress and social isolation in ways strikingly similar to the way humans do," Bartlett adds, we can "no longer justify confining these magnificent and innocent animals to traumatic invasive research and life imprisonment."
As evidence of how even noninvasive research can traumatize chimps, Bartlett cites Project Nim. Released last month, the documentary tells the tale of Nim Chimpsky, the subject of an investigation in the 1970s into whether a chimp can learn sign language. Nim's name is a jokey reference to the linguist Noam Chomsky, who had decreed that language is unique to humans.
The documentary (analyzed in an insightful Scientific American post by science writer Edmund Bolles) is not only about Nim. It is also about the arrogance, ambition, cold-heartedness and mawkish sentimentality of the humans who ostensibly cared for him. Humans breastfed (seriously) him, diapered him, dressed him up in cute kiddie clothes, gave him pot and beer and, after he became a big, strong, potentially dangerous adult, dumped him into various prison-like compounds.
Nim resembles the hapless protagonist of a Dickens novel, totally dependent on the often non-existent mercy of others. Herbert Terrace, the Columbia University psychologist who oversaw the language experiment, is the chief villain of Project Nim. He comes across as interested in advancing his career more than science. When Nim no longer served his purposes, Terrace discarded him.
The parallels between Project Nim and Rise of the Planet of the Apes--both of which I can't recommend highly enough--are striking. (The producers of Rise no doubt read the acclaimed 2008 book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, by Elizabeth Hess.) Rise, a prequel to the cheesily entertaining Planet of the Apes series, stars Caesar, a chimp raised by humans but imprisoned after he bites a man. The scientific protagonist of Rise, perhaps because he is played by James Franco, is a more sympathetic character than Terrace. But the fictional scientist's behavior also raises questions about the ethics of contemporary experiments on primates.
Given all the abuses and indignities that humans have perpetrated against chimps, a recent scientific report about how kind-hearted they can be to each other seems almost insulting. The authors, four researchers at the Yerkes Primate Research Center in Atlanta, gave caged chimpanzees tokens, which came in two colors. If a chimp chose one color, she would get food. If she chose the other color, not only would she get food; so would a chimp in an adjacent cage. As often as two thirds of the time, chimps chose the generous option, even if the neighboring chimp was genetically unrelated. Previous research had suggested that chimps are more callous toward each other. (For a detailed write-up of the experiment, see this column by Scientific American blogger Eric Michael Johnson.)
This study of chimpanzees, our closest genetic relatives, Carl Zimmer comments in The New York Times, bears on one of the greatest of all scientific mysteries, the origins of human altruism"Our species is especially cooperative," Zimmer says. "We routinely help other people—relatives and strangers alike—even when there's no immediate reward for us." Considering the cruelty with which humans often treat each other—not to mention chimps and other animals—Zimmer's emphasis on human altruism strikes me as a bit, well, excessive.
As far as the Great Ape Act, which is the subject of a public hearing this week in Washington, D.C., overseen by the Institute of Medicine, I applaud it but wonder whether its scope is too narrow. Does the knowledge gleaned from noninvasive experiments like the one done at Yerkes justify the confinement of these smart, sensitive, wild animals? I'm a big fan of Frans de Waal, one of the researchers who performed the recent altruism study, so I'm inclined to say yes, but I think this ethical question needs to be reconsidered.
Also, what about invasive experiments on primates other than apes? Seven years ago a prominent neuroscientist gave me a tour of his laboratory, where he carried out research on how the brain encodes information. We stopped beside a macaque strapped into what resembled a child's high chair. The top of the monkey's skull had been sawed off, exposing his brain, into which dozens of wires had been embedded.
I wrote a positive account of the neuroscientist's research, without mentioning what I had seen, because I found the research so fascinating. But I'm still haunted by the memory of that macaque. All primates, not just apes, need and deserve protection from their supposedly bigger-hearted cousins.
Image of Caesar, hero of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, courtesy 20th Century Fox.