- The Moon by Whale Light by Diane Ackerman
Phoenix, 260 pp, £6.99, May 1994, ISBN 1 85799 087 0
- The Last Panda by George Schaller
Chicago, 292 pp, $13.95, May 1993, ISBN 0 226 73629 6
- The Great Ape Project edited by Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer
Fourth Estate, 312 pp, £9.99, June 1993, ISBN 1 85702 126 6
For Sir Thomas Browne it was a commonplace that ‘the number of the dead long exceedeth all that shall live.’ But this is no longer necessarily true, as has been pointed out in these pages before now: there may be more people living now than all the people who have ever died. With over 5.4 billion of us alive today, on course to become 8.5 billion by 2025, we must think of the outnumbering dead as outnumbered – at least until population slows (at perhaps ten billion, perhaps 15 billion) some sixty years hence.
The corollary is that the next century will be a cold coming for everything that is alive and non-human; a bottleneck through which biological diversity must squeeze. There has always been emergency, and almost all the species that have ever lived are no more. What is new is the terminal triumph of human numbers and the dawning burden of responsibility – if only as a sharpened sense of statistical occasion. In the rush for one last Linnaean look at those systems of life which we oddly think of ourselves as empowered but unable to keep going, actual biodiversity is to be replaced by an endgame inventory of the planet’s dwindling contents. Projects like the Rapid Assessment Program in Washington or Biotrop (a consortium of American universities) have been scrambled to do just this.
As part of the emergency (which ironically includes the demand for final biological information about ourselves, in the form of the human genome sequencing project), what were leisurely kinds of writing are being pressed into active service. Moreover, there has been a hybridising of science writers, nature journalists, writer-scientists. Diane Ackerman and George Schaller are representative of either end of an increasingly blurred spectrum.
The lengthy reports gathered in The Moon by Whale Light (‘and Other Adventures among Bats, Penguins, Crocodilians and Whales’) were written for the New Yorker, on which Ackerman has served as a staff writer on animal life. The very niche is new, and nature-writers today have a glamour quite foreign to their precursors, whose otium or learned leisure was spent transcribing the outside world at a lowish ebb on behalf of idler peers. At the same time the new public is more passive than the original constituency for natural history – the scattered church of Victorian pilgrims, say, who traded specimens and disturbed tidepool and undercliff, staring down a great deal as a way of holding onto short views.
Where the old nature history was parochial, whether at home or abroad (Selborne or Torquay), today’s literary ecology brings the news of the world. It is ambitious, amateur without being learned, nomadic without being leisurely, and the nature it mediates for our inert spectatorship has no norms, only exceptions. This is a distinctively American venture, in a grain which has preferred intrepid and scaresome versions of pastoral, going back to the transcendentalist philosopher-naturalists. What is new is that the threatening in nature has been exchanged for the idea of nature under threat, and the sceptical querying of natural phenomena at their most dramatic (the Enlightenment sublime) has been refashioned into the Environmentalist sublime.
Nature on this account tends largely to mean creatures, fragile witnesses to less easily focusable bio-trauma. In her tales of the unexpected, of animals in dark times, Diane Ackerman seems compelled to tell us only the kind of thing we can never know, to deliver the kind of information which excites by being accusingly resistant:
A whale is like a house with a too-large furnace and too few radiators. When a whale exercises in warm equatorial waters, it can die of overheating. If it races hell-for-leather in pursuit of prey, it can become so hot it virtually blows up. After a whale is killed in the Antarctic, it is eviscerated with a long, sharp flensing knife. The entire length of the whale’s body cavity is opened up so that the icy water can wash it thoroughly. Then it’s tied tail-first to the bow of the catcher boat and dragged back to the factory ship, where it will be hauled aboard and cut up. If the trip back to the factory ship takes too long or if the whale is left in the water for too long, even though it is lying in icy water, its bones will be charred by the heat of its internal decay. When that happens, it’s referred to as a burnt whale. Imagine an animal generating so much heat that even though lying under icy water with its belly cut wide open, its bones cook.
Ackerman writes telegrams which, taken together, broadcast an oddly calmative modern message. For if the new nature is an order of extremes, a palaestra of prodigies, in the practical sphere this becomes a prioritising of important over less important, of biomass over biodiversity, environmentalism over ecology proper. Apologists for what Edward O. Wilson has termed ‘the prosthetic environment’ picture nature as a controllable steady gate – a model which lends itself to idioms drawn from good housekeeping (knowing what is in the global larder) and good living (the environment as still-life, as artefact to be contemplated). ‘What is the most beautiful encounter with singing whales you can remember?’ Ackerman at one point asks a scientist. The (in every sense) exclusive preoccupation with threatened species inevitably sees rareness as the repository of all biophilic value. Nature is become ‘the planet’ – that lonely collective noun for us and our depleted future lebensraum of orchids and choice mammals.
Ackerman says many things about whales. Their tongues weigh as much as elephants; they have the largest brains on earth (‘brains every bit as complex as our own’), have culture and language, use rhyme to memorise their lengthy songlines (‘which obey the kinds of rules one finds in classical music’), lead enigmatic lives, teach us a new sense of time, are the guardians of our conscience.
Anything goes. These lives of the animals are a studiedly mixed genre: a compact of new science, recondite fact, mythology, admonition. An older tradition of encyclopedic writing about nature is resurfacing – a sort of marvel gossip, going back to Pliny the Elder or to Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica which set down all that had been believed about beavers, badgers, bears or basilisks. But whereas Browne also prescribed what not to believe, relishing vulgar errors within a corrective anthropology, Ackerman’s amazement clings superstitiously to wonder as broken knowledge, both a lapsarian state and the way back into the Garden.
The introduction to The Moon by Whale Light returns us to the author’s very first childhood metaphor: the sight of some trees full of dark plums, ‘huddled like bats’. In childhood we knew everything in such ways: Ackerman’s prose seeks out lost connections, along with the belief that good metaphors – new connections – may save the bats, the alligators, the pelicans, the whales, may yet close the disastrous gap between us and them. Hence the strenuous way with metaphor which characterises the new nature-writing, in whose pages everything aches to be something else.
One of the defining features of the old natural history was its unalienated sense of the limits to knowing. Evolutionary theory could be seen as confirming the humilities of the natural history that it came to humble, through its categorical discovery that we are not central to what is around us, but look on with limited recognition at a world from whose records we are largely absent, and whose present the briefness of our presence disqualifies us from interpreting correctly.
In classic American nature-writing the after-effects of the Lyellian or Darwinian moment seem closer to relief than to gloom. As if, once we have been erased from nature’s tablets, a gay science of our exclusion could arise, and our reinstatement as guests with nothing to lose. Thus the frequent exhortations to see without looking, since even the nicest of observers is in the dark. ‘What I need is not to look at all, but a true sauntering of the eye,’ Thoreau admonishes himself, rehearsing involuntary forms of attention.
The sons and daughters of Thoreau surprisingly turn out to be those plain-speaking cosmopolitans who have cast a playful or baleful eye on the natural world in our time: rentiers like Calvino’s Mr Palomar, recording angels like Francis Ponge, sceptics like Brecht’s Herr Keuner. Such literalists of the imagination sauntered freely amid the squandering of forms that is the natural order, and their nil admirari inherited the older sidelong humanist feeling for creatures as mysterious dependants. So delinquent a pose must now go the way of its most characteristic habitat, the European zoo. The case against nature – once a varied enough camp, as well as a version of Camp, of not caring an iota for the biota – has ceded to the pieties and perennial philosophies that it set out to test.
In much of the new nature-writing the reader is therefore an onlooker at the author’s keening over a moribund outdoors that somehow does not include us. But to banish people from the order of things is also the environmentalist’s way of restoring us to the centre of the story, in the new role of caretakers. It is under threat: we must save it; whence the Panglossian thought for each day that our most intimate choices as consumers are putting the Earth First.
Proponents of deep ecology have rudely dismissed these versions of greening, as they have the convenient and canting notion of human stewardship over the earth. But the note of environmentalist dirigisme is by now pervasive, and to be found even in an authoritative work like The Last Panda, a threnody for the species which has come to epitomise all endangerment. An ancient biological survivor, the panda has been known to the world at large only since 1869: first seen (first shot) in the wild by Europeans in 1929, first captured in 1936, probably last seen in situ by a foreigner – prior to George Schaller – in 1937. The rest of their short story is zoos and t-shirts.
Of the pandas in international captivity, their births, names transportations, romances, failures to breed, illnesses and deaths are an international agenda. The press of photographers reporting on Mexico Zoo’s first panda-birth caused the nervous mother to crush her infant to death. Panda-love is what the nations have in common, and appropriately for a mascot of universal détente the actual animal is more or less mythical. According to a University of Chicago Press advertisement for The Last Panda, giant pandas are now ‘rarer than Rembrandts’.
George Schaller is a distinguished field biologist, one of the experts whom Diane Ackerman seeks out for unbuttoned oracles. He is a scientific wanderer, whose research and writings suggest a bildungsroman more than a career: caribou in Alaska, mountain gorillas in Zaire; lions, wild dogs, cheetah and leopards in Tanzania; the tiger and deer of northern India; the wild sheep of the Himalayas; the jaguar, caiman and marsh deer of Brazil; and, latterly, the giant panda of Sichuan Province in China. Schaller’s principles and practices inspired Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. He is a big-game biologist, a student of spectacular individuals in nature rather than a toiler at the overlooked and the unindividuated: ‘An animal must provide an emotional experience if I am to involve myself in its world for years.’
Yet compared with Ackerman, the passionate pilgrim, Schaller seems complicated, even contrary. A loner unsuited to isolation, a biological field worker who doesn’t enthuse over either colleagues or field work (on the ennui of which he has much to say), he is equally aloof from the human cultures he traverses, preferring to look on difference from a distance. His book makes piquant reading for these reasons, it being hard to believe that one so seasoned could in other respects be so entirely unprepared for the contempt which China was to visit upon his accumulated ways of seeing and doing.
In 1979 a World Wildlife Fund delegation returned from Peking with the bones of an agreement for a joint project on the conservation of the Giant Panda, to include a long-term programme of research into the mysterious biology of the creature. Schaller was invited to head the project, and The Last Panda recounts the slow asphyxiation of initiative in a bureaucratic miasma of ‘obstruction, evasion, outdated concepts, activity without insight’ and other ‘tragic traits’ of the Chinese character.
The story is as much to do with Occidental bungling as Chinese perfidy. The World Wildlife Fund lost every battle in this war of co-operation. As a precondition for Chinese acquiescence (‘no research centre, no panda project’) WWF agreed at the outset to hand over one million dollars for advanced equipment, which Schaller thought unnecessary and inappropriate at the time, and which has barely been used since. WWF moreover assumed the signing of agreements to be the end of negotiation rather than a beginning, and were unable to resist beating their own drum, issuing press releases about the success of the project before it had even started. The Chinese had reason at the outset for wariness. Schaller is at pains generally to explain the difficulties attending China’s emergence from the solipsism of cultural revolution in 1979. He nonetheless nursed the hope that trust would come to replace aggressive friendliness, that the open society of science would transcend cultural barriers and speak truth to power. He is unforgiving that this could not be, that his co-workers were firstly Chinese, secondly functionaries, thirdly scientists (the last two not always in that order).
Accustomed to being in control, Schaller in China had the status of a bossy guest. His movements in camp were constrained and he was accompanied at all times. His competitive privatism – ‘in work, results are usually in inverse proportion to the number of people doing it’ – was countered by a willowy collectivist proverb: ‘Tall trees are cut down.’ His introspective, digressive, lateral approach to the job was criticised: ‘You are here to study pandas, not golden monkeys’ – or Takin bulls, or Asiatic black bears, or rock squirrels, or to note minor ecological occurrences within the habitat of the panda, all of which he could not help doing. The Chinese also objected to foreigners collecting specimens (scientific imperialism), and Schaller became convinced that someone in the bureaucracy was trying to limit the amount of data he could process.
His briskly efficient account turns into its own opposite: an atmospheric narrative of personal loss amidst the larger loss of bright purpose. The linguistic isolation and physical claustrophobia of the work-station took its toll (6500 feet up in densely wooded and mountainous country, freezing, humid, fog-bound). Schaller succumbed to a bleak mental pressure to amass as much information in the field as possible; he accuses his journal of lack of inspiration; he and his wife Kay, during her visits, take turns at being depressed. His book is very good on all of these things.
Impatient, he is also tenacious. Consider the panda, he asks, and he proceeds to do so with cumulative scientific tact. Having radio-collared those pandas which were trapped for that purpose, having studied the life-cycle of bamboo, collected and weighed mountains of panda droppings, he can absorb the slow knowledge that emerges. Schaller restores to the world of field biology and conservation something similar to what V.S.Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival achieves for fictional time. His narrative shares a preoccupation with that novel’s title and with its capitulations to slowness as the cost of seriousness.
The panda has retained a carnivore’s simple stomach for processing high-nutrient foods while otherwise evolving into a herbivore. Lacking the herbivore’s bacterial vat of symbiotic microbes to aid fermentation, much of the creature’s intake of bamboo (30 lbs every day, all day) is useless. Here is a very large bear that is unable to accumulate enough fat to hibernate in winter; its size is an adaptation to poor diet; it is sedentary out of a need to conserve energy, and its notorious thumb or sixth finger is an invention for handling bamboo without moving:
The panda is a triumph of evolution. However, by becoming highly specialised on bamboo, it has reduced its options. Freed from choices, it may seem at first glance to be freer than most animals, yet evolution has robbed it of innovative vigour, imprisoned it with an ecological possessiveness that knows no reprieve: bamboo has fettered the species with its impassive power.
Schaller’s account is adaptionist, a story of fitting and fitted which, considered as evolutionary explanation, can seem thin and tautological. It fits the panda like an over-tight glove. No matter – since the consequences of the impasse are what count from now on, and these are such as to make all explanation seem like a thin thing. Bamboo die-off (a recurrent premature mass-flowering) leads directly to panda famine, most recently in 1985. Deforestation has narrowed the range of the species (between 1949 and 1980 the forests of Sichuan – which produced the genetic prototype of the orange, the walnut, the apple, the cucumber, the tea plant – were axed by 30 per cent). As to direct human encroachment, the population of Sichuan is the densest in China and pollution is so bad in the provincial capital, Chengdu, that when the sun shines the dogs bark.
Then there is poaching, which continued apace during the years of the Panda Project, even within the reserve itself and despite penalties (now the death penalty), because dealers from Hong Kong and Japan were offering $3000 or more per pelt – a pelt or two often equalling a lifetime’s earnings for the forester momentarily turned poacher. Added to which there is official poaching. After the Nixon-in-China era of panda gifts to the West ended in the mid-Eighties, the era of loans set in with high fever as European and above all American zoos competed to rent-a-panda.
Pandas save zoos, and even entire cities: Toledo (Ohio) made 60 million tourist dollars from renting a panda in 1988. But zoos do not, as it happens, save pandas. Most panda births in captivity have resulted from artificial insemination, since captive specimens rarely breed naturally. Yet China removes pandas from the wild to bolster a population of entertainers which dies faster than it can reproduce. International zoo-demand for pandas has meant that the wild population is in effect being used to augment the captive population – the parodic inverse of a captive breeding programme.
By 1988, at least thirty American zoos had applied for panda rentals from the Chinese, who in turn were ‘rescuing’ individuals from the wild as recently as 1991. In May 1993 Adventure World Zoo in Japan took delivery of one male and one female panda, paying $10 million for a ten-year loan. This is a First World raree show blamed universally on the cynical accommodation of the Chinese, though for the moment there is a temporary moratorium in the US on panda loans, due to the dense fog of litigation that has settled over proceedings.
Schaller gives a bleakly efficient account of all this, and weaves in a circle back to the animals. They do not breed well even in the wild. Outside the brief mating season they avoid each other, preferring to orbit slowly in a world of one. They are myopic, and the book’s oddest thought is that they frighten each other to death, that the emphatic eye-patch makes the species afraid of looking in its own mirror: during mating rituals they hide their faces.
If pandas are sitting targets, they are also largely invisible, in what Schaller came unhingedly to think of as a rehearsal for extinction. He did not glimpse his first specimen until nearly three months after arriving, and their ghostliness coloured many things for him thereafter. Despite their uncanny allure, he could form no affinity with pandas, unlike the animals he had studied before. They turn out to have no story to tell about themselves: ‘no history, only a past’; no future, only the present moment and its bamboo stoicism.
Put differently, the giant panda turned out to be, well, Chinese, and China its untranslatable habitat. Allowing himself the speculation, about one captured panda, that ‘her feelings remain impenetrable, her behaviour inscrutable,’ Schaller is also pondering his hosts, whom he prefers not to think about too much. This inequality of attention leads to the flying-doctor talk of ‘saving a beloved world treasure’ – Rembrandt again – ‘that is treated locally with indifference’. This is a managerial conceit which would forget the fact that the symbiosis, the doomed mutuality, of animal and human is everywhere complete.
The belief that we must in consequence of this become a commonwealth of creatures underpins The Great Ape Project, a symposium on the implications of our kinship with our fellow primates. The thesis, advanced by variously eminent persons, is that personhood should be extended forthwith to those demonstrably of our kind within the primate order: namely, chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans. In the terms of the book’s ‘Declaration on Great Apes’ this means that we – the guardians of these newly acknowledged minors within the human family – must act now to guarantee their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Apart from being a radical contribution to the liberationist literature. The Great Ape Project is a sampler of recent argufying about animals across the sciences and social sciences, the explosion of which has amounted to the installation of a new knowledge base. The essays are grouped in sections: on communication with apes, on contemporary evolutionary theory, and on the ethical and legal implications of the personhood of apes.
In their terseness the contributions breathe the thin air of a manifesto, and the consensus on display suggests they have been policed as well as edited. The Project is a debate, but there is no debate inside its pages. Notable for their absence are contributors who might have raised difficulties: whether espousers of sociobiology and other ethically reductionist accounts of ourselves, or voices from non-Western cultures whose understanding of the human-animal pact might find the Eurocentrism of the Project‘s political rhetoric a little weird.
Even so, the voices convened here are by no means in unison: some want to persuade, with an altruistic argument that apes are us; others want to bully, with a biologically determined argument that we are apes.
After some preliminary musings by Jane Goodall (‘Bridging the Gap’) about having the courage of our own – her own – anthropomorphism, the big issue of the opening section is whether apes can talk. Unlike pandas, apes have long been thought to have a story to tell – partly a story about us – and since the Enlightenment have sporadically been imagined as able to tell it. The Scottish Philosophe Lord Monboddo was teased by Dr Johnson for asserting the intellectual claims of animals, then shouted down for going too far with his conjecturalist hunch that humans without language (and possibly with tails) must still exist, happy and hidden.
Returning us with superior weapons to this ground, The Great Ape Project is more prescriptive. Language here means recent laboratory attempts to teach gorillas, chimpanzees and orang-utans to communicate via American Sign Language. The aim, from the outset, seems to be to silence the rest of us, for whom language-lessness has been the stumbling block to accepting non-humans as equals. Whether that is true of our ordinary and oblique thinking about animals is not clear; our unexamined thoughts go unexamined in this book, which is more concerned with taxing prejudices.
The examples of ape signing or coining that are offered are revealing about us, at least: signing a Christmas tree ‘candy tree’; signing for ‘Coke drink’; signing up for ‘car ride’ to visit the ‘ice cream’ shop; or signing off with ‘chase, tickle’ when playing with a pair of – ‘gorilla dolls’. Answering the question, after a local earthquake, ‘What happened?’, one gorilla ventures: ‘Darn darn floor bad bite. Trouble trouble.’ This is speaking, and sign languages are fully fledged languages, not pantomimes; and yet these triumphant examples feel irrelevant to the broader argument, partly because the working definition of a verbal environment seems so impoverished.
Some of the findings as formulated make one wonder if the verbal environment in its present state is worth acquiring by non-humans:
Mary Lee was able to record six instances of imagination [sic] in the chimpanzees during 15 hours of remote video recording. This is impressive when one considers that of the 5200 observations of chimpanzee signing, only about 2 per cent (119) were classified as private signing, and in the private signing studies only 4 to 5 per cent were imagination. In other words, imagination is a relatively rare behaviour compared with all the other things the chimpanzees do, just as it is with our species.
Are chimpanzees to be included in the human family for being like us (imaginative) or for being so regrettably like us (unimaginative)? Gorillas, we learn, ‘have suffered from a reputation for aloofness, low level of motivation and a contrary nature. Such gorilla stubbornness and negativism have been encountered and documented in our work with Koko and Michael, but certain findings indicate that this is evidence of intelligence and independence rather than of stupidity.’ Some apes may prefer playing Groucho to joining the Club.
Much close-minded reasoning about propositional attitudes in animals (by Donald Davidson and others) gets a muted hearing in these pages, presumably for being too mealy-mouthed. The Ape Project prefers a breezy conclusiveness: ‘Chantek’ – an orang-utan – ‘knew the meaning of his signs.’ What does that mean? Thomas Heyrick, elegising his pet monkey in 1691, was knowingly content with less: ‘He had Shows of Reason, and few Men have more.’
The presuming of an animal mind is presumptuous because of the inverted anthropometrics brought fecklessly into play. One paper reports on experiments measuring the language acquisition of mature chimpanzees as compared with two-year-old children. Another is entitled ‘Profoundly Intellectually Disabled Humans and the Great Apes: A Comparison’. Other comparings offer as evidence the moral management of handicapped humans and the bioethics of where we ourselves may be said to begin and end (foetuses, the incompetent elderly). The case being laboured is that the multiplicity of status which buttresses the politics of human uniformity is by now too porous to exclude apes, who fulfil so many of the extended criteria of personhood.
But since able-bodied and able-minded chimpanzees are not by analogy disabled humans – any more than seals are, pace Aristotle, deformed quadrupeds – what, finally, is being served by such mismeasurings of like and unlike? Why not unlike with unlike as the catalyst for an enlarged moral community? Beings who are equal in the moral sense need not be like one another. Or, as Stephen Clark points out in the most inflected of the papers on offer, species kinship rests on relationship and not on resemblance. Apes are not, in this sense, us.
The alternative – we are them – is rehearsed with an air of brooking no damned nonsense. For the purposes of The Great Ape Project, the debate within comparative anatomy over the details of the human family tree is regarded as conclusively settled by developments in molecular biology. Of DNA hybridisation (applied by its pioneers to bird taxonomy in the Seventies, as a molecular ‘clock’ to measure genetic distances and put a date on times of evolutionary divergence between species), Jared Diamond approvingly recalls one geneticist saying: ‘Their results are The Revealed Truth, and you’d better believe it.’
DNA Revelation, in the case of the higher primates, preaches that humans and apes are closer to each other than either are to monkeys. That among the apes our closest relations are chimpanzees and gorillas, from whose common ancestor gibbons and orang-utans branched off 15 and 20 million years ago respectively. Gorillas branched off from the common ancestor leading to us ten million years ago; we branched off from the common ancestor of the two modern chimpanzee species between five and seven million years ago; they parted ways with their common ancestor three million years ago. In a nutshell, the chimpanzee’s closest relative is not the gorilla but the person. We differ from the two chimpanzees in just 1.6 per cent of our DNA; the rest is chimp, or junk. We – or ‘We’, meaning chimps and us – differ from Them – the gorillas – in 2.3 per cent of our DNA. We, says Diamond, meaning us, are the third chimpanzee.
We get away with thinking of ourselves as a distinct species because the intermediate varieties (those evolving to different stages from the same common ancestor as ourselves and the chimpanzee) happen to be long dead. Were they extant, the present gulf would look really rather intriguing: neither distressingly close nor unbridgeably wide. That we are vestigially an interbreeding ring species reminds Richard Dawkins in these pages of that song: ‘I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.’
That we happen not to interbreed with our co-survivors is because a synchronic species barrier has arisen. History, we are reminded, knows no a priori barriers. But nor, more awkwardly, does history today seem to recognise species as such. Taxonomies have always been convenient fictions, whether the species concept is the traditional biological one of reproductive compatibility, or the evolutionary one which construes a species in terms of an undivided lineage of ancestors and descendants.
A different stress on historical contingency has led more recently to the thought that species are none other than individuals, more or less closely related by virtue of descent from one or more common ancestors. The biological type for a taxon is merely the specimen chosen as referent for that taxon. In ecological terms, to go further, the only meaningful groupings are turning out not to be species but local populations of breeding individuals – within which enormous adaptive variation is discoverable.
In these terms, the genetic argument adopted by the Ape Project for regarding the higher primates as more than kin and more than kind seems itself passé rather than futurist: newly speciesist because species-fixated in its view of a new us. Seeming to talk us down by insisting on our identity with apes, its effect is to talk us up, yet again, by plotting the non-human against our particular 100 per cent as the very litmus of belonging.
The better contributions to this volume all concede sotto voce that the stage machinery of the species gap is merely being shifted about. Best to begin somewhere, is the best they can say, with apes acting as a bridgehead to the rest of the bestiary. That seems questionable, since an argument from unlikeness would need to be devised for further bridging to be tolerable to people – as people are defined in these pages, at least. It is not the arbitrariness of granting rights to species genetically adjacent to us that matters, or the prescriptive view of what it is to be a non-human animal which the project forces many contributors to adopt. Worse is the danger for the ranks of threatened species banished anew by the logic of scientific discovery. Whales – to go no further.
Worse still is the viewlessness of the Ape Project in respect of those modest life forms which radical ecology claims increasingly are the proletariat maintaining the day-to-day biosphere. Even if unprovable and unfashionably tainted with teleology, such thinking is (its critics concede) ‘a socially useful metaphor’ – proffering the commonplace as against the rare and the pathological, looking at the overlooked and at the range of senses in which it takes everything to make a world.
‘Every thing’ means fungi, slime moulds, indeed all the undeserving poor of the new environmentalist order, whose torpid and non-contributory existences seem less than ever capable of endearing them to us. Ape rights, like human rights, may not be worth the having unless the purposes of plankton are pondered further and freely in (since this must at least be imagined) unhierarchical ways. The Cavalieri/Singer Plan for the Apes attaches special significance to the ape in us, to the fact that all but a fraction of our respective genetic material is shared, but not to the fact that a high proportion is shared, too, with decidedly odd forms of life, with which – with whom – we need to acknowledge our continuity perhaps more urgently than with apes.
As to apes, the Project is worse than vague about the feasibility of a return to habitats. It modestly proposes that the diaspora of individuals currently ‘in prison’ (zoos, laboratories – including the language lab?) be reinserted into their former ranges, or ushered into newly designated homelands. Not a mention of the habitats themselves, which are vanishing, nor of the human populations whose range is coterminous with apes. Here, as often, the liberationist utopia of return somehow supposes an Africa without people. The oddity of the political plea – that human rights for apes means very specifically the right of apes to flee humans – is an admission that animal rights cannot be coterminous with human rights unless some of the latter in their most sell-evident form are abrogated.
More for them equals less for us. That counter-enlightenment thought – that now is not too soon but too late for rights as such to be of use to animals – fails to darken these pages, though it is cause at last for legitimate Wonder.