One Primate Species Is Driving Many Others Toward Extinction

“Yo, your obsession with soap and cleanliness is killing me.”

Want to guess which one is causing all the trouble? Not hard, I know.

Okay, one of my pledges this new year (both for my own mental well-being and so as not to depress everyone around me) is to not endlessly disseminate devastating news about how the planet is dying. I assume if you are reading this blog you are already well aware of this, so I intend to focus more on positive actions I am trying to take to bring my life into balance with the planet. Figuring out how to live, how to eat and how to leave as small a footprint as feasible is worth doing. If I share what I learn and do, and others share, maybe we will be able to transform our modern, consumerist, materialist, carbon-spewing lifestyles into lives that give due consideration to the planet and all the other species trying to survive on it despite human-induced climate change and destruction of habitat.

But I am taking note of this story about how the human species is relentlessly endangering other primate species because it illustrates something important (beyond the fact that humans are the primary existential threat to the rest of the planet): the choices that you and I make in our own lives ripple all the way out to remote forests and impact remote primate species.

To wit:

Primates are also threatened by the wholesale destruction of forests to make way for agriculture. In the Amazon, the jungle is being converted to cattle ranches and soybean fields, while in Madagascar, rice paddies are taking the place of lemur forests.

Western countries are also helping push primates toward extinction. Palm oil can be found in everything from doughnuts to lipstick to biodiesel fuel. New palm oil plantations are completely replacing forests in Southeast Asia — one of the most primate-diverse parts of the world.

Even cellphones can add to the risks. In central Africa, miners go into rain forests to dig for an ore called coltan that ends up in phone circuits. Those miners hunt for their meals. “They live on primates,” said Dr. Rylands.

So whether we eat beef and other meat (much of the world’s soy is grown to feed livestock), and how often we feel the need to upgrade our smartphones, are two choices we face that have a traceable impact on the survival and future of other primate (as well as many other) species.

Figuring out how to make planet-friendlier choices, and how and why they make a difference, is something I have been doing a lot more of in recent years. And it is something I am interested in continuing to do in a serious way going forward. In fact my aim is to design a modern, happy, meaningful life that celebrates and helps sustain the planet rather than destroy it. And if I do, maybe others will join me in trying to lead that life.

I tend to think of this approach to living as Earthism, because it emphasizes the idea that we humans, for moral and existential reasons, should abandon the idea that our well-being, our comfort, our interests are paramount. Instead, we should seek lives that nurture and sustain all the beauty and diversity we have been endowed with, and elevate the interests and well-being of all the extraordinary and complex ecosystems, and nonhuman species, which define our unique planet.

It’s going to be an interesting, and hopefully uplifting, journey.

Nonhuman Rights Explained

Steve Wise, the founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project, explains in the Dyson Lecture the legal context and strategy for establishing civil law rights for nonhuman animals:

I am an “animal slave lawyer.” I have been practicing “animal slave law” for thirty-five years. I do not want to practice “animal slave law” anymore; I want to practice “animal rights law.” When I teach, I do not teach “animal slave law,” I teach “animal rights jurisprudence.” This jurisprudence does not yet exist; it is a jurisprudence that is struggling to come into existence.

If you are just starting to catch up on this potentially game-changing movement, Wise details exactly what he is doing to try and make animal rights come into existence:

Are Humans Special?

Nautilus, an interesting new online science magazine, uses an entire issue to dig in on this most profound question:

When we sat down to plan our first issue of Nautilus, we asked ourselves a simple question. What is the biggest statement that science has made about humans and our place in the universe in the past few hundred years? The answer suggested itself immediately: it seems we’ve been told that we just aren’t very important.

This was a bit of a surprise. We’re fans of science, you see. And some of our best friends are people. Where was this narrative of mediocrity coming from, and, more importantly, was it true? Our story seemed to kick off with Copernicus, who around 1514 understood that the heavens do not revolve around us. In fact, they more or less ignore us completely.

Over the next half millennium, things got worse. Genetics revealed that we are a script written in the same language as rats and slugs, and with mostly the same words. Social psychology shook our faith in our rationality. Zoology painted a picture of complex, human-like animals. And artificial intelligence nipped at the heels of some of our most cherished abilities.

But the story turned. We learned that cooperation, fashion, metaphor, and energy set us apart in surprising ways. While science has indeed undermined the most naïve versions of our self-importance, we began to understand that it has replaced them with others that are more complex and deeper.

Finally, the opposition between unique and not-unique imploded. For one thing, we found that the category of “human” is a moving target—especially for cyborgs—and that makes it hard to ask what makes humans unique. For another, the very biggest science there is—cosmology—is answering the question with a big fat question mark.

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The issue includes an interview with Frans De Waal, who talks about the blurry line between humans and apes:

Most people assume that humans are fundamentally different from the rest of the animal world. What do you think?

Many people believe that. But to biologists we are animals. It’s hard to believe we are fundamentally different because there is no part of the human brain that is not present in a monkey’s brain. Our brains are bigger and we certainly have a more powerful computer than any other animal, but the computer is not fundamentally different.

So there’s no fundamental divide between humans and chimpanzees?

No. If you were to ask what the big difference is, I would say it’s probably language. But like all capacities, once you break them down into pieces, you are going to find some of these parts in other species.

Why are so many people wedded to the idea that humans are special?

We’re raised with those ideas. It’s an old Christian idea that humans have souls and animals don’t. I sometimes think it’s because our religions arose in a desert environment in which there were no primates, so you have people who lived with camels, goats, snakes, and scorpions. Of course, you then conclude that we are totally different from the rest of the animal kingdom because we don’t have primates with whom to compare ourselves. When the first great apes arrived in Western Europe—to the zoos in London and Paris—people were absolutely flabbergasted. Queen Victoria even expressed her disgust at seeing these animals. Why would an ape be disgusting unless you feel a threat from it? You would never call a giraffe disgusting, but she was disgusted by chimpanzees and orangutans because people had no concept that there could be animals so similar to us in every possible way. We come from a religion that’s not used to that kind of comparison.

The deeper you look, the more you realize that we are all related on some level, and that the traditional hierarchy that places humans high atop the list of earthly species leads to terrible consequences for non-human animals.

Fratricide?

Well, sort of.

A new study warns that humans are on the verge of extinguishing 25 species of primates:

Twenty-five species of humans’ closest living relatives – apes, monkeys and lemurs – need urgent protection from extinction, a report by international conservation groups said on Monday.

Many of the primates, from the Ecuadorean brown-headed spider monkey to the eastern black-crested gibbon in China and Vietnam, are under threat from human destruction of forests, from hunting and from illegal wildlife trade.

The study said five of the 25 most endangered primates were from Africa, six from the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar, nine from Asia, and five from South America, including the Ka’apor capuchin monkey in Brazil.

“Mankind’s closest living relatives … are on the brink of extinction and in need of urgent conservation measures,” said the report by groups including the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

What’s striking is the global distribution, and the range of human activities that is threatening these primates. It illustrates how universally damaging human culture has become, and how radical the changes in behavior required to reverse human pressure on fragile species.

Restricting Medical Research On Chimps

I have no doubt that the next great evolution in humanity’s relationship with animals is a steady expansion of animal rights that will start to elevate the most social and intelligent animals to an approximation of “personhood.”. I don’t know how fast it will happen,  but I do believe that it will happen and that, say 100 years from now, people looking back on the way in which animals are treated today–in food production, in entertainment, and in medical research–will view us as certainly unenlightened and perhaps even barbaric.

There is a lot of momentum in the movement to bestow person-like rights on cetaceans. And the arguments are both fascinating and compelling:

There is similar energy in the effort to elevate the rights of primates and chimpanzees (also intelligent and social), and with regard to chimpanzees this is especially poignant as, unlike cetaceans, they are used for medical research.

Happily, the Institute Of Medicine, which recently completed a detailed study of chimpanzees in medical research at the behest of the National Institutes Of Health, has proposed new guidelines which hopefully will severely curtail (and eventually eliminate) the use of chimps by medical researchers.

It is a very complex issue because chimps arguably do have unique research value when it comes to finding cures for some human diseases (I don’t hold out much hope that humanity will stop entirely subordinating animal welfare to human welfare anytime soon–though I support the ethical argument to do just that). But the guidelines would at least be a significant improvement and set a much higher bar for chimp research. They are:

  • That the knowledge gained must be necessary to advance the public’s health;
  • There must be no other research model by which the knowledge could be obtained, and the research cannot be ethically performed on human subjects; and
  • The animals used in the proposed research must be maintained either in ethologically appropriate physical and social environments (i.e., as would occur in their natural environment) or in natural habitats.

These sorts of debates, and human consensus, move painfully slowly. But over years the accumulation of these incremental steps will add up to real change (I hope). I just wish that the process could be fast-forwarded from its current glacial pace.

UPDATE: Have to add this, since this 14-year old girl is a powerful example of how the future could look very different. You can imagine how an impassioned young person like this might help pick up the pace of change.