Why I believe that one day apes will have a nation of their own

July 30, 1999

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Professor of biology at Georgia State University, she teaches apes to communicate with humans.

This week it was announced that computer technology had enabled apes to construct sentences in spoken English for the first time.

We human beings have carved the planet up into nations, but all the nations belong to one species, Homo sapiens. Do any other species deserve a nation of their own - a place in which they can set their own laws and live their own way of life?

Certainly the great apes deserve a nation of their own; for in the past two decades we have learned that they have social and familial lives much like our own, that they have cultural traditions that involve tool use and social etiquette, and that they will spontaneously learn human language if raised in an environment that treats them as legitimate members of a human community.

Their language is not just about asking for food and uttering a few simple words. It is rich and complex and full of feeling. It reveals that they care deeply about each other, that they have a sense of the future and the past and a sense of right and wrong.

The discoveries of ape language researchers have been belittled as "nonscience", not because the scientists lacked data, not because they did not do careful work and not because they did not document their findings. They were belittled, as was Charles Darwin, because their findings were so different from the expectancies.

Those established expectancies were shaped by observing apes from outside their world, rather than by inhabiting it with them. Every travelled citizen of the world knows that the only way to understand another culture is to live with the people and to speak the langauge. Before it is too late we need to give apes nations of their own, and for those that have taught us about language, by learning our language, we need to provide safe havens where they can continue to serve as ambassadors of goodwill between the species.

There is only one country in the world that now contains all three African apes in sufficient numbers that they might survive if a nation were formed. This is the Congo - a country of vast resources torn by inexorable strife and needless poverty. Within its boundaries, near its heart, there needs to be placed a new nation, a nation of apes. Not a reserve, not a park, but a nation - whose citizens we shall come increasingly to respect, as we come increasingly to understand them, and with whom the communicative potential for the future is immeasurable.

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