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The Physicians Committee

Reaching for Personhood

By Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D.

This op-ed was published May 16, 2007, in The Fort Worth Star-Telegram

It’s a civil rights case with a twist. In late April, an Austrian judge denied personhood status and legal guardianship for 26-year-old Matthias Pan, who was kidnapped as an infant in Sierra Leone after his mother was shot. Brought to Austria illegally, Pan was sold to a research laboratory where he lived alone in a cage, and was experimented on for many years before finally being released to a sanctuary.

In her concluding statement, the judge explained that she never doubted that Pan should be considered a person, but she did not want to set a precedent that might weaken the case of humans with legal guardians. Pan’s legal team will appeal the decision to a higher district court.

Matthias Pan is, of course, not human. He is a chimpanzee. Sharing over 98 percent of their genes with us, chimps (and their close relatives, bonobos) diverged from humans about 6 million years ago. And while many of us may share the judge’s view that chimps should qualify for personhood, current legal systems in the United States, Austria, and most other countries do not. As a biologist and animal behavior expert, I believe it is time for the U.S. legal system to address this serious ethical issue.

Like all nonhuman animals, chimps qualify as nothing more than property. It is perfectly legal to chain a chimp to a stake or put her in a 5-cubic-foot cage and inject her with hepatitis or HIV.

That it’s legal doesn’t make it ethical. The sort of thinking that established this injustice is that we’re smarter than them. In many ways, of course, that’s true. We can build computers, bake cookies, and drop bombs, and they can’t. But is “bright-makes-right” any basis for a sound moral system?

You may be surprised to learn that we are not as highly evolved as chimpanzees. A recent analysis of 14,000 genes found that 233 chimp genes, compared with only 154 human ones, have been changed by natural selection since we shared a common ancestor.

And, despite popular assumptions, we are not always smarter. In a test of spatial memory, the numbers one to nine flash in a randomly scattered array across a computer screen for just one second before being replaced by white squares. A human observer is unlikely to recall the locations of more than two numbers in sequence. A chimpanzee will almost always successfully point to the former locations of all nine digits in the correct sequence. The dynamics of chimp society require keen awareness of where other group members are, which probably accounts for their exceptional skill on such tests.

Chimpanzees were thought to have poor face recognition until someone had the bright idea of testing them on chimp faces instead of humans. They recognize chimp faces at least as well as we recognize human faces. And if you’ve seen chimps hanging from branches, you can guess why they exceed us in recognizing an upside-down face.

Discoveries like this expose the prejudices that regard chimps as mere shadows of humans. But does it even matter how smart they are? After all, we don’t deny basic rights and privileges to people of lower intellect.

Surely, what matters is what an individual feels. It is apparent that chimps experience life essentially as we do. They are highly aware, and chimp expert Frans de Waal asserts they are as socially sophisticated as humans. They imitate, nurture, deceive, sympathize, and plan. They have a broad emotional range spanning from jubilation to grief. Their cultures include different forms of tool manufacture and use, self-medication, and bartering. They practice diplomacy and restraint, but they also show cruelty and revenge.

So, should they be granted rights? Governments are beginning to say “yes.” In 1999, New Zealand banned the use of great apes in harmful experiments. And this year the Balearic Parliament of Spain approved a resolution to grant legal rights to great apes.

Meanwhile, Matthias Pan awaits his fate, as do 1,300 chimpanzees languishing in U.S. laboratories, and an unknown number in squalid carnivals and roadside zoos. The day they are free will be a great one for all apes—and a step forward for humanity.

Jonathan Balcombe is an ethologist and research scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. He is the author of

Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good


Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D.

Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D.

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