If chimps had history books, a few individuals would have important chapters devoted to them. One would be David Greybeard, the chimp who in 1960 was observed by Jane Goodall using a piece of grass as a tool.

Another would be Ai, the female chimp currently living at the Primate Research Institute in Kyoto. Ai has shown incredible understanding of language, and extraordinary memory.

Both David Greybeard and Ai have made headlines — the former for overturning the belief that only humans had the ability to use tools, and the latter for giving us an insight into the intellectual richness of the chimp mind. They have forced us to take fresh looks at what we assume about animal behavior.

Another chimp, Tommy, currently residing in a warehouse in upstate New York, might also get a mention in the annals of chimp history.

Earlier this month, a judge considered evidence, brought by a group called the Nonhuman Rights Project, that Tommy should be considered equivalent to a human being. The Nonhuman Rights Project consider that Tommy is being wrongfully imprisoned. They want to get him recognized as a person so that his owner, Patrick Lavery, would have to justify why he keeps the chimp.

Lavery argues that Tommy has a good life. He has a TV — he likes watching cartoons, apparently — he lives in spacious, heated accommodation with walls painted to give the appearance of a jungle. He did have some other chimps as companions, but now he is alone.

The Nonhuman Rights Project wanted the court to change that. They argued using the case from 1772 in London, when a court ruled that an escaped slave was a person and not a thing, and therefore could not be owned.

(Incidentally, Abraham Lincoln, who of course led the abolition of slavery in the United States, said “I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.”)

The New York court was not impressed by the Nonhuman Rights Project’s arguments. “Petitioner requests that this Court enlarge the common-law definition of ‘person’ in order to afford legal rights to an animal,” the judges wrote. “We decline to do so.”

The Nonhuman Rights Project — who say they will appeal — didn’t want the judge to rule that Tommy is a human, rather that he is a person. As odd as it may seem, there have been similar cases.

In 2007, an Austrian court had to rule on whether a chimp called Hiasl should be granted “personhood.” The court rejected the argument.

In 1999, however, chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans — which along with humans make up the five species of great apes — were granted rights as “nonhuman hominids.”

And in parts of Spain, specifically in the Balearic Islands, great apes have similar legal status to human children.

Perhaps the Nonhuman Rights Project should have attempted to argue that chimps are humans. They could have made a plausible case.

Humans and chimps share 98.4 percent of their DNA, after all. And some scientists have long called for the genus Homo — the group to which our species belongs — be scrapped, and for us to be reclassified in the same genus as chimps. This would make the scientific name for humans not Homo sapiens but Pan sapiens.

However, this is hardly going to clinch the case in court. For one thing, we share 90 percent of our genes with mice. Should they have rights? A banana and a human child share 50 percent of their genes. Should they have some legal rights in common?

Some lawyers say it is “spiritual superiority” that prevents us from extending greater rights to animals. In other words, that we think we’re special because we’re human.

Well, of course we’re special. Chimps might be able to fish termites out of a mound with a stick, but they can’t build flying machines.

They might have a rich repertoire of gestures that may even amount to a proto-language, but there’s no chimp equivalent to Shakespeare.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t treat them with the respect we would extend to other humans, however. As daft as it may seem to bring a legal case arguing that a chimp is a person, it is part of the ever-increasing empathy we are bringing to other animals.

Japan is somewhat out of step with other parts of the world in animal rights. Some try to argue that Japan has a long history of championing animal rights, pointing to Emperor Tenmu, who in A.D. 675 enacted the Animal Protection Law. However, animals are just not afforded the same protection in Japan as in the United States or Europe.

Koichi Tagami, a lecturer in ethics at Rissho University, has pointed out that we can’t just assign rights to the animals we are keen on, such as chimps and dolphins. It’s a charge that was levied against the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, when earlier this year she tweeted her condemnation of the Taiji dolphin hunt. If you don’t like dolphins being killed, you shouldn’t like cows and pigs being killed.

In an interview with the Asahi Shimbun, Tagami said that if we believe that sensitivity to pain, self-awareness and autonomy are conditions that must be met to grant human rights to humans, then we are in a moral bind.

“There are animals that meet these conditions,” he said.

Of course, the difference is that modern farms try to minimize the suffering of animals raised for meat, whereas in Taiji the dolphins do indeed suffer.

And not just animals. Tagami says the same rights should apply to future robots, if they also have sensitivity to pain, self-awareness and autonomy.

But robots will acquire some rights before they have the full suite of these complex traits. There are already robots that can sense damage to themselves. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine this as pain. There are also robots that can recognize themselves in a mirror, an ability thought to be integral to full consciousness, and one seen in chimps, dolphins and elephants.

So while Tommy still remains the legal property of his human owner, his case highlights the developing understanding of these issues. And although Japan may lag behind the U.S. and Europe over animal ethics, it doesn’t lag behind in its integration of robots into human society.

That should be an area Japan could excel in. And it would be pleasing if an appreciation of the rights of robots generated the same in animals.

Rowan Hooper (@rowhoop on Twitter) is the news editor of New Scientist magazine. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human).”

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