The ‘Whos’ and ‘Whichs’ of Chimpanzees

Copy editors, taxonomists, and Speed Racer tussle over a species' humanity.

I’ve been thinking about chimps lately. I called them a “who” and not a “which” in a recent piece I produced for the American Museum of Natural History. This earned me a virtual slap by my copy editor. As in:

“Chimpanzees, who WHICH are not bipedal…”

I was just giving a nod to a fellow hominid—the taxonomic group that includes chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and humans. Pan troglodytes are 99.8% genetically similar to us, making them our closest living relative.

But “who” is a pronoun reserved for people.* Chimpanzees are not, taxonomically speaking, people. If they were in fact bipedal, they would have been inducted to the hominid subgroup Hominina (hominins for short), which includes all the who-like things that walked about after chimps and humans diverged 6 million years ago.

A recent PETA press release has further strengthened my instinct to view chimpanzees as the brethren they are. The animal-rights group alleges that during the production of the upcoming Speed Racer movie, some person or persons on set abused the chimpanzee that plays Chim-Chim, the Racer family pet. As posted on an Arizona Daily Star film blog:

_ Unfortunately, in spite of PETA’s request to leave real animals out of the film, the Wachowski brothers chose to use a live chimpanzee to play the role of Chim Chim . . . While filming in Germany, a whistleblower contacted PETA alleging that one of the two chimpanzees used in Speed Racer was severely beaten. The beating was said to have taken place out of the view of the cast and crew. PETA also confirmed the whistleblower’s report that a chimpanzee suddenly attacked and bit a young actor._

If this incident is true, is it any surprise that “Chim Chim” defended itself? It’s a nondomesticated animal, and one which (who?) probably doesn’t appreciate being squashed into the trunk of a Mach 5.

Chimpanzees are also endangered. Yet it’s legal in 44 U.S. states to own them as pets and use them as actors or photo props. Their ubiquity in ads and movies leads people to assume they’re not imperiled. Read a recent letter about this issue in Science by several researchers, Jane Goodall among them, who entreat scientific organizations to work together to shift “the perception of chimpanzees as frivolous subhumans that are not in danger of extinction to more scientifically accurate characterizations of our closest relatives that stir interest, respect, and conservation efforts.”

This goes well beyond a simple case of anthropomorphizing. In all these instances, there’s a tug-of-war ensuing in the gray area between “us and them.” Either we’re attributing too much humanity to chimps, or not enough. We too infrequently recognize them as sentient beings that suffer if smuggled from their home or abused. But some people go so far as to think this dwindling wild animal has a place in our domestic lives.

Perhaps this is also a reminder to acknowledge the animal-nature of humans. It stumps me why some animal encyclopedias, such National Geographic‘s “Animals” site or the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology’s award-winning natural history database Animal Diversity Web, has no descriptive information for Homo sapiens, unlike Pan troglodytes and all the others.

When you make the rules, I suppose, you don’t have to explain why you’re the exception. Or why your closest relatives can’t cop a little respect.

_* Might I add, incidentally, that people refer to their cats, dogs, and other domesticated pets as a “who.” Try it; you won’t be able to help it.