MARY ALICE WILLIAMS, guest anchor: Genetics have proven what science already knew. Our cousins are monkeys. More specifically, the DNA differences between man and ape are infinitesimal. Now, there's a movement to extend to apes the equal rights we enjoy. Crackpot, you say? Well, those who espouse it do emanate from California. But, as Saul Gonzalez reports, the issue has significant legal, scientific, and even religious ramifications.
SAUL GONZALEZ: Human beings -- many of us believe our intellect and reason put us head and shoulders above the rest of the animal kingdom.
However, do people too often exaggerate their distinctiveness? Especially when we compare ourselves to our closest evolutionary kin -- the great apes. They are primates like chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, which according to recent genetic studies, share between 97 and 99 percent of their DNA with human beings.
Dr. CRAIG STANFORD (Chair, Anthropology Department, University of Southern California): We are great apes and they are us. There is enough of them in us and enough of us in them that you would not draw this bold line.
GONZALEZ: Craig Stanford, chair of the anthropology department at the University of Southern California, is one of the country's leading experts on great ape behavior. He says his African field research with chimpanzee and gorilla communities has convinced him of the close parallels between great ape and human societies.
A case in point, how leaders climb to the top.
Dr. STANFORD: Male chimps rise through the dominance hierarchy not by being big, not by being strong, but by being clever, by knowing who to network with, by knowing whose favor to curry. And in that way, of course, they are strikingly reminiscent of what people do. We look at people in Congress. You don't have to be 6'5 to be a successful politician. You just need to be socially, politically really shrewd. And it is exactly the same for chimps and also for other great apes.
GONZALEZ: In anthropology circles, Stanford is best known for his assertion that great apes are so smart, that there's virtually no difference between them and young human children.
Dr. STANFORD: The fact is that if you compared a human child, a one-and-a-half or two or two-and-a-half year old child with an adult chimp, what you'd find is that in many ways -- neurologically, intellectually, emotionally, cognitively -- they are very similar. In some ways, the chimp is dramatically smarter. It can navigate its way through a very complicated rainforest. If you put the two, a child and a chimp, on the same psychological battery of tests in the laboratory somewhere, you would find some very striking similarities.
GONZALEZ: In fact so much so, that a community of animal welfare activists, scientists, and legal scholars are championing a provocative idea on behalf of the great apes. Their argument is this one. If primates, like chimpanzees and gorillas, have so much in common with people, biologically, intellectually, and emotionally, then humanity has a moral duty -- it must surrender its monopoly on some human rights and freedoms and begin offering them to the great apes.
Dr. STANFORD: I feel that we can't ethically in good conscience do the things to them that we do to them, and continue to call ourselves modern open-minded, caring people. I think the goal right now for great apes is to raise their status to the absolute highest level.
GONZALEZ: Animal rights activists say that means extending to great apes the right to life, protection of individual liberty, and the prohibition of torture. Translating such principles into laws could mean banning all medical testing involving great apes, prohibiting the economic exploitation of the animals in movies, advertising, and circuses and even stopping -- or at least vastly improving -- the keeping of great apes in zoos.
In the legal arena, some activists even envision the day when great apes, acting through human guardians, will be able to seek justice in court when their rights are violated.
Dr. STANFORD: There are legal scholars who have advocated applying anti-slavery laws to the great apes. So, you have people out there in society who are thinking in very human terms about these non-human animals.