By Michael Lange

Author Volker Sommer is an opponent of the zoo and in his book “Unter Mitprimaten” calls for more sympathy for the plight of the great apes. (Deutschlandradio / Hirzel)

From a biological point of view, we humans, along with chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans, belong to the great apes. They should therefore not be locked up or misused for experiments, believes primatologist Volker Sommer.

For a long time, we Europeans considered many people from other cultures to be “primitive savages” who had to be civilized. Later, we idealized foreigners as “noble savages” while continuing to despise them.

The science of anthropology has played a key role in this regard. The primatologist Volker Sommer describes clearly and with strong words the development of this discipline. It deals with humans as well as their closest relatives, the great apes.

While nationalism and racism are largely frowned upon in science today, we have shifted the point of view from colonialists to related primates, Sommer writes. We have idealized chimpanzees or gorillas as pure natural beings entrusted to our protection.

We do not want to admit that they too steal, cheat or use violence. We are not ready to accept our “co-primates” as independent people. In five essays, Sommer calls for more respect for our closest relatives, and that includes our own rights. Co-primates should no longer be seen as things.

Innocently imprisoned in the zoo

All great apes have the right to the preservation of their habitat. They are independent figures and should not be “innocently” locked up in zoos to entertain other primates (of us humans), writes Sommer. However, he was not always of this opinion. As a boy in love with nature, he wanted to become the director of the zoo. Today, Sommer is a committed protector of primates and an adversary of the zoo. He describes zoo animals as prisoners who stay behind bars for life without committing a crime.

Being human like an animal

Sommer deals extensively with the counter-arguments and weak points of his argument. He admits that special rights for primates can only be an intermediate step. Ultimately, the culturally created boundary between humans and animals, as represented by many religions, is untenable in his eyes. Because in biology, humans and animals go hand in hand.

Summer’s five essays present a new view of the human being. The resulting biological vision contradicts much of what we learned from our parents or in school. His thoughts shake the foundations of our culture, whether we are religious or humanists. It will therefore hardly be able to convince all readers. But it’s worth thinking about what has been written.

Volker Sommer: “Among co-primates – views of a research monkey”
Hirzel-Verlag, Stuttgart 2021
208 pages, 24 euros