Those Dastardly Scientists Give Evolution Expert and Animal Rights Activist Award

Massey University biologist David Penny recently received New Zealand’s top science award, the Rutherford Medal. Penny is a biologist who earlier this year published a paper in Nature speculating on how and why human beings evolved such relatively large brains. Penny’s hypothesis didn’t go over very well with animal rights activists, however, since his paper places meat eating as an important reason for the relatively sudden increase in brain size.

Penny’s hypothesis is complicated, but allow me to oversimplify it a bit. One of the downsides of having a brain the size of homo sapiens is that the damn thing needs a lot of energy to maintain it and keep it going. Although today there are plenty of plant sources that can yield a high protein, vegetarian diet, most of those sources simply wouldn’t have been widely available to early homo sapiens. For example, beans are a good source of protein, but only became domesticated very recently in human history. Penny’s conclusion? As he wrote in Nature, “an increased proportion of meat in the diet of early humans was important for an increase in brain size.”

Of course to some animal rights activists, that’s heresy. For example, here’s how one activist criticized the award to Dr. Penny on the AR-News mailing list,

This is yet another example of organized science in the service of industry engaging in dastardly support of vested interests that are contrary to the ethics of sound science. Is [sic] does not take a rocket scientist to deflate this flatulent hypothesis — look at the brains and social lives of elephants, who are vegetarian, and when it comes to doing good for their own kind and for their environment, do a far better job than those arrogant primates who believe that meat eating gave them bigger and better brains: Bigger egos, and little else.

Ah, yes, those dastardly scientists giving out awards in slavish obedience to “vested interests.” The elephant counter example was at least good for a laugh. The commentator apparently didn’t see fit to mention that although elephants do have large brains, they are smaller relative to body size than is the human brain and, more importantly, elephants in the wild have to spend as much as 20 hours a day foraging for the 300-500 pounds of vegetation they require daily to sustain their body mass and brain.

The person who posted this is also apparently unaware that Penny is himself something of an animal rights activist. Penny is affiliated with the Great Ape Project which seeks to have New Zealand amend its constitution to recognize the rights of Great Apes.

But he’s probably doing that simply in the service of industry and the dastardly support of vested interests. At least, unlike the AR-News individual, Penny knows the difference between science and ideology.


Evolution expert takes highest science award. Simon Collins, The New Zealand Herald, September 25, 2004.

Animal Rights Activists Claim Some Persons Left Out of Census

Animal rights activist Sarah Whitman wrote an op-ed for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer arguing that the 2000 Census missed a significant undercounted class of persons — apes. Whitman is the campaign director for the Great Ape Project’s Census 2001 campaign which aims to count, as she puts it, the “many complex individuals still to be counted, including some 2,000 to 3,000 nonhuman great apes.”

Whitman writes,

Nonhuman great apes — orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas — share the qualities that define “people,” including intelligence, sensitivity, complex social systems and the ability to suffer. Because of these qualities, nonhuman great apes should be formally recognized, protected and respected.

By “formally recognized” Whitman means that chimpanzees should be considered persons with inviolable rights. In New Zealand, The Great Ape Project got surprisingly far in its campaign to have that country’s constitution amended to recognize non-human primates as persons. Whitman and other activists leave out plenty of evidence that non-human primates are very different cognitively from human beings; the activists typically use controversial data gleaned from non-human primates under less-than-rigorous scientific conditions (for example, activists claim that it is a fact that great apes are self-aware, when the evidence for this claim is paltry at best and based largely on unrepeatable experiments with apes who lived most of their lives with human beings).

The goal of the Census 2001, Whitman writes,

…is much more than a headcount. It stands as a challenge to currently accepted practiced and situations imposed upon our fellow great apes.

…Despite their complexities, the law treats nonhuman great apes as things — pieces of property. Sentience, family bonds and community-based lifestyles are ignored as they are subjected to pain, isolation and fear. Even in instances where protective laws apply, the laws can be totally ineffective.

To be sure, the way great apes are treated is often appalling and some institutions do not do enough to comply with the law regarding care and treatment of such animals. But the system as improved dramatically since the 1980s and is on the right track. Meanwhile, although they play a much diminished role in medical research thanks to advances and refinements in techniques, non-human primates are still extremely important in some avenues of medical research such as AIDS/HIV.


Census isn’t complete until great apes are counted. Sarah Whitman, Seattle Post-Intellignecer, November 5, 2000.

Do other primates deserve the same rights as human beings?

A group of New Zealand activists calling itself
the Great Ape Project of New Zealand recently asked that nation to amend
its constitution to grant great apes the same rights as human beings.
Chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos would be given the same
legal right to life and freedom from torture and invasive surgery that
humans have.

According to David Penny of the Great Ape Project,
“There is now a mountain of evidence that the great apes are as intelligent
as young human children and very similar in their emotional and cognitive