William & Mary

King refutes portrayal of apes in the Post

  • Barbara King
    Barbara King  The William and Mary anthropologist has taken issue with an op-ed piece in The Washington Post.  
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William and Mary anthropologist Barbara King has a piece in today’s issue of The Washington Post refuting what she calls the mischaracterization of apes by a writer of a July 27 opinion piece in the Post.

“I was off in Washington with my husband at the end of July, having a romantic weekend, and I picked up the Post and read this op-ed,” King said. “I felt I had to respond.”

King has studied apes extensively and is the author of many books and articles on primate behavior, including Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion, which describes behavior among apes and hominids that may be evidence of the beginnings of what would evolve into religious thought.

The original op-ed addressed the “ape rights” question. The parliament of Spain is debating whether apes should be accorded a legal status greater than that given to other non-human animals. The writer, Russell Paul La Valle, opposed a special legal status for apes in his piece, headlined “Why They’re Human Rights.”

King said she didn’t necessarily disagree with La Valle’s position on ape rights, but takes issue with the descriptions of ape nature he used to support his argument.

“His assertion was that apes are ‘irrational’ and ‘amoral’—those are interesting terms to apply to an animal,” King said. “But those words are not at all descriptive of the apes I know.

“I have seen justice and fairness in apes,” she said. “I have seen apes mediate fights and work together to punish a transgressor.”

King is a professor in William and Mary's Department of Anthropology. She is preparing a talk on ape behavior she is giving on August 20 for the religion department at the Chautauqua Institution  and will touch on many of the same points emphasizing the quantitative distinctions between ape and human when it comes to concepts such as communication and empathy.