Are Chimpanzees "Persons"?

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, April 19, 2018

Are Chimpanzees "Persons"?

Since 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Project has been working on behalf of two chimpanzees, Kiko and Tommy, to have them declared eligible for basic rights—the same as if they were a “person.” After all, chimpanzees can recognize themselves in a mirror, communicate through sign language, pursue goals creatively and form long-lasting relationships.

(Currently, the two animals are privately owned. The goal is to have them released to live with other chimpanzees.)

Under current United States law, one is either a “person” or a “thing.” There is no third category. In response, the Nonhuman Rights Project argues that if every being must be either a person or a thing, then Kiko and Tommy are persons, not things. In February of this year, a group of philosophers submitted an amicus curiae brief to the New York Court of Appeals in support of legal personhood for Kiko and Tommy. The court is considering whether to allow the case to proceed.

The philosophers admit that the idea of “nonhuman personhood” seems confusing, as we tend to use the two terms synonymously and interchangeably. But, they argue, they are not equivalent. “Human” is best understood “as a biological concept that refers… to a particular species, Homo sapiens. In contrast, ‘person’ is best understood as a moral and legal concept that refers to an individual who can hold moral and legal rights.” There is, they add, “nothing special about species in and of themselves. They are morally arbitrary taxonomic categories.”

Since humanity is nothing more than “features of our lives such as conscious experience, emotionality, a sense of self and bonds of care and interdependence,” then the line between our “species” and animals is virtually non-existent except on a biological level. If an animal is conscious, emotional, intelligent and social – which is what it means to be a human/person – then it is clearly not a “thing” but a “person.”

Let’s bracket off the obvious questions, such as how far this understanding should extend throughout the animal kingdom: To chickens? Cows? Pigs? Ants?

And what about its application outside of the biological sphere, such as to an advanced artificial intelligence program?

Instead, let’s wade in theologically because there is so much a Christian worldview can offer to those involved. 

First, current United States law is theologically lacking. When you ask a Christian the ontological question, “What is?”, the answer is the Creator and the created. And what has been created? Four things: 1) angels; 2) human beings; 3) animals; and, 4) “stuff” (rocks, plants, stars, etc.). So there is more than just “people” and “things,” and it would be ridiculous to equate a golden retriever with a rock.

Second, there is something very distinct about human beings beyond our biological designation as a species. What makes us “human” is not our emotions, our brain, or a path of inner self-development. We are human because we alone have been made in the image of God (the “imago dei”). To carry the image of God means we alone have the ability to respond to, and relate to, the living God. In other words, we alone have a soul, and that soul is what allows us to do what only humans can, which is to be in a relationship with God. 

This is what gives all human beings their innate value and worth, and this is the basis for all efforts to preserve and protect human dignity. Human life alone is sacred. So we don’t have to go down the slippery slope of ending up calling anything and everything a “person,” making the term itself irrelevant. There is as strong and as clear of a dividing line between a human being and a chimpanzee as there is between a human being and a snail. It is the fact that we were uniquely made in the image of God.

Which, I might add, is why it is horrifying that the elevation of animals to personhood also seems to be coming at the diminution of humanity itself. Nicholas Kristof recently chronicled how one study found that research subjects were more upset by stories of a dog beaten by a baseball bat than of an adult similarly beaten. Other researchers found that, if forced to choose, 40% of people would save their pet dog over a foreign tourist. Kristof recalls visiting a rain forest camp where a couple dozen young Americans and Europeans were volunteering in difficult conditions to assist gorillas as part of a conservation program. It was impressively altruistic, but they were oblivious to Pygmy villagers nearby dying of malaria for want of $5 mosquito bed nets.

Third, the responsibility of humans to animals – and all of the “stuff” of the created order – is to be good and responsible stewards. To honor all of God’s creation. Yes, animals were given for our benefit, but nowhere would stewardship involve wanton cruelty or mistreatment for its own sake. One does not need to designate Kiko or Tommy as “persons” to warrant proper care and treatment. As Kristof rightly notes, human compassion should extend to animals, and the expression of animal compassion should bolster our empathy toward fellow humans.

The human race is currently in the throes of a massive identity crisis. We do not know what it means to be human. The tendency is to broaden the definition out, perhaps indefinitely. And, of course, if everything is human, then nothing is human. In truth, humans are distinct among all of God’s creation. 

We just need to remember why.

James Emery White


Jeff Sebo, “Should Chimpanzees Be Considered ‘Persons’?” The New York Times, April 7, 2018, read online.

Nicholas Kristof, “Choosing Animals Over People?” The New York Times, April 7, 2018, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Are Chimpanzees "Persons"?