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I'm reading this article on speech in animals, and it made an interesting claim: chimpanzees and other non-human great apes posses the anatomy needed to vocalize words, they just don't use it to do so. The article also mentions that many different species that can learn to produce a wide variety of sounds, like humans, parrots, and dolphins, all have similar activation patterns of a few genes.

It seems like, with modern genetic modification technology, we could introduce some point mutations in the chimpanzee genome for a few small things like expressing words and communicating using them. This would not change the basic level of intelligence of chimpanzees. They wouldn't be giving the rousing monologues of Cornelius from Planet of the Apes, but they'd be able to interact with society at least as well as children do. They'd be capable of basic speech, enough to communicate with each other and with humans.

My question is, how would they fit into and change society? Also equally importantly, how would society react towards them?

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    $\begingroup$ My guess would be: lots of crap getting thrown everywhere. Add some more clowns and you get the US House of Representatives. $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Feb 17 '15 at 1:46
  • $\begingroup$ Would modified Orangutans end up as US Senators? $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Mar 22 '17 at 21:21
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I think there would be mainly three types of reactions:

  • Those groups who think that apes should be given human rights would use that as additional arguments; also if you can speak with the apes, more people will be convinced that those apes, while not exactly human, would certainly deserve a human-like treatment. So I'd expect a great expansion of that movement.
  • Since this was achieved by artificial means, there will also be a large group of people who see this as abomination, of not as danger. Some will have religious motivation (considering that as playing god, or poaching in god's territory), others will have fears of the apes eventually taking over, or simply unspecified fears/bad feelings about it. This will surely cause a movement to have those speaking apes eliminated, be it directly by killing them, be it indirectly by making sure that they don't breed, and forbidding any further research in that direction.
  • Finally there will be the group which continues to see the apes as animals regardless of their speech ability, and some of them will pragmatically look at ways to make a profit of them (especially zoos and circuses).

It's impossible to say which group will finally win over; any of them could. Of course the other groups will not be silenced by that, and an enduring low-profile conflict about the correct treatment (or, if all got killed, the desirability of reintroduction) of speaking apes will remain.

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  • $\begingroup$ As an addition to your third point - I can see this leading to them being bred and sold as pets. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth May 7 '15 at 18:11
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A major problem is that you would have a group of short, but extremely strong, children. Imagine a toddler with a tendency to bite or hit when frustrated, then put that toddler in a body that is very agile and 2 to 3 times as strong as a man.

Chimps are cute, but in their natural habitat, they are not very nice. This is an interesting read here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gombe_Chimpanzee_War

Suffice to say, this is why chimps don't work too well as pets.

By giving them speech, you would be confusing a great many societal norms while at the same time putting a bunch of very strong, morally undeveloped toddlers into society. You would get the sorts of societal reactions that celtschk makes clear in his excellent answer.

I can see this falling into the well of "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should".

Now if you gave speech as well as a boost to intelligence in order to teach moral reasoning, well then you may as well name the chimp "Ceasar" and completely give up on human society. Just be sure to knock over the Statue of Liberty on your way out.

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