SHOULD APES be treated like people? Under a resolution headed for passage in the Spanish parliament, respecting the personal rights of "our non-human brothers" won't just be a good idea. It'll be the law.

The resolution approved last week in committee with broad support urges the government to implement the agenda of the Great Ape Project, an organization whose founding declaration says apes "may not be killed" or "arbitrarily deprived of their liberty."

According to Reuters, the proposal would commit the government to ending involuntary use of apes in circuses, TV ads and dangerous experiments.

Proponents hail this as the first crack in the "species barrier." Peter Singer, the professor who co-founded GAP, says: "There is no sound moral reason why . . . basic rights should be limited to members of a particular species." If monkeys or aliens have moral or intellectual abilities like ours, we should treat them like people.

He's right. To borrow Martin Luther King Jr.'s rule, you should be judged by what's inside you, not by what's on the surface.

If the idea of treating chimps like people freaks you out, join the club. Creationists have been fighting this battle for a long time. They realize that evolution threatens humanity's special status.

Once you've admitted chimps are your relatives, you have to think about treating them that way. That's why, when the Spanish proposal won approval last week, GAP's leader in Spain called it a victory for "our evolutionary comrades."

Opponents see the resolution as egalitarian extremism. Spain's conservative party says it would grant animals the same rights as people. Spanish newspapers and citizens complain that ape rights are distracting lawmakers from human problems. Wesley Smith, my favorite anti-animal-rights blogger, sees the resolution as the first step in a campaign to "elevate all mammals to moral equality with humans." Ultimately, Smith warns, "Animal rights activists believe a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy."

You can certainly find that theme in some quarters. GAP calls humans, chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans "members of the community of equals," and Singer holds out the possibility that GAP "may pave the way for the extension of rights to all primates, or all mammals, or all animals."

But the arguments GAP used in Spain don't advance the idea of equality among animals. They destroy it.

Science doesn't show mental parity between great apes and human adults. What it shows, as the group's president concedes, is that great apes "experience an emotional and intellectual conscience similar to that of human children." So the Spanish proposal doesn't treat apes like you or me, but like "humans of limited capacity, such as children or those who are mentally incompetent and are afforded guardians . . . to represent their interests."

And that's just the top of the inequality ladder.

GAP's mission statement says great apes are entitled to rights based on their "morally significant characteristics." It says they enjoy a rich emotional and cultural existence in which they experience fear, anxiety and happiness. They can make and use tools, learn and teach languages. They remember the past and plan for the future. It is in recognition of these and other morally significant qualities that the Great Ape Project was founded.

Morally significant qualities. Morally significant characteristics. These are appeals to discrimination, not universal equality.

Most animals don't have a rich cultural life. Can't make tools. Don't teach languages. Singer points out that "chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas have long-term relationships, not only between mothers and children, but also between unrelated apes." Special rights for animals in committed relationships! It sounds like a Moral Majority for vegans.

Having science-based animal rights doesn't eliminate inequality. It just makes the inequality more scientific. A rat can't match a pig, much less a boy. In fact, as a GAP board member points out, "We are closer genetically to a chimp than a mouse is to a rat."

George Orwell wrote the cruel finale to this tale 63 years ago in "Animal Farm": "All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others." *

William Saletan is the national correspondent for Slate, the online magazine (www.slate.com), where this first appeared, and the author of "Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War."