Primate inter pares?

The London Zoo has placed a new primate on display for its summer tourists: homo sapiens. But does he belong behind bars with his monkey cousins?
Christopher Blunt | Sep 3 2005 | comment  

A new exhibit at the London Zoo has put human beings on display. As the Zoo’s website explains, “The four-day event aims to demonstrate the basic nature of man as an animal”. “Seeing people in a different environment, among other animals,” explained spokeswoman Polly Willis, “teaches members of the public that the human is just another primate.”

Just another primate?

To insist that man is “just another primate” is to deny that man has any inherent value or dignity as man. It is to say that man differs only in degree, and not in essence, from other members of the animal kingdom. According to this way of thinking, if man has any special value, it is only because he is especially smart or especially skilled ─ not because he has an immortal, spiritual soul. Man becomes valuable because of what he can do, rather than because of who he is. Opinion polls conducted earlier this year show that a society with these values is quick to abandon the handicapped, the weak, and particularly the brain-damaged.

Furthermore, to insist that man is “just another primate” is to dispense him from the restrictions of moral codes of conduct. If man is merely a primate, he has no obligation to be concerned for the welfare and pleasure of anyone but himself. No longer must he sacrifice his own pleasure for the larger good of his family or of the community. In fact, he no longer has any obligation to forego sexual gratification outside the bonds of marriage at all. A recently canonised Catholic priest, Josemaría Escrivá, recognised the implications of such thinking 70 years ago, when he wrote that “there is need for a crusade of manliness and purity to counteract and undo the savage work of those who think that man is a beast”.

Numerous books detail the ways in which human nature is essentially different from that of lower animals. But perhaps one example will suffice: Only human beings are capable of building zoos. Why do human beings take it upon themselves to collect animals, replicate their habitats, and invite the public in to observe them?

As the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) website explains, its key role is “the worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats”. Furthermore, the ZSL’s mission includes “increasing public understanding of animals and their welfare and the issues involved in their conservation,” as well as “maintaining an outstanding education and information program, particularly for schoolchildren and families.”

Conservation, increasing public understanding, providing information, and educating the young are uniquely human behaviours. These behaviours point to what makes man essentially different from lower animals. Only man is capable of taking control of his environment, through deliberate choices. Only man is capable of acting as a steward of creation. Only man is capable of self-reflection and conscious thought, which are essential for understanding his world; lower animals merely follow the instincts with which they are programmed. Only man educates the minds and hearts of his young; lower animals merely train their offspring in the skills of survival.

Similar observations can be made about art museums and libraries. Man alone creates works of art, which may serve no purpose apart from the uplifting of the human spirit. Man alone writes books, which might serve no purpose other than sharing stories which enlighten others. Man does these things because he possess a spiritual soul, to which no lower animal can lay claim. And in building museums and libraries, man gathers artistic and literary works ─ works of body and soul ─ and makes them available for the edification of all.

Just another primate? Hardly. And those who manage the London Zoo ought to know that.

Dr. Christopher Blunt is a freelance writer and President of Overbrook Research, a public opinion consulting firm. He writes from Illinois.

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