Primate inter pares?

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


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  • Christopher Blunt