Chimps Head for Retirement

In 1871, the now-extinct Hornet magazine published a cartoon of Charles Darwin looking like a human-ape chimera. It was not meant kindly.

Charles Darwin
The Hornet Magazine

We might suppose that progressive Victorian thinkers would have embraced chimps, gorillas, orangs, etc. as newly-found cousins. Perhaps some did, but lonely captivity in bare “prisons,” laboratory experimentation, and hunting continued.

It takes a long time for ingrained attitudes about the “beasts” to change, even when evidence mounts about their cognition and suffering. It’s ironic that medical research which adopted apes for human ends has raised appreciation of them as sentient beings that insists on a higher ethical standard of care not much different to what we demand for ourselves. Jane Goodall, the foremost chimpanzee expert and advocate, urges, “Surely we should treat them with the same consideration and kindness as we show to other humans; and as we recognize human rights, so too should we recognize the rights of the great apes?”

There was a recent instance of how attitudes are changing when the head of the NIH announced that the last 50 chimpanzees in federal laboratories will be retired to a sanctuary for the rest of their lives. The published reasons for freeing the chimps was utilitarian and couched in unemotional waffle (“the need for research has essentially shrunk to zero”), but I’m sure that public opinion influenced the policy. Pictures of apes in cages, separated from their babies, and communicating with people in sign language open our hearts to them as we see more of us in them and vice versa. We are unashamedly sentimental about our pets, and why not for our simian cousins too? This might sound surprising coming from a writer who sometimes used animals in research (never primates), but it’s not shameful to admit a change of heart. The treatment of animals as only subjects of curiosity, cuisine and companionship can evolve to something greater, although I can’t say how far the ineffable feelings can go.

The reason why animals, even apes, never deserved the protection of legal rights was, of course, because they are not human. They don’t have a brain and moral law that in our own estimation justified us as their emperors. The difference between Us and Them is that we regard ourselves as a benevolent species, for that’s what humane means. What a shocking self-deceit!

Most Victorians, irrespective of whether they believed the Creation Story or Evolutionary Theory, thought our species was destined to rule the Earth. The Darwinian revelation that we are a Johnny-come-lately species didn’t puncture that mental outlook, and modern ecology has struggled to fix a truer and more sustainable perspective against the resistance of economic and political forces. The justification for using and abusing animals was the same as that for the mistreatment and malice of other ethnicities of our own species—they were all dehumanized.  Lately, I have been musing when the divorce with nature began.

A new breed of eco-theologians, including the late Thomas Berry, admit that the three great monotheistic religions unconsciously helped to vindicate brutal treatment of animals and careless stewardship of the environment. When people lived much closer to the land as a source of production, there could be greater feelings of unity with the rest of creation, and less hubris exploiting its “goods.” The natural world was a divine revelation that preceded the Scriptures. Still today, some native religions teach that the land and its inhabitants, plant and animal, are sacred, and the sacrifice of an animal taken in a hunt was a sacramental act for some North American Indians.

If I try to pinpoint a time and place in history when Western attitudes changed I choose Medieval Europe. As a devotee of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas taught that humans stand at the apex of nature’s hierarchy, owing no special moral responsibility to animals, which are only instruments for our use. When the Black Death arrived a hundred years later, killing a third to a half of the population, the church tried to soften the horror of temporal existence and the hard Augustinian doctrine of a broken world by focusing the minds of the faithful on the permanent reward of peace in heaven. With eyes fixed on such a great hope why should anyone bother about the Earth and its creatures? Wasn’t the great lover of creation, Francis of Assisi, just a sentimental monk?

Although the tide of faith started ebbing in the Enlightenment, attitudes towards nature and animal life remained harsh. The wild woods, mountains, and oceans, and the creatures they harbored were dangerous, not precious gifts. Beauty and its ally, security, lay in the towns and cities, and urbanization increased the drift from old feelings of communion with nature. Materialism and its goods had arrived. Pressed to choose a historical figure to represent the changing secular attitudes it’s hard to beat Descartes. He drew a metaphysical gulf between Mind and Matter. Since animals were assumed not to have a mind or self-consciousness (now repudiated), they were regarded as biological machines, mere matter not calling for special care.

The promotion of a bunch of chimps to a gentler life as senior citizens is a tiny example of how public sensibilities have evolved, although there is a long way to go before deep-seated religious and secular assumptions are replaced with more open and enlightened feelings that can bring us closer to our spiritual Earth home. We can expect to see more controversy and struggles over our management of animals—for food production, sporting entertainment, medical research—and I have no idea where they will end. But a quotation from Henry Beston holds a guiding light for me. He was a friend of Rachel Carson and like another temporary hermit in Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau, he spent a solitary year in a cabin, but beside the ocean instead of a pond. He wrote in The Outermost House:

We need another and a wiser and perhaps more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for the tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal world shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of   the earth.

I guess old Darwin would have shared those feelings and welcomed the belated rediscovery we are making of caring for our real home, this shrinking world with its creatures whose destiny is more completely in our hands than ever. He might have enjoyed seeing his caricature in magazines, believed there was dignity in a hairy pelt, and reflected on Francis’s dream of an Earth family—Mother Earth, Brother Wind and Air, Sister Water, Brother Donkey, Brother Chimp, Brother Darwin.

Next Post: Sperm reveal Human Chimera

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