The Foundation for Constitutional Democracy

22-Jul-2008

Of Men and Apes

Filed under: Ethics — eidelberg @ 7:34 pm Edit This

The Descent of Man is the ambiguous title of Darwin’s sequel to The Origin of the Species. Of course, it was not ambiguous to Darwin, who simply meant that man is descended from apes. But the title may nonetheless be construed to mean that man has descended to the level of apes!.

Consider the Great Ape Project reported in The New York Times by Donald G. McNeil, Jr. (July 21, 2008). The project is based on the findings of microbiologists that certain apes possess 95 percent to 98.7 percent of the DNA of humans. The directors of the Great Ape Project, Peter Singer, a Princeton ethicist, and Paolo Cavalierro, an Italian philosopher, regard apes as part of a “community of equals” with humans.

Consistent with this conclusion, a committee of the Spanish parliament voted last month to grant limited rights to our closest biological relatives—chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans. Why not, seeing that the genomes of these apes are only a snippet less than that of humans?

The directors of the Great Ape Project and their Spanish disciples obviously regard apes and humans as essentially biological organisms. Apparently, they do not regard the “snippet” of DNA that differentiates humans from apes as having fundamental significance. Perhaps this snippet is related to a spiritual aspect of man, one that has prompted homo sapiens to believe that man is created in the image of God?

On the other hand, if chimpanzees could only speak, perhaps they would tell us that they too are created in the image of God? Of course, if they could speak as well as Richard Dawkins, the world’s foremost atheist, perhaps they would say there is no god?

Be this as it may, if chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans are to be accorded many of the rights of humans, which rights should they be granted? If it were up to Richard Dawkins, he would obviously exclude the right to freedom of religion. This would not disturb the Spanish parliament. But what about endowing apes with the right to bear arms? Too dangerous? Then how about the right to live wherever they please, even if this would empty all zoos? I doubt Spanish politicians will go that far—but on what grounds? Aren’t there any trees in Spain?

Like Spanish politicians, Mr. McNeil admits there should be some limits to the rights granted apes; and like the directors of the Great Ape Project, he thinks this project marks an important advance in civilization. He did not come to this conclusion by visiting Israel’s cacophonic Knesset but by a stay in a Cameroon jungle. There he learned that Darwin was right: man is indeed descended from apes, from which he concluded—in the spirit of our democratic age—that endowing apes with human rights agrees well with the democratic principle of equality. What could be more indicative of the ascent of man?

Author Mark Steyn disagrees. Judging from what he says about Spain and its benign law project regarding apes, Steyn would have us believe that the Great Ape Project marks the descent of man, that is, of man’s descent to the level of chimpanzees or orangutans. Steyn’s position confirms what I said about the ambiguous title of Darwin’s second mentioned book.

Be this as it may, I find it strange that Spain, of all countries, is implementing the Great Ape Project. After all, not only is Spain a Catholic country, but it also has one of the most aristocratic traditions, whereas the Great Ape Project is nothing if it is not the epitome of democratic egalitarianism.

Unsurprisingly, the fertility rate in Spain is only 1.1 percent. Apparently, 2.1 percent live births per woman is necessary for a stable population—no growth and no decline. Spain, like other European nations, may disappear within a few generations. No doubt there are other causes; but why should women want to bear children who are only 2 or 3 percent from being orangutans?

Postscript

In response to this article, my friend Bob Warren reported the following about Peter Singer, the Princeton ethicist mentioned in the article:

Singer was born in Australia of Jewish parents. His parents were Viennese Jews who escaped the Anschluss and settled in Melbourne in 1938.

Singer is the author of “Animal Liberation”, 1967. He is a proponent of euthanasia and has favorable opinions on infanticide. In 1993 he suggested that “personhood” start 30 days after birth.

Of course, we can see [that Singer’s] theme is embryonic to preparing the confrontation to Genesis 1:26: “And God said, ‘Let us make Man in Our image.’”

Thanks, Bob.