Of apes and men

Should animal rights extend to voting? Prof. Singer probably thinks so.

The other day I fortuitously stumbled on a YouTube lecture by the neuroscientist Jordan Peterson and was sufficiently impressed to order a couple of his books.

Prof. Peterson has devoted his life to the study of the most impenetrable subject of all: human behaviour and factors affecting it. From what I’ve seen so far, he makes more sense – and displays more courage – than most of his colleagues.

So much more jarring it was to hear him make frequent references to Darwin, especially when using primates as a key to some aspects of human life.

There are two problems with such references: they are redundant in that they explain nothing that can’t be explained otherwise; and they are based on a defunct theory that would have been discarded at least a century ago if it weren’t so politically charged.

Prof. Peterson delivered a well-reasoned attack on tribalism that divides the world into two distinct and usually adversarial groups: us and them.

History indeed provides uncountable examples of an exaggerated sense of tribal affiliation causing no end of trouble. Clearly, mankind hasn’t heeded St Paul’s lesson on “neither Jew nor Greek”.

People seek group identification because few of us are sufficiently comfortable in our own spiritual skin. This applies to many variously pernicious groups, from the Nazis to supporters of Chelsea FC.

Prof. Peterson is amply qualified to elucidate this tendency, expressing it in the terms of his profession and drawing on reams of statistical analysis in support.

So why on earth does he need to draw a parallel between human and simian tribalism? He cites the research of the eminent primatologist Jane Goodall, who indeed provided many illuminating insights into apes and their instincts.

I have utmost respect for her work, but not when it’s used to seek insights into human behaviour. For, following St Augustine, I believe that the ape is but a ghastly caricature of a human being. (He described Satan as ‘the ape of God’.)

It’s a reminder of what will happen to us if we abuse our God-given humanity to live by nothing but instincts, however shameful, and appetites, however reprehensible. The ape, in other words, isn’t our past, but it may well be our future.

The difference on this subject between Prof. Peterson and me isn’t that I’m more intelligent (I don’t think I am) or better-educated in such matters (I know I’m not). It’s that I use a different cognitive methodology from his, and I’m prepared to argue that mine is more likely to make the world more intelligible.

In this case, he cites Jane Goodall’s finding on primate tribalism. Apparently, chimpanzees divide themselves into tribes and, should an intrepid outsider come anywhere near, they tear it to pieces.

I don’t remember Prof. Peterson’s exact words, but he used that interesting but, to me, irrelevant fact to comment on human tribalism, presumably as manifested by the Nazis and supporters of Chelsea FC (or some typological equivalent of the latter from his native Canada).

That misses the vital point. A chimpanzee’s behaviour is entirely predetermined by its biological makeup, while a man’s behaviour isn’t. A man is endowed with free will, enabling him to choose between good and evil, vice and virtue, beauty and ugliness.

In that sense a chimpanzee is closer to a plant, which too has no choice but to live out its life according to biological diktats. A man, however, may indeed choose to tear an outsider to pieces, but he may also welcome the outsider, offering him food, shelter and solace.

Yet if we accept that man is nothing but a confluence of molecules coming together over a long time as a result of some initial biochemical accident, then the parallel with chimps makes perfect sense.

It can be demonstrated that chimpanzees are microbiologically close to humans. The two share 99 per cent of their active genetic material, and the genetic distance between them is a mere 0.386.

If that were all there is to it, then chimps would be practically human, even though their intelligence demonstrably falls into the low end of the human range, the one inhabited by the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, Richard Dawkins and most supporters of Chelsea FC.

All I can say to such arguments is that it’s obviously the remaining one per cent that makes all the difference. It’s that one per cent that makes a man close to God and a chimp close to a fern.

That towering difference reduces all biological similarities between humans and apes to the level of petty atavisms of interest mainly to recondite specialists and trivia buffs.

One hopes Prof. Peterson will eventually ditch Darwin’s half-baked, long since discredited theory and its derivatives as an illustration of human behaviour. He has enough deep insights of his own not to need to venture outside Homo sapiens to explain the behaviour of Homo sapiens.

Such excursions are not only redundant and ill-advised, but they can also be harmful if politicised. And what isn’t politicised these days?

Thus we routinely talk about animal rights, forgetting the dialectical relationship between rights and duties. Since animals have no duties, they can have no rights by definition.

However, believing that man is but a more sophisticated animal makes all sorts of absurdities possible. Thus back in 1993 Princeton professor of ‘bioethics’ Peter Singer founded the GAP project, campaigning for apes to receive full human rights.

That project is still going strong, with the Spanish parliament having already acted on Singer’s prescriptions.

He himself displays the sexual power of his convictions by allowing that humans and animals can have “mutually satisfying” sexual relations because “we are animals, indeed more specifically, we are great apes.” Therefore such sex “ceases to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings.”

This proves yet again, if any further proof is necessary, that it’s possible to build a seemingly logical structure on a false premise. There can be no valid objection to Singer’s little predilection unless we reject his presupposition of the animal nature of man.

Much as it’s probably based on a frank self-assessment, this presupposition is wrong. That’s why I’m upset when real scientists like Prof. Peterson come so dangerously close to it.

2 thoughts on “Of apes and men”

  1. “A chimpanzee’s behaviour is entirely predetermined by its biological makeup, while a man’s behaviour isn’t. A man is endowed with free will, enabling him to choose between good and evil, vice and virtue, beauty and ugliness.”

    Dr. E.O. Wilson of Harvard. The Ant Man. According to E.O. much of human behavior and societal behavior is biological in nature hard-wired and immutable to a large extent.

    99 % of our genetics is shared with chimps but then 40 % of our genetics is shared with yeast. Yeast must be given human rights too! Damnit!

  2. There are few scientists left that can distinguish between obiter dicta and rationes decidendi so I think it wise to stick only to the latter. It is all very well to point out a resemblance but it is another matter to prove that it is anything other than that. Waldo Emmerson said something similar, but he had a saying for almost everything.
    Christopher Hitchens’s ‘Hitchens Razor’ states that ‘what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence’. A more useful policy would be to put such assertions on the back burner so that we can test them with any new evidence that we may stumble upon. Of course, as Professor Joad would have said on BBC QT back in the 1940s, ‘it all depends upon what you mean by evidence’. St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas et al have made many assertions based on other assertions. But we should keep them in mind.

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