A world going ape

The case for not equating Cheeta with Tarzan.

gorilla 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy Great Ape Project)
gorilla 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy Great Ape Project)
It's easy to snickeringly dismiss the recent disclosure that the late hotelier Leona Helmsley not only left $12 million to her dog but nearly all of the rest of her estate - an estimated $5 billion to $8 billion (yes, billion) - to dogdom. No correlation, after all, has ever been evident between wealth and sanity. More significant by far was another recent bit of animal news, the Spanish parliament's June 25 vote in support of extending the right to life and freedom to apes. That would be great apes - orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees. (Pity the poor lesser apes and common monkeys, not to mention all the non-simians, whose rights for now remain unaddressed by Spanish lawmakers.) The vote was the culmination of a push by an entity called the Great Ape Project, which for years has advocated on behalf of having apes accepted as closer to human than animal. The DNA of apes and humans, the group points out, is very similar. Indeed it is, although there are some 40 million differences among the two species' respective nucleotides. The group further contends that "human blood and chimpanzee blood... can be exchanged through transfusion." Don't try that at home - or anywhere else for that matter; each species' antigens would likely prove fatal to the other. BUT LEAVE aside the scientific rationale, real or imagined, for equating Cheeta with Tarzan. That apes resemble humans is self-evident. Just looking at a man and an ape would lead us to expect human and ape DNA to have much more in common that either species' genetic material would with that of a lizard, dog or azalea. My car has much in common with a jet plane, too (a metal body, an assortment of gauges, rubber wheels, an internal combustion engine, seats, fuel); much as I wish, though, it cannot fly. And neither can apes. Not literally nor by means of developing machines like those manufactured through the astounding imagination, creativity and intelligence exclusive to the human race. More important still, the human capacity to conceive of abstract concepts like time, space, war, peace, love, hate - for that matter "intelligence" itself - sets us apart qualitatively from the rest of the "animal kingdom" despite the physical similarities we share. Most important of all, only humans can conceive of right and wrong. Or, to distill those concepts to their essence, of God. To be sure, we are not always mindful of our responsibilities as divine creations. But most of us know, deeply and innately, that those duties exist, and the better among us endeavor to shoulder them. No so, apes. As Steve Jones, a University of London professor of genetics, put it: "Rights and responsibilities go together, and I've yet to see a chimp imprisoned for stealing a banana." More to the point, no one has seen a chimp morally conflicted over the prospect of committing the crime. THERE ARE those, though, who discredit the very idea of any transcendental moral imperative, and who deny that there is any metaphysical source for the same (or any similar spiritual dimension to human beings). They consider conscience a mere delusionary adaptation bequeathed by random evolution, and reject the idea of any essential difference between humans and animals. People, for example, like Peter Singer, the Princeton University professor of bioethics, who has suggested that the life of a healthy pig or dog should command resources before that of a severely disabled human baby, and who has promoted acceptance of cross-species intimate congress. As it happens, Singer is one of the Great Ape Project's founders; he was surely heartened by the Spanish parliament's vote. That vote has no force of law at present - and, in any event, it has been several centuries since anyone has entertained the notion that as goes Spain, so goes the world. But we would be shortsighted to dismiss the recent development. It dovetails diabolically with larger societal changes taking place all around us. Unborn human life is terminated for reasons of convenience, patients in extremis are considered unworthy of care, any and all means of behavior are endorsed as nothing more than "personal lifestyles." We are, the thinking goes, mere physical creatures, not different in any meaningful way from the rest of the animal world. Which conclusion might well liberate us even further. Why should we consider any insect our inferior, any personal behavior objectionable, any act - even murder - wrong? Without affirmation of the singularity of the human soul, society itself is rendered - in the word's deepest sense - soulless. Please note well: Jewish religious tradition forbids causing animals unnecessary pain. The first man and woman - indeed all of humanity until Noah - were even forbidden to eat meat. But Adam was nevertheless commanded to "rule over" the animal world and, in postdiluvian times, Judaism expressly permits not only the "enslavement" of animals but even their killing for human consumption. That commandment and that permission bespeak a clear and timely truth: Humans are qualitatively different from the rest of the biosphere, elevated by their souls and the responsibilities that attend them. To pretend otherwise is to welcome a world where Leona Helmsley's will is unremarkable and Peter Singer's way upright. The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.