Thinking chimpanzee

Lucinda Murphy’s recent post on this blog is timely. It raises more questions than it answers, but that is in the nature of the subject matter.

For the moment, it might be best to leave aside those awkward moral and psychological questions about 'Would you kill X to save Y?'

To be sure, they are real questions – not least at this time of year, when our focus is so much on war. And, though Lucinda is rightly unhappy about differentiating between different human beings in such matters, we do so. Bonhoeffer famously came to believe that Hitler’s life was worth less than the lives that he was destroying. We for our part decide daily to spend money on ourselves rather than give it to the starving, however much we give to Christian Aid.

But let’s focus on the challenge of defining 'a human'.

That is topical too. One of the books shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize, We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, raises directly the question whether, and in what sense, a chimpanzee might be a person, with rights as valid as those of any human being. Meanwhile, the media obsession with the action of Will Cornick in murdering his teacher highlights the question whether some human beings might ever be viewed as “less than human” – so lacking in normal human responses that they can hardly be admitted to share our species.

As Lucinda points out, there is at first sight a conflict between theological and biological approaches.

The first declares homo sapiens to be in the image of God, the crown of creation. That applies to the whole species, without exception it seems. So even a human being lacking normal human responses is still in the image of God, still worth something as the Bible insists, and perhaps the more worthy because of being the least honourable (1 Corinthians 12). Hence we are wrong to distinguish between the worth of one human and another, but, apparently, right to distinguish between human and animal worth.

The second reminds us that we are descended from the apes and share nearly all our DNA with them. Fowler’s book even assumes that chimps have language through which they can communicate with humans – though, to be sure, that (sign) language has to be learnt.  If this is true, even the possession of language might not be enough to differentiate us from our nearest cousins. In which case, might a particular chimp may be more worth saving than a particular human being?

Let’s turn to the philosophers, then. Boethius, famously, defined a (human) person as 'an individual substance of a rational nature'. Do any animals have 'a rational nature'? They can learn, they can develop skills, but can they actually reason? And, if it were established beyond doubt that they could, would that not finally demolish the barrier between them and us? And could we not, again, imagine a particular chimp who could reason better than a particular human? Human beings clearly vary hugely in their ability to reason; where does someone of severely limited mental or emotional ability stand in Boethius’ taxonomy?

As liberal Christians, we cannot ignore the biological approach. If it were proved beyond doubt that the more advanced apes had something identical to the normal human facility of ratiocination – as distinct from unusual skills in learning, tool-making and problem-solving – then we would surely have to treat the imago Dei idea on a par with the rest of the Genesis creation story: a valuable myth from many points of view, emphasising the rather remarkable place which we occupy in the universe and the responsibilities which go with that, but no longer something which could be appealed to as giving a unique status to homo sapiens.    

There is so much that we simply do not know about animals, even the most studied. Do they have what we would call self-consciousness (and what does that actually mean)? Do they know that they are mortal (some think that elephants do)? Have they any capacity at all for abstract reasoning? And, if they do have any of these characteristics, how do they then compare with members of our own species who apparently don’t?

For the moment, we have some cause in reason as well as in Scripture and tradition for staying with the idea of imago Dei. The human race does appear to be different; even though some other species may demonstrate what looks like an ability for artistic creation, none of them has ever written like Shakespeare. The species as a whole is the one species of whom it can certainly be said that, to use Tolkien’s term, they are sub-creators, and in that sense in the image of the Creator.    

But, as theologians such as Andrew Linzey have insisted, that does not give us absolute rights over the rest of the creation. Other species do, in some sense, have rights also. There could – just could – be extreme circumstances where the life of an animal could be valued above that of a human being. Our responsibilities as the crown of creation, the Creator’s vicegerents in this universe, are rather clearer than our rights.

Whenever we have to choose a life – any life – to prefer against another, we should do so with a very uneasy conscience. That is why the heart of the Christian gospel is forgiveness and redemption – redemption for the whole creation (Romans 8:22-23). So far as we know, homo sapiens is the only species that can know this and cry out for it.

That makes us priests for the whole of creation, and is perhaps a more secure theological basis for human 'uniqueness' than imago Dei.