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Just another primate?
Scripps Howard News Service


August 30, 2005

In the London Zoo, eight scantily dressed people have been frolicking around in an exhibit accompanied by an explanatory sign, "Warning: Humans in their natural environment."

I am sure the whole thing is funny and pretty much harmless, but I am far surer that the purpose behind the exhibit is defamatory to an excellent species.

"Seeing people in a different environment, among other animals ... teaches members of the public that the human is just another primate," a zoo spokesman told the Associated Press.

That's about as wrong as it can be. Humans are not just another primate. They are beings with a capacity for awareness, knowing and calculating that leaves the other primates so far back in the dust as to be laughable. Humans and humans alone on the planet Earth are possessed of a creative, conceptualizing, comprehending intelligence that can produce the philosophy of an Aristotle, the poetry of a Shakespeare, the music of a Mozart, the art of a Michelangelo and the science of a Newton.

This is no small thing.

While other primates may learn to catch delicious ants with sticks, that is light-years from what our minds make possible, such as starting fires for warmth, planting crops for food, telling stories that lend our experiences coherence and meaning, discovering the possibilities of math, developing ethical theories, building great cathedrals, devising computers, deducing the structure of atoms and stars, puzzling out the very beginnings of the universe - even sustaining a civic enterprise we call a zoo.

The difference between us and any other animal we know about is not just a difference in degree, but a difference in kind, said the late Mortimer J. Adler, a down-to-earth, supremely logical philosopher. You have a difference in degree, he says in a book called "Intellect," when two entities share the same characteristic, only one of those entities has more of it than the other. You have a difference in kind, he says, when one of those entities has a characteristic or property that the other entity simply lacks.

He then lists any number of characteristics humans have that other animals lack: animals live in the present, whereas humans are forever connecting the present with the past and future; humans alone make machines that produce things; you can train animals to do all kinds of things, but you cannot teach them non-sensory concepts; animals do not produce art that changes from generation to generation, reflecting new cultural realities.

Put all of this and more together, and what you have in the human is an intellectuality that animals do not possess, Adler concludes.

I conclude the same, and when I have contended as much in some conversations, I have had friends come at me saying, "Look, you think only humans have language, right? Well, animals have language, too, and they've taught gorillas and chimps long lists of words."

Animals do signal each other, but that's not language, and comparing the lab-learned vocabulary of other primates to what humans do with language is like comparing a fat man jumping a foot off the ground with the soaring of an eagle. Test me on this. Ask a gorilla someday what it supposes makes life most meaningful and fulfilling, and even if it has had 10,000 vocabulary lessons, you will be lucky to get a grunt. That's OK. Gorillas have their pleasures, and there are endless reasons to appreciate them. But mastering language is not among those reasons.

All of this is a matter of concern not just because of a zoo spokesman but because the idea of human beings as something grown apart from nature is under attack from many quarters. Some environmentalists think we will destroy the world because we think ourselves superior to it, as if it wasn't our special intellect that makes it possible for us to be environmentally concerned; some people devoted to the welfare of animals think that our human pride makes us callous, as if it was not our special intellect that enables us to sympathize with animals; some modern and post-modern thinkers dismiss our cognitive powers on a variety of grounds, as if it wasn't our special intellect that enables them to concoct their theories.

If these just-another-primate positions carry the day, if we start thinking of ourselves as creatures with no dimension beyond the animal, look for us to forget that our specialness imposes special responsibilities on us, that it calls us to high achievement and noble purpose, that it affords us rights, that it confers magnificent blessings.

Don't look for us to be suddenly kinder or somehow better.


Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for
Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas,
and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.
He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)

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