Books blog: St Francis wasn’t sentimental about animals and we shouldn’t be either

St Francis with the Animals by Lambert de Hondt the Elder and Willem van Herp the Elder

Much is made by zoologists and primatologists of the fact that we share, according to Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape, “about 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees.” In an article last week in the Telegraph concerning the “rights” of two chimpanzees, Hercules and Leo, not to be unlawfully detained at a US research institute, Morris is eloquent on the subject: “They are so close to us in intelligence and sensitivity that they are capable of suffering acutely from mental cruelty” and (describing his own relationship with a chimp called Congo), “I felt I was in the presence of near-human intelligence, with the lack of verbal communication being our only barrier”.

He cites the work of the famous primatologist Jane Goodall, who spent years living alongside wild chimpanzees in Kenya recording their behaviour, saying “what she discovered would change our views towards apes forever and create a new respect for these extraordinary primates.” Goodall herself, in Enduring Lives: Living Portraits of Women and Faith in Action by Carol Lee Flinders, is quoted as saying that the line that is supposed to separate chimps from human beings is now “blurred”. Describing chimps as our “ape-like, human-like common ancestor” she believes that studying their behaviour helps us to understand our own human behaviour; indeed, watching chimps make tools and eat meat she writes in the 1960s to her mentor Louis Leakey, “We must now redefine man, redefine tools and accept chimpanzees as human!”

I’m always suspicious of the motives of those who write things like this. By upgrading animals in this way they seem to be deliberately downgrading human beings – an implicit attack on the fundamental Christian belief (shared by all the major world religions) that, whatever our bodily evolutionary antecedents that science has discovered, our souls are created directly by God. They haven’t “evolved” from chimps; we are not merely extremely clever primates at the top of the evolutionary family tree.

Animals teach us nothing about human behaviour. How could they? Of course they have the right to be treated properly, not to be caged up and separated from their kind, because as humans we should respect and care for the world and its different species; but we need to remember that chimps are a different species, not a primitive version of “us”. In her book – it has a rather New Age slant – Flinders compares Goodall’s approach to chimps to that of St Francis of Assisi, describing them both as mystics. But when speaking of the saints this word has to be defined in its Christian context. It is a charming tradition in the life of St Francis that he preached to the birds, admonished the wolf of Gubbio and so on. The same relationship with animals is told of St Cuthbert and others. This simply tells us that certain holy men and women, who live in close communion to God, are given the divine grace to also be in communion with the glory of God’s creation in the animal kingdom.

St Francis didn’t think animals were “almost” like us. He wasn’t sentimental about them. He loved them because they had come from the hand of God and thus we owe them care and humane treatment. Human cruelty towards animals tells us more about our debased humanity rather than how close we are to nature “red in tooth and claw”.

In his article Morris mentions that “the Nazis carried out experiments on human beings”, commenting that experimenting on animals such as chimps are compared by some people to this. Without going into the pros and cons of animals experimentation (and I have read persuasive arguments about the importance of drug trials requiring it), the Nazi experiments on human beings by evil men like Mengele at Auschwitz demonstrates how different humans are to animals: that only we humans are capable of such depravity; it is not something that has evolved.

I have just read A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz by the Swedish writer, Goran Rosenberg. A beautifully described lament for his father, who never recovered from his experiences in the Lodz ghetto and then in German slave labour camps, it demonstrates all the attributes that make us humans so qualitatively different from apes: reflection, moral outrage, shame, grief, pity, the desire to memorialise, the need to understand the past in order to understand oneself, contempt for cowardice, hatred of bullying and so on.

We have just experienced the anniversary of the liberation of Belsen in 1945. The only way we humans can change our behaviour for the better, including our propensity for evil, is not by studying how animals behave or ticking off their “similarities” to us; it is – as St Francis understood – by our transformation in Christ.