The Distinguishable Difference

Subject: In response to your page concerning the movie Bicentennial Man.

<< "That is the simplest lesson to learn in the cavern of the coloured pictures; only it is too simple to be learnt. It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. Art is the signature of man." >>

I suggest a good deal of understandable presumption on your part with regard to the distinguishable difference between the most primitive man and the most intelligent ape.

A recently presented documentary offered a gorilla who generated art that came remarkably close to accurate portrayal of the world around him, named a kitten received upon request, pined for a mother not seen since infancy and even expressed a grasp of right and wrong

After being trained to communicate with a human, using a kind of sign language, this ape clearly stated that it was wrong for men to have captured and killed his mother before sending him on to research.

I'm sorry that I am unable to recall just what television station present this. However, after reading your commentary on the film I wondered if yourself and your priest friend might consider the above to have any bearing on our understanding of humanity and perhaps our understanding of intelligence itself?



Dear ID,

It would. If you remember the title of the documentary and when it will be shown again, please notify me. I am an animal lover and enjoy watching animal documentaries, but I am not sure I get the same message. Before explaining, allow me two clarifications:

1. I was not arguing for the moral superiority of our species. From what I know of human history (not to mention thirty-one years of hearing confessions and examining my own heart) I am convinced we have much more to be ashamed of than proud - especially in comparison with other animals.

2. I would love to see an animal (or even a machine) with qualities we normally associate with humans: reasonable discourse, sense of right and wrong, reverence for ancestors, enjoyment of beauty, art, stories, etc.

However, I am skeptical about that happening to any great degree. The experiment you described in fact illustrates the "division and disproportion" which Chesterton spoke about in the quote. After all it was human beings who had the curiosity, patience, care and cleverness to teach sign language, art generation, etc. to the gorilla.

Chesterton's thesis would be disproved if, in the wild, animals began forming original works of art - like the cave paintings. I can believe a gorilla could be very attached to his mother, but has even one (on his own) made a clay figure or line drawing of her?

Also I can believe that a gorilla in some way might grieve the death of a parent, but is there evidence of burial rites as we see with Neanderthals or primitive humans?


Fr. Phil Bloom

P.S. I didn't want to belabor it, but the first clarification provides (unfortunately) the most most potent evidence of the division and disproportion between humans and other animals. Another quote from Chesterton: "Man is always something worse or something better than an animal; and a mere argument from animal perfection never touches him at all. Thus, in sex no animal is either chivalrous or obscene. And thus no animal invented anything so bad as drunkenness - or so good as drink." See: Deflating Darwin's Dangerous Idea


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