Worldview at the Zoo

I see no reason for attributing to man a significance different in kind from that which belongs to a baboon or a grain of sand,” wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who served as a Supreme Court Justice for over three decades. Holmes took his Darwinism seriously. Human life was not more significant than animal life since there was no substantive difference between the two. He considered the idea of intrinsic human worth “silly.”

No modern philosopher has been more consistent with this conviction than Peter Singer. In an article on abortion Singer argues, “Membership of the species Homo sapiens is not enough to confer a right to life.”  Singer says that the idea that human life is special or even sacred is medieval. Singer is a faculty member serving on Princeton University’s “Center for Human Values.” Singer’s service as an ethical philosopher and his role at the center for human values seems ironic at every point.

The controversy of Holmes or Singer seems pretty removed from everyday life. Until a monkey forces the issue. In this case it is actually a silverback gorilla named Harambe. As most in America now know, a four-year-old child fell into the gorilla’s domain at the Cincinnati Zoo last week. Here’s the video:

The zoo administration made the decision to kill the gorilla instead of tranquilizing it. A tranquilizer shot could take up to fifteen minutes to take effect and they felt the need to minimize the possibility of the gorilla harming the child. There has been protest at the zoo and online over the decision.

Multiple news sources have interviewed the celebrity zoologist Jack Hannah. In one interview I watched it seemed as though the anchor expected Hannah to side with animal rights activists in criticizing the zoo’s decision. Hannah made it clear, “I agree with their decision one thousand percent.”

If the decision were put into the hands of Holmes or Singer I think we might see a very different outcome. Singer, who once said, ““the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee,” might be reluctant to make a choice at all, which would of course be a decision in and of itself.

This touches on a conviction about the value of human life that I would argue is innate and intuitive. We know there is a substantive quality that makes humans categorically different. Christianity explains that this is because we are created in the image of God and are endowed with a soul.

I would argue that most people live as though the Christian view of man is true even if they can’t fully explain why and even if it is at odds with their fundamental worldview commitments. The reasons for this are simple. God made us to know these truths quite clearly apart from argument or experience. The founding fathers of America explained it as “self-evident” that mankind is created equal. Not equal to all of creation mind you, but equal to one another in a distinct significance over the rest of the created world.

That’s why I think most viewers will resonate with Jack Hannah’s assessment of the events at the Cincinnati Zoo. People intuitively know humans have intrinsic worth even if they can’t explain why. Deep down we know human beings and animals aren’t equal. It is sad that Harambe had to be shot. But if it was potentially a question of life or death for the child, then it was clearly the right decision. As Jack Hannah said in an interview with Good Morning America, “You’re dealing with human life or animal life here. I think the decision is pretty simple.”