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We are spiritual beings, not superior animals

The Pope’s visit has reminded us that the two per cent difference in DNA between Orang-utans and humans is vast, unbridgeable and infinite

By on Wednesday, 29 September 2010

We are spiritual beings, not superior animals

The Pope’s visit has been all about human dignity: the dignity of human beings who are made in the image and likeness of God. Some of us know our divine destiny, some of us don’t. That is the ‘interface’ between believers and non-believers, the boundaries of which the Holy Father walked with tact but also truth.

I was thinking of this when I read that there has been a recent debate in the European Parliament concerning scientific experimentation on animals. A draft directive was put forward, seeking to give further legal protection to animals. The united Green parties (no surprise here) argued for member states to be obliged to use non-animal testing where there are alternatives, and for strengthened rules on primate testing.

In itself, this request seems unobjectionable. We are the stewards of the created world and should never be wantonly cruel to animals. But what might be the alternative to using animals for scientific research? Could the seemingly reasonable request mask a call for permission and funding for research on human embryos instead? Some scientists would argue that it is quite lawful to use what they term “human pre-embryos” for research because humans are not an endangered species – unlike gorillas and chimpanzees, for instance.

It needs repeating that there is no such thing as a ‘pre-embryo’; biology had not heard of it until the anti-life lobby got going, wanting to suggest there is a time before an embryo becomes human in order to legitimise embryo “research”. I put this in inverted commas because such activity is both morally wrong and scientific quackery.

Further to this, I happened upon a travel article by Frank Gardner, the BBC security correspondent, about his family holiday in Borneo. I am a great admirer of Mr Gardner who sustained near-fatal gunshot wounds in Saudi Arabia in 2004 and who now files his reports from a wheelchair. Yet I could not avoid a sigh when I read his response to the sight of orang-utans: “It is hard not to be moved by the sight of our closest living relative in the semi-wild…” Gardner goes on to point out that this species “shares an incredible 98% of the same DNA as humans.”

I note that whenever this DNA ratio is quoted it is trying to make out how similar we are to the higher primates – so much so that we should not do scientific experiments on them; after all, they are almost human aren’t they?

No they are not. That 2% difference is not marginal, not a hair’s breadth; it is vast, unbridgeable, infinite. The Holy Father’s memorable visit reminds us that we are spiritual beings, not superior animals. Orang-utans are our “closest living relative” only within the narrowest zoological perspective. After all, if your house were on fire, would you not rush in to save the baby rather than the pet chimpanzee?

  • W McCabe

    It is absurd to suggest that testing on animals is immoral while simultaneously advocating what amounts to testing on humans. A close relative of mine participated in a medical trial, but she was able to provide consent. I don't think it is right that embryoes are press ganged into the life and death of a guinea pig. At whatever process along the path of every human life, inherant human value is the same. Furthermore, if such a thing as a pre-embryo did exist (hypothetically speaking of course), it would eventually become an embryo and then a birthed human being.

    That was a very interesting article Ms Arco. It is but one more example of devaluation of human life in the minds of many. This trend is one of the reasons why I became a Catholic in the first place. Perhaps those members of the anti-life lobby should remember that we were all “pre-embryoes” once.

    P.S. I agree that wanton cruelty towards animals is, at best unnecessary and at worst repugnant, but I also reckon that animals and all other life on earth and the rest of the environment are here to sustain human life and to aid in our advancement and betterment. If that requires animal testing, I can still sleep at night – a state which would be more difficult if I were party to harvesting human life.

  • Campion

    Perhaps one should ask why Mr Gardner is not more moved when he sees another human being, who by any judgment must be an even closer living relative.

    The difference between humans and animals is one of kind not simply degree.

  • W McCabe

    Pardon me Ms Philips, I for some reason called you Anne Arco. That was an accident.

  • M Forrestal

    What you say may be true abotu the 2% difference between humans and apes, but is it reall that simple? I am reminded of our previous Pope who also reminded us that “animals have souls” – even Thomas Acquinas recognized this fact. Biblical scholarship talks of souls. I think we lose something precious when we ignore this fact and that our Biddhist brithers and sisters and others have soemthing to teach us in this area. It is my personal opinion that had the Church had a clearer and stronger voice in matters of science with regard to insemination and breeding, animal husbandry, etc. Had we kept a Biblical sense of the communion between creation, animals and humans, of their souls, their natures and their dignity as God´s precious creatures, I doubt that we would have embraced some of the things that have happened within animal husbandry and are taking as “normal” today: Had we kept this sense of the true nature of God´s creatures, I do not believe we would be confronting the same issues amongst humans today. Chrisitians, including Catholics cannot have it both ways. And while I respect the Pope deeply, I think it is not good enought to simply speak of human dignity and the environment. We urgently need to wake up in this regard.

  • M Forrestal

    What the writer says may be true about the difference between humans and apes, but is it really that simple? Our previous Pope reminded us that “animals have souls” – even Thomas Acquinas recognized this fact. Biblical scholarship talks of souls. I think we lose something precious when we ignore this fact and that our Buddhist brothers and sisters and others have something to teach us in this area. It is my personal opinion that the Church should have had a clearer and stronger voice in matters of science and with regard to insemination and breeding, animal husbandry, etc. Had we kept a Biblical sense of the communion between creation, animals and humans, of their souls, their natures and their dignity as God´s precious creatures, I doubt that we would have embraced some of the things that have happened within animal husbandry and are taken as “normal” today… Had we kept this sense of the true nature of God´s creatures, I do not believe we would be confronting the same issues amongst humans today. Christians, including Catholics, cannot have it both ways. And while I respect the Pope deeply, I think it is not good enought to simply speak of human dignity and the environment. Animals are the invisible entity… we need to wake up in this regard.

  • JRMartyn

    I understand that the research provisions of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act were sought by the Association of Medical Research Charities, and separately by Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation. It is no likely to be “quackery”

  • IR

    put yourself in the place of one of those animals, really imagine what it would be like to suffer such torture. You shouldn't be able to sleep at night. It's a good job Jesus didn't think he was too good to die for us. If we are supposed to try and be like him we should be all compassion and self sacrifice. You prove you are superior by being humble not by being arrogant.