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

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.

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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?

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