As we continue the important discussion of how we ought to care for the other creatures on this planet, I have found that many Christians have difficulty with any discussion of the “rights”, “feelings”, “personalities”, and certainly “sanctification” of animals. The imputation of personality and especially rationality to animals gets many conservative Christians in a funk. I remember watching footage of Coco the gorilla talking to her trainer and others in sign language, and hearing derisive laughter from my companions, deriding the ape’s performance as a “hoax” (manufactured, no doubt, by the same sort of folks who created the Heidelberg and Piltdown men). And of course, their fears of this presentation being Evolutionary propaganda were realized as a voice-over recited the same tired dogma we’ve been indoctrinated with since Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. I have heard people (students of mine, actually) argue that dinosaurs are all a massive hoax: each one is a fake, a grand conspiracy of god-hating archaeologists hell-bent on pushing their evolutionary propaganda. And given the defensive position Christians find themselves in nowadays, this attitude is understandable (if muddleheaded).
But you don’t have to reject the event in order to reject the interpretive conclusion. I personally see no need to deny the veracity of many of these fossilized findings. Monsters fit quite well into my understanding of history, thank you (as does the discovery of demon-bones, incidentally…another topic for another time, perhaps).
Christians have assumed, along with the secular humanists, that intelligence or rationality is essentially what makes us human. Thus (the evolutionary thought process goes), “lower” life-forms, particularly those “closer” to us on ye olde evolutionary tree, ought to exhibit some kind of proto-intelligence, a “simpler” rationality overshadowed (of course) to one degree or another by “instinct”. Christians react typically in a bass-ackwards fashion, accepting the ‘reasoning’ (no pun intended) of the argument and then vigorously trying to deny the existence of the evidence.
But the whole thing is a red herring. “Rationality” is neither here nor there when talking about what makes us human, and defining ourselves this way creates any number of embarrassing quandaries.
Not that it is idiotic to think this way. Indeed, Christians who define themselves in terms of their rationality are historically in good company: However, when put to a practical test, this theory is found wanting. This was illustrated most tragically in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. As the conquistadors raped, pillaged, and burned their way through the Americas, exploiting and wantonly torturing the peoples they found there, many people at home were outraged at the cruelly covetous atrocities being committed under the guise of Crown and Church. Most notable among those who spoke out against the evil exploitation of the natives were Bartolome de Las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria. These courageous gentlemen stood up in defense of the weak and oppressed, for which I commend them without qualification. That having been said, the philosophical foundation upon which they both based their objections (Vitoria especially) centered around a fallacious understanding of the concept of dominum.
Dominum is, for our purposes, the right of a being to dominion over his person and property. The argument during the age of exploration was, of course, over what conditions are necessary for a being to have dominum. Accepted at the time was “rationality”. This being the case, the conquistadors argued that the natives of the Americas were sub-intelligent, irrational, insane, etc., with Vitoria and Co. arguing manfully for the contrary position.
The problem here is that counter-examples are too readily apparent. Aside from wondering what constitutes “rationality” (is cannibalism “rational”?), there are too many types of persons for whom the honest man would want to claim dominum who are, without a doubt, “irrational”. Children? The mentally handicapped? Coma patients? 9th graders? What is rationality, and how do you measure it to see if you have enough of it? When does a person with Down Syndrome cease to be human? When does a baby become human? How stupid does a guy have to be before I may take his stuff or exploit his person?
“Rationality” is a poor measuring stick for what it means to be human.
This being the case, Christians (especially those of a paedobaptistic persuasion) should cheerfully grant that Coco is really talking: Why not? Dolphins really are smart as all get-out and isn’t it amazing. Different animals have individual personalities, feelings, emotions, and yes, thoughts. Obviously. After all, we baptize our kids.