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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Another recent ChristianWeek column:"Made in the image of God"? What does that mean?

"Made in the image of God"? What does that mean?

by Denyse O'Leary

Ever hear of a "humanzee"? Some would hail the hybrid of a human and a chimpanzee as a crowning achievement.

Because chimpanzees are our closest genetic relatives, hybrids have been attempted. According to recently unearthed documents, Joseph Stalin hoped to produce half-man, half-ape super-warriors, but the project came to nothing. The disgraced chief scientist died in the vast Soviet prison system.

But just as often, anti-religious motives fuel the wish for a humanzee. Zoologist Richard Dawkins, who promotes atheism from his chair at Oxford University, has proclaimed that such a hybrid would shake up all our value systems. He argues that differences between the human mind and the chimpanzee mind are only a matter of degree, not kind. Indeed, Spain has been considering giving great apes human rights, and some have argued seriously for reclassifying chimpanzees in the same genus as humans.

University of Washington psychology professor David P. Barash recently looked forward to the day when "there will be hybrids, or some other mixed human-animal genetic composite, in our future." Why? He thinks that would put a stop to the idea that " the human species, unlike all others, possesses a spark of the divine and that we therefore stand outside nature." (Los Angeles Times, July 17, 2006) Motives aside, hybridization faces problems. Chimpanzees have 48 chromosomes and humans only 46. And chromosome organization differs too. At any rate, so far, no enthusiast has succeeded.

But what makes us humans different from chimpanzees anyway? Higher intelligence? French science fiction writer Paul Vercors attempted to answer that question in his prescient novel You Shall Know Them (1953).

When police are called to the London home of science journalist Douglas Templemore in the mid-1950s they hear a tale so bizarre that only the tiny corpse of a small questionably human male infant forces them to pay attention.

Templemore is the father, but the mother is "Derry," a newly discovered type of primate (tropi) housed at the London zoo. Born by artificial insemination, the questionable infant is baptized as Garry Ralph Templemore. Then, shortly afterward, his father kills him.

Journalist Templemore wants to be tried for murder, to protect the tropis from slavery. That is, if killing his hybrid son is indeed murder. As he tells the inspector, "It may well be that Derry is a woman after all. It's up to you to prove the contrary, if you can. In the meantime her child is my son, before God and the law."

The British government, of course, strikes a committee to decide what to do.
The committee learns that tropis are not much more complex in their behavior than chimpanzees, except for one curious fact: Wild tropis hate cooked meat but nonetheless insist on hanging their raw meat over a fire to purify it, apparently as a ritual. As one tropi expert explains, it is done "less as instinct or preference, than as a very primitive fire worship, a homage paid to [fire's] magic power of purification and exorcism."

Then another peculiar fact comes to light: Papuan cannibals consider only the wild tropis the ones who ritually hang their meat human enough to serve as an entr‚e. Indeed, cannibals disdain the "tame" tropis who linger around the anthropologists' settlement, because they have abandoned the worship of fire.

The implications of this savage implicit judgement dawn on one committee member: "In this people on the borderline between man and beast, all have not equally crossed the line. But it is enough, to our mind, that some of them have crossed it for the entire species to be received within the human community." So the tropis, "having shown signs of a spirit of religion by a ritual practice of fire worship" are admitted to the legal protections of the human community. Nonetheless, Templemore is acquitted of murder because he acted prior to the committee's decision.

Vercors wanted to his readers to see that intelligence as such is not the key human characteristic, but rather the recognition of a cosmic reality beyond our narrow interests. The fictional tropis signaled that they were crossing over into humanity when they preferred spirituality to mere gratification.

For my part, I think he is right. So, apparently, did American abortionist Bernard Nathanson. Reading Vercors decades ago was one of many steps he took away from doing abortions.

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy. My most recently published book is By Design or by Chance?, an overview of the intelligent design controversy.

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