Thursday, 15 May 2014

Doing Theology Via Thinking Animals

Recently the BBC has shown Zoologist and Professor George McGavin examine primates and their capabilities. He joined research teams in ther observations and occasional interventions for further observations. The three part series is called Monkey Planet.

I must admit I found it all fascinating and compulsive viewing, plus he is a very good presenter. All the time it has confirmed my view that we humans must leave our cousins to flourish in habitats we should also present. There is a good case that killers of these creatures can be charged with murder.

The reason is sentience and self-understanding, but also simply the right to be. The primates vary in what they can and cannot do, but they also socialise, have their own politics and have conditions of independent existence and even contemplative thought.

Sometimes a test of the residual value of theology is to apply it to such creatures. The usual Western Christian view is that animals do not sin and do not need salvation, and that they may well 'go to heaven'.

To make progress with any of this one has to suspend a lot of disbelief. By heaven I would not mean a place but, given the rest of the theology, a final arrival point at fulfilment. I am also assuming no need or reality in returning as different creatures in a cycle where only humans of good karma end up in a condition of no return. I'm assuming linear time and fulfilment.

If this is so (and I am suspending disbelief) then it seems to me to be nothing but speciesism to say that humans sin and need saving, but animals don't - why a dog might be blessed but is never invited to take communion.

Let's take the primate who is down the social pecking order and knows it. Researchers raise up a raft of bananas and watch. The senior monkeys get there first and gorge on the grub, but the poor one at the bottom of the monkey pile can only watch. It then hatches a strategy and delivers a false warning of predators. The monkeys on the raft scatter, and the lone creature is able to get at the remaining bananas.

George McGavin said that the monkey doing this strategy of deception won't be able to do it often. Well, why not? The monkey has had to think - what will cause them to get off that raft? It then impersonates. It views the result and acts on it. But are the others aware that they have been had? Do they know who did it. Do they have the capacity of supiscion? Do they act on it or realise it's fair? In amongst this is a debate about sinful behaviour.

We don't have that debate if monkey social order is by violence and we assume they know no other way. We do though look at our closest ape kind, the bonobo, and find that they make love not war, and shag like the best of them in making alliances and seeking comfort. Let's hear it for polyamoury.

Of course to be religious and act out exchange and gift rituals in excess of necessary exchange is to take matters a stage further. It is human trait for some of us to do the extra standing-back and making 'universal' gift-exchange rituals that intend to bind us as a people or community. Except, of course, many a monkey will sit and contemplate, and many will save time in one necessary activity in order to to enjoy extended grooming.

The difference between humans and other animals isn't language either. It is becoming clear that many higher animals have capacity for effective language. Complexity of language is not an issue. It turns out that the bee's dance for the location of food sources is not only highly complex but based on it being felt not seen. Its message of direction and distance is given to others in the dark. But regarding primates and higher creatures of the sea: they also learn, and part of the learning is done through language. Strategies for gathering and killing fish and the odd seal by killer whales varies across oceans and they tell and make their strategies around the group through language.

What they don't have, and we do, is a library. We store the information we learn and it can be accessed by anyone.

We also restrict via money, another universal symbolic device. Scarcity and value is reflected in the promise contained in coinage, or the electronic equivalent.

George McGavin introduced one primate who had 'crossed the line' into human company, which was part of his upbringing (and an ethical question there). The bonobo had been introduced to a language-based symbolic manipulation device to communicate its desires, wants and choices. Whilst humans sat about minding their own business, the bonobo made choices about food that were subsequently delivered, a bit like retarded people who use Tesco online. [Pictured: another kind of primate]

But it crossed the line in that whilst people sat about, it gathered up and broke and threw down woody material, then took a box of matches and lit a fire so that it could enjoy toasted marshmallows. Thus a bonobo used fire. No doubt it could teach other bonobos how to use fire, although it would still need to go to Tesco online to get boxes of matches. Nevertheless, there was a glimpse into one or more of species of human who learned that friction on a stick (they didn't have Specsavers and so no lenses) made fire and that fire transformed meat into digestible protein when on the plain.

Cooking is all about planning and preparation, which is why I have reverted to ready meals and the microwave. I bet the bonobo would love to use a microwave (I have two).

Now I don't believe in original sin, but I do think we live less well for others than we might (including animals), and all this planning and thinking strategies is about inviting us to live less well than we might. I don't think there is a final fulfilment (and certainly not reincarnation) but the gift-exchange is a chance to meet fulfilment, to bind further and contemplate a better way. Bonobos and others are not that far away from doing this.

If there are theological intellectual tools still worth using, try them out in relevance to animal life when it is social and not simply programmatic. The rescue of theology away from supernatural sillinesses may well come by its application in relevance to animal life along with us on this small planet.

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