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Motivation: Chimpanzees and Humans

In late April 1996, I had the privilege of hearing a speech by Dr. Jane Goodall, the famed animal behaviorist. As you may know, she was a protégée of Louis Leakey who blazed trails for women scientists in the 1960s and achieved considerable recognition for her work on chimpanzees in East Africa. For all that, she has an innocent, soft-spoken charm about her. Most of all, she has a passionate concern for all animals, and for chimpanzees in particular. Although her research continues, she devotes much of her time to the preservation of wild chimp populations. Hunting, diminishing habitat, and the largely illegal live-animal trade have earned these creatures an unenviable place on the Endangered Species list.

Throughout most of her fascinating presentation, Goodall portrayed chimpanzees as intelligent beings, having complex social relations, showing a range of deep emotional states, and making rudimentary tools. In other words, audience members were supposed to get the message that these creatures differed from us only by degree (see Major, 1995, “Do Humans and Apes Differ Only by Degree?”). And, indeed, the audience made the right noises at the sight of an adorable baby chimp playing with its older sibling, and at the less pleasant sight of a grief-stricken juvenile who had lost its aged mother.

Goodall’s plea was quite simple: our sympathy for these animals should motivate us to come to their aid. She barely mentioned the “e” word (evolution, that is), but her approach resembled the appeals of others who would have us respect all individuals within our own species, and other species (especially those closest to us on the putative evolutionary tree), for no other reason than our shared ancestry. Richard Leakey has suggested that our common heritage “is a powerful motivation for reconsidering the blatant inequities in the world” (1981, p. 245).

But is it? Can a belief in the preeminence of chance and natural selection sustain us in our altruism toward chimps? Where, in a naturalistic ethic, is the incentive to avoid apathy? Without the sort of personal involvement enjoyed by Jane Goodall, many people are driven to put their own needs first. Ideally, Christians are motivated by love for God and, yes, fear also of transgressing His commands (1 John 2:3-5). This may not impress the atheist, but it encourages believers to make Christ-centered, rather than purely self-centered, decisions regarding their stewardship of God’s creation (Colossians 3:23; Psalm 8:3-8).

REFERENCES

Leakey, Richard (1981), The Making of Mankind (London: Michael Joseph).

Major, Trevor (1995), “Do Humans and Apes Differ Only by Degree?,” Reason & Revelation, 15:87-88, November.


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