MY Monkey, the Psychologist (6:19)
Just because scientists argue that our closest mishpocha are the primates, doesn’t mean you have to monkey around.
MY Monkey, the Psychologist (6:19)
Once upon a time, and not so very long ago, many educated and worldly individuals turned to the Bible for guidance on how to live their lives. It was evident that the Scriptures were not just tales of ancient history, but paradigms of human nature. Then Freud and psychology arrived on the scene and changed where we search for answers. Now one had to plumb the subconscious for insight into the human condition. But even that is now passe. Recently, it has become popular to turn to our closest relatives for answers in understanding our core drives and needs. Unfortunately, I do not mean, Grandpa Hershel with the big beard on our living room family tree, but our supposed mishpocha in the evolutionary tree, our fellow primates. As writer Steven Sailer pointed out in the National Review, “We look less to Scripture nowadays and more to our cousins with the low foreheads.”
The Sages of the Talmud say that if we did not have the Torah to guide us, we would be able to acquire specific moral behaviors from studying the animals. We would learn modesty from the cat, honest industry from the ant, fidelity from the dove, etc.
Modern students of nature, notwithstanding the fact that they rarely pay attention to Rabbinical advice, have long been studying the life patterns of a wide variety of creatures. The bulging dossier they have assembled is brimming with beastly goings-on, a far cry from the sanguine picture put forth by the Talmud. Infanticide, for instance, has been documented among lions and jacana birds. The noble silverback gorilla broods in polygamous mastery over his harem. And even among the celebrated chimpanzees of wildlife heroine and campaigner, Jane Goodall, there were some rather vicious practitioners of genocidal warfare against their own kind.
Indeed, without Torah’s clarity of ethical vision, isn’t it conceivable that man might draw conclusions for society that are at the least, misguided. Let me offer just two examples. One, the common chimpanzee is a thug. Their social unit basically resembles a pack of Hell’s Angels. Thus scientific studies have only confirmed (mistakenly, I might add) that the human species will never fare better.
Second, a recently discovered rare species of chimp, the bonobo or pygmy chimp, has feminists delighted since in this particular animal group the female plays a much more central role. In a poetic soliloquy of female bonding between human and chimp a Washington Post reviewer rhapsodized that the study of the bonobos would, “Be the key to a more harmonious human future.” Once again, man is in vain measuring his capabilities based upon the faulty assumptions of evolutionary equivalency.
Based on all of the above, one must wonder why the Rabbis would suggest that without Torah one must observe the creatures of the wild. Could not man possibly conclude that the self-centered behavior that G-d gave to the vast majority of the animals are meant to be our role models, while the cat, ant and dove are priggish deviants? And why should we humans impress upon ourselves the good traits from good animals? Why not the
cruelty of the jackal? Or perhaps we should adopt the promiscuity of the rooster?
The answer is that it depends on what you’re looking for. For those who inquire into the world around them in order to learn how to behave like human beings, and not like animals, the incongruity of refined behavior in a bestial habitat will cry out for explanation. The existence of even a tiny minority of animals that act in a non-animal-like way will force the question: Why do they act that way? There is no apparent reason, no prohibition on animals against promiscuity, immodesty, or theft.
What the Sages are telling us is that nature does have a few, good lessons to teach us. Just as there are animals which exhibit non-animal behavior, we too, although we are much like animals in our physical make-up (we may even act like animals sometimes), possess an essential something within us that transcends the merely animal. Simply put, just because you are a two-footed animal, doesn’t mean you have to act beastly. And secondly, the very fact that those animal role models constitute a minority reminds us that just because everybody else is doing it, doesn’t make it right.
Somewhere along the line however, the lessons that G-d intended to teach us through nature were lost. So now, it’s look to the Torah for direction or be lost in the wild jungle.