‘Monkey Business’
Religion & Liberty Online

‘Monkey Business’

In the latest issue of the New York Times Magazine, the article “Monkey Business,” by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt examines economist Keith Chen’s research with capuchin monkeys and money.

Here’s another case of science, in this case economics, being used to “prove” the continuity between (and therefore equivalency of) humans and animals. The implicit message is that we are really not all that different from our fellow creatures, nor that special. This seems almost absurd, but it’s true.

For example, the article concludes:

But these facts remain: When taught to use money, a group of capuchin monkeys responded quite rationally to simple incentives; responded irrationally to risky gambles; failed to save; stole when they could; used money for food and, on occasion, sex. In other words, they behaved a good bit like the creature that most of Chen’s more traditional colleagues study: Homo sapiens.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Have the authors of the article forgotten who taught whom how to use money? Did the capuchin monkey teach Dr. Chen to use money? Or was it the other way around?

Perhaps this research shows in part the natural intelligence of some created creatures. It might also show human ingenuity…we are such good teachers that we can even make monkeys use money. The research probably does a little bit of both.

What it does not do, however, is show that humans and monkeys are really just the same. Here’s some more evidence that this is the motivation for many scientists. David P. Barash, a psychologist at the University of Washington, favors the creation of genetic chimeras because it will “wake up Homo sapiens to its glorious connection to the rest of life, whatever rubs our species-wide nose in the simple, yet sublime universal password proclaimed in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’: ‘We be of one blood, thee and I.'”

Barash attacks what he terms “religious fundamentalism” in the form of intelligent design. This fundamentalism “draws the line at the emergence of human beings from other ‘lower’ life forms. It is a line that exists only in the minds of those who proclaim that the human species, unlike all others, possesses a spark of the divine and must have been specially created by god. It is a thin and, indeed, indefensible line, but one that generates a consequential conclusion: that we stand outside nature.”

Barash believes that proof of material continuity with animals will prove that humans are not special or different, and that anyone who believes otherwise is a “fundamentalist.” Of course, the special creation of human beings in the image of God is not a tenet of Christian fundamentalism, but rather a hallmark of traditional orthodox and biblical Christianity. Barash further sets up a straw man, as if any orthodox or traditional Christian would deny the material continuity between humans and the rest of creation.

This material continuity is attested to numerous times in Scripture. For example, in the book of Genesis, God creates Adam from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7), and part of the curse following the Fall into sin is physical death, “For dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19 NIV).

This underscores the doctrine of the Incarnation and its massive importance in Christian theology, in which the second person of the Trinity, the Word, “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 3:14 NIV).

To acknowledge the material continuity between humans and the rest of creation does nothing to deny the special place of human beings in creation. To assert that there is a non-material component to the human person, the soul or spirit, does not mean that “we stand outside nature,” or that we deny the physical and material makeup of the human person. Indeed, Christian anthropology embraces a comprehensive view of the human person, body and soul.

Scientists can continue to “prove” that human beings share materiality with the rest of creation, and even that some other creatures possess shards of intelligence. Here science will get no disagreement from Christianity.

But the leap from relation or a measure of continuity to equivalency is one that simply cannot be made. As my uncle once scoffed, “A monkey takes a stick, shoves it in a hole to get some ants, and all of sudden it’s a tool-maker.”

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.