Just a little over 16 years ago, a three year old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and lay lifeless on the ground until a female gorilla named Binti approached him. Did she hurt him? No. Rather, Binti picked him up and cradled and comforted him, just as if he was one of her own. She then carried the boy to the door of the enclosure so that paramedics could take him out.
Frans de Waal, a primatologist in Atlanta would not be surprised at this gorilla behavior. I heard a presentation he delivered in 2010 at the American Academy of Religion conference where he talked about what he describes as “the roots of morality” in animals. In a blog for the New York Times called “Morals without God?”, de Waal describes humans’ similarity to apes in this way,
No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives. I interact on a daily basis with monkeys and apes, which just like us strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we use cell phones and fly airplanes, but our psychological make-up remains that of a social primate. Even the posturing and deal-making among the alpha males in Washington is nothing out of the ordinary.
At both Zoo Atlanta and a wildlife sanctuary in northeast Georgia, I had my own “close encounters” with primates that though, while being a safe distance away or behind glass, showed me without doubt how much we have in common, and how much presence and subjectivity lies behind their eyes.
Process theology supports this view of our connection to the non-human creatures with whom we share this planet. In Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Bruce Epperly tells us that “process theology asserts that humankind is embedded in the process of planetary evolution…” Episcopal priest and philosopher Alan Watts said in lectures collected as Tao of Philosophy that the earth “peoples” in the same way that an apple tree “apples” and that humans are more like the apples on the tree than we are like the birds sitting on its branches. In other words, humans, like all animals, are just part of the ecosystem.
Some religious people balk at the concept of human embeddedness within creation, but I remember how it felt to lock eyes with an adult male chimpanzee, how the deep connection from one sacred being to another was unmistakable. In Atlanta, I asked de Waal if he’d ever had a similar experience, and he said that most primatologists entered the field because of just such an encounter.
We can celebrate and not fear this embeddedness because, as Epperly writes,
The fact that humans, chimpanzees, and apes share 99 percent of their DNA and have common ancestors in no way diminishes the wonder, value, and beauty of human existence. In a lively meaning-filled universe of experience, to say that humans have evolved from less complex forms of life does not deny human worth or our unique relationship with God, but places our lives in the context of a God-inspired universe in which the whole earth is full of God’s glory (Isaiah 6:3) and everything that breathes praises God (Psalm 150:6).
Being part of the ecosystem means we can be at home here, and embrace the kin that live amongst us, whether they walk on two legs or four, or have fur, feathers, or fins.