The Human Zoo

I’m all for technology, but when I read that scientists think robots may one day have rights, or that a new humanoid machine will be able to express emotions, that’s when I get a little squeamish.

Mind you, it’s not so much that I have a big problem with people wanting to anthropomorphize their machines. It’s more the double standard in a culture that is willing to dignify machines by treating them like people while simultaneously devaluing human beings by treating them like animals.

The latter impulse reached its peak of insanity in the fall of 2005 with the London Zoo put on a “Homo sapiens” display. The display, noted Denyse O’Leary, involved “a group of eight nearly buff humans cavorting in a cage for the express purpose of assuring the public that ‘the human is just another primate.’”

The London experiment was not a new phenomenon. The Adelaide Zoo in Australia also put on a similar experiment. Ashley Hay reported that

the Human Zoo project had locked groups of six humans into an empty orangutan enclosure, each for a week at a time. It aimed to “create awareness of the closeness of humans to their primate cousins”, “provide a platform for research on animal behaviour and enrichment”, and “raise awareness of the conservation needs of primates in the wild”. By this Wednesday, the fourth and final group was halfway through its stint.

I am reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s character Mr. Edward Carpenter, in the first chapter of The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Carpenter was part of a school of thought which maintained that “we should in a very short time return to Nature, and live simply and slowly as the animals do. And Edward Carpenter was followed by James Pickie, D.D. (of Pocohontas College), who said that men were immensely improved by grazing, or taking their food slowly and continuously, after the manner of cows. And he said that he had, with the most encouraging results, turned city men out on all fours in a field covered with veal cutlets.”

While Chesterton was writing this in fun, we must not forget that he was always something of a prophet. He seemed to have realized that the itinerary of the reductionist views he so often attacked in his writings was quite simply, that it blurred the line between man and the beasts.

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