So, I was listening to This American Life the other night at work, and I heard a pretty depressing story. So I of course have decided to share the sadness with all y'alls.
I don't want to get too into the story, if you are interested you can go to the Wikipedia article, or listen to episode This American Life #401 or Radiolab 702 - Lucy.
Basically the story was about the life of a female chimp named Lucy Temerlin. She was adopted by psychologist Maurice Temerlin and his wife in 1964 as part of a psychological experiment. Basically, he wanted to see how human Lucy would become if she was raised as a human. The old "nature versus nurture" experiment.
Initially, I was a little wary about the idea of the project. Lucy was taken from her mother immediately after her birth and was raised by a human couple. However, the squick of the child-napping was overcome by my interest in the idea. What would happen if she was raised as a human? And considering that Lucy would be treated with kindness and love, I was able to reconcile the uncomfortableness of the way in which they got her.
The interesting thing is that the experiment worked. Alarmingly well. As Lucy grew, she seemed to become more and more human. Of course, as anyone who has watched the discovery channel knows, many animals -- especially primates -- learn through imitation. It's how we learn most of the skills we know: by watching our parents. Lucy did the same thing. She learned to eat using silverware, go to the bathroom, and even to make tea when there was company. She wore clothes of her own volition (skirts, mostly). Perhaps most interestingly (to me, at least), was that she became very good at understanding human emotion. (Something that chimpanzees tend to be pretty bad at. In fact, dogs tend to better at understanding human visual cues than chimps are.) She would even comfort her foster mother when she could tell she was upset. She was so human, in fact, that she was sexually aroused by copies of Playgirl magazine and reacted with fear when she was introduced to another chimp.
So, in creating Lucy, the Temerlins had created something that essentially didn't fit anywhere. She wasn't human and couldn't ever truly be, but she also was not a chimpanzee an any social sense. This is kind of a dark place to put a living thing just for scientific knowledge, but again, at least she lived a more or less happy life. She was "loved like a daughter" by her foster parents. So, as far as freaks of science that straddle two worlds while belonging in neither can, she lived a pretty good life.
That is, until she grew up.
Many people don't realize that chimpanzees are extremely strong. They see the way they waddle around and act all cute in movies and zoos, without really realizing that they have incredible strength: far more than the average human. An average chimpanzee could literally rip a person in half if it wanted to.
So, as Lucy grew, she started destroying things. The Temerlins realized they couldn't keep her, despite the love they had for her. I guess I can sympathize with this as well. I can't imagine what it would have been like for them to try to keep a full-grown chimpanzee in their house, and they were probably correct in their assessment that she couldn't live with them anymore. However, I cannot get behind what they decided to do next.
They decided to let her go in the wild.
Doesn't that seem like the worst possible idea in the history of bad ideas? The experiment was over. This wasn't an effort to see how she would respond to being confronted with the world of her species; this was just a way to get her off their backs. She wasn't a chimp and shouldn't have been treated like one. It seems to me that there wasn't a whole lot of meaningful difference between Lucy and a mentally handicapped human. She might not have been physically or intellectually a human, but she was socially and mentally as human as any one of us. She preferred the company of humans, even believed she was human. So who's to say that she wasn't?
The Temerlin's may have made a mistake in choosing to raise Lucy in the first place, but I think the biggest injustice is in abandoning her later in life. They taught her to trust them and to love them, and then abandoned her, by herself, in the wild. Would you do that to a human child? The transition from human life to life in the wild was extremely tough on Lucy. She was helped along during the transition by a woman named Janis Carter, who stayed with her in the jungle for a time. She starved herself and constantly begged (through sign language) Janis to "come to her," and whenever Janis said "no," she would respond with "hurt."
Ugh. That's just horrible. Lonely and abandoned by her loved ones, all Lucy wanted was human companionship. Isn't that what we all want? She was ultimately denied it. For no good reason at all. There was nothing stopping the Temerlins from taking Lucy to someplace where she could be happy. They could have taken her to a number of shelters or even zoos, where she would have been able to live a happy life surrounded by people. But instead they made the baffling decision to abandon her and force her away from the species she identified with.
Lucy was found dead several years later. Her skeleton indicated that she had been killed by poachers whom -- due to her close association with humans -- she likely approached without fear. A horrible story indeed.
I've done a lot of reading about this story since I heard about it, and haven't really been able to think about much else. A lot of people over at the radiolab site have commented with various diatribes against science and experiments, etc. as a result of this story. I think that saying science is bad or condemning all of humanity for doing something like this is a bit of a broad generalization. Frankly, I do not object to the scientific question behind the story. I don't think it was science or human curiosity that killed Lucy. It was classic human lack of understanding.
I think that every tragedy should be learned from. If we are to make Lucy's life mean anything, it should mean this: we are not as special or important as we think we are. We may have been granted greater intelligence than other creatures as a gift of natural selection, but it is pure arrogance to assume we are better than them.
The idea that we are better than the other inhabitants of this planet is a strong and pervasive one, especially in western culture. In the book of Genesis, God grants Adam dominion over all plants and animals, and the power to name them. This human-centric view of nature has been predominant ever since, and the view that certain organisms are somehow "better" than others has produced great evil even within our own species.
So I suppose what I am trying to say is that when looking at life around us, we should think more about our similarities and not our differences. I'm not saying that we shouldn't eat animals; I enjoy a burger as much as the next guy. I'm saying that we should treat them with respect. As Lucy showed, there isn't as great a difference between Us and Them as we would like to think.