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Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The Infinite Gap - a book review

Reading for Genesis
Preachers need to read around a subject and strive to understand the thinking of the world their flock are exposed to. Hence as part of my preparation for sermons in Genesis, I read a book which is in tune with the spirit of the age which is - "there ain't much difference between animals and humans". (Of course, to be truly in the spirit of the age I would have said "there ain't much difference between the human animal and other species").

Frans De Waal is a primatologist  - he studies primates - an order in the animal kingdom. He clearly loves animals and has spent thousands of hours observing and "testing" them. This is both an advantage and a problem. The advantage is that you know the animals well, the disadvantage that you may be blinded by familiarity.

De Waal is not saying that animals and human are on the same plane, but he thinks that the gap is fast closing. As more and more experiments and observations are completed the wonderful abilities of animals are pouring in. So far, so good.

A labelling problem
The problem is however first a labelling problem. When De Waal talks about apes or crows using tools he is talking about an ape using a stick to access insects - at most using different kinds of simple instruments to access bee honey. When we talk about using tools, we are talking about a totally different world. For example, the hammer, a very simple tool, requires an incredibly complex series of steps to fabricate it. First we must mine ores from the ground (metallurgy, mining, smelting, fire-making) then we take the raw metal and forge it into a useful shape by sophisticated methods which require other pre-made tools - castings, forging anvils, etc. Then we decide that a wooden handle would be better than a metal one (because of the "give" "elastic" "shock absorbing" properties - quite a profound thought process) and then we work out a way to fix the handle to the head, so that it does not fly off and injure anyone (again forethought). This complicated process is what "tool making" means when used in the human context - and all we are talking about is a simple hammer, not a lathe or a milling machine. This fatal labelling error runs right through books like this. Phrases like "self-awareness", "memory", "emotions" when applied to the animal world mean always incredibly simple things, but when applied to the human world, mean unbelievably complex things.

A language problem
Ultimately it is language - complex and creative and vast - that so obviously separates us from the animal world. Some animals can communicate a predator warning cry that distinguishes between a leopard, eagle or snake, but no animals can communicate their thoughts about the past or hopes for the future, or one million other things. 

And so, in the strangest of twists, De Waal's book manages to demonstrate the very opposite of what he sets out to prove.  The abilities of animals he piles up are so profoundly simple, one simple act upon another, that collectively they demonstrate the chasm between man and beast. We never hear of apes putting together an orchestra. No dolphin quiz programmes. We never hear about crows arranging a film festival. No animals read books, discuss philosophy, make plans to terraform mars or climb mount Everest. In every experiment and in every observation the actions of his wonderful animals are so so simple.

The reason for the blindness
The reason why good men like De Waal and others are so blind to the chasm between us and the animals is because they labour under a world-view that demands there to be no chasm. Evolution hates chasms but loves gently ascending slopes. It is inconceivable to the evolutionist that a creature exists with absolutely no counterpart in any other part of the animal world. And so facts are bent upwards (if they pertain to animals) or bent downwards (when pertaining to man). 

Raymond Tallis
Before I read a book by a primatoligist, I first go to the index and bibliography. If Raymond Tallis's "The Aping of Mankind" is not there, I am immediately suspicious. Tallis - an atheistic evolutionary scientist, not a Christian - exposes the attempts to exalt animal or dethrone man (the pincer movement aimed at "aping mankind"). His book has never been refuted or bettered: make it your next read.

We thank De Waal for his commitment to the animal world. We love the stories, we believe them. But every single one of them prove the exact opposite of what he hoped they would show: all of them demonstrate how simple animals are compared to the majestic creature that God made us to be.


Why not ditch the paradigm?
The most sensible thing to do would be to ditch the paradigm of evolution if it is not able to explain the gap. Just say - "the gap is so wide that gradual evolution cannot be true." The real reason men and women will not do this is because if they acknowledge a God behind the chasm, if they acknowledge that we are made by God in his glorious image, and this is why we are so much greater than the animals, then we also have to admit that we are all accountable to him, that he is our King - and that we will not have!