I recently watched the popular movie Madagascar, now out on DVD, with my children. I only wish that Sharon Tendler, a British millionairess, had seen it before she took the plunge, so to speak, in her marriage late last December to a dolphin named Cindy. The nuptials were held at a seaside resort in Israel, giving the event a pseudo-biblical ambience. (See the touching video on NBC.com.)
One must credit Tendler with choosing a mammal, though some may think this is a shade too close to the Little Mermaid. Print press reports were mute on the subject as to whether it was a same-sex marriage (Cindy’s name hints as much), a matter that would have left the state of Massachusetts unfazed as it has legalised such conjoining -– though presumably, and perhaps unfairly, only between humans. Massachusetts has many fishing communities (in whose nets dolphins may sometimes be caught), so we shall see. Nonetheless, the ceremony contained a strong appeal to family values, as Tendler announced herself “a one-dolphin woman”.
One can understand, even sympathise, with Ms Tendler’s urge to merge with Nature. Thanks to Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Nature long ago became a secular substitute for the Garden of Eden. We have somehow fallen from Nature. Can’t we go back there and be happy? Even Marie Antoinette was seduced by this possibility. At Versailles, she repaired to the English Garden outside the Petite Trianon, donned a peasant’s costume, and milked cows -– the cows, however, having been thoroughly scrubbed before the Queen touched an udder. Though few today have the necessary funds to emulate this approach or to marry a dolphin -– some might even think this violates the dolphin’s rights -– others have removed their clothes outdoors or otherwise attempted to leave civilisation behind.
Is going back to Nature the answer that it promises to be? This compelling question receives an interesting response from the animals themselves in Madagascar. One might object that this children’s movie anthropomorphises the animals, but this criticism presumes a perhaps invidious distinction between animals and humans in the first place. This issue deserves some preliminary attention before turning to the film.
Many of today’s intellectuals would certainly protest at any attempt to define the difference between the human and the non-human. In fact, many would think it highly insensitive to suggest that there is a difference between the two. One milestone on this path to the Tindler-Cindy nuptials was the appointment a few years back of Peter Singer to the chair of bioethics at Princeton University. Professor Singer was renowned for thinking that animals have rights, while newborn, handicapped babies do not. One must not eat meat, but one can kill a child. Mr Singer never explained why animals have never spoken up for their rights, or why they have never observed them themselves, especially the carnivores.
Most interestingly, when faced with the controversy over Singer’s appointment to Princeton’s curiously named “Center for Human Values,” Princeton president Harold Shapiro made the extraordinary defence that what mattered was not Singer’s ideas, but whether they could be defended rationally. It did not seem to have occurred to him that one cannot make a rational case that there is no essential distinction between a man and an animal when it is precisely the use of reason that differentiates the two. In other words, the very act of making the case reasonably disproves it.
There seem to be several “Center for Human Values” alumni in Richmond, Virginia. There a moving ceremony was held March 4 for the burial of Buster and Baby, two black bears, one of which — or perhaps one should say “whom” — bit a four-year old boy who got too close to the zoo fence. Apparently, there was no way to determine if the bears had rabies except in an autopsy.
Former Virginia governor and current Mayor of Richmond, Douglas Wilder, lamented the abrogation of the city’s responsibly “to protect them”, meaning the bears, not the child. “It’s the same horror you have if someone says to an urchin on the street, ‘Let me take you home, adopt you, keep you – and then beat you, abuse you and kill you.’” An Episcopal priest gave the bears a eulogy that invited mourners to dwell on the irony that the bears “were put to death not by their own kind.” Presumably, if other bears had been available to participate in the execution, the inherent moral problem of bear-abuse would have been ameliorated. The remarks by the mayor and the priest are singularly memorable for the distinctions they do not contain and how much one would have to not know in order to make them. Some may find them, well, unbearable.
To help clear up this kind of confusion, it might be well for Princeton’s Center to place Madagascar on its curriculum, at least for an opposing point of view from some pro-human animals. Madagascar is an examination of the state-of-nature claim against "civilisation". The animals make the case for and against the state of nature. Of course, animals all exist in the state of nature, but these anthropomorphised creatures –- a lion, a giraffe, a hippo, and a zebra — reside in the New York City Zoo. They decide to escape from captivity and flee to the wild, thinking that it would be more in accord with their nature. Once in the wilds of Madagascar, they find it less than suitable and begin looking for “people" to fix things. A lemur wryly remarks that there are no people there; that’s exactly why it is called the “jungle”.
The lion, who had been the happiest in the zoo, begins to see his comrades and the many lemurs they have discovered in Madagascar as steaks. How can he deal with this part of himself — his desire to eat his friends? In other words, life in the state of nature is nasty, brutish and short. It reveals to us the worst part of ourselves. The animals do not, as they supposed, become "more of themselves" in the wild. It takes civilisation to allow them to develop "more of themselves" and that happens in the order of the zoo, to which they all want to return. This is a very Aristotelian teaching about the necessity of society and political order for the development of full potential. It is only within civilisation that one does not have to eat one’s friends.
The Garden of Eden was not the “state of nature” because nature, within the garden, was subject to man, meaning to his reasoned order. Nature needs to be put in order; otherwise it is jungle. That is what man does -– in fact, that is what he is told to do in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. The animals in Madagascar know this, and want it to happen. From their perspective, Sharon Tindler and Cindy would be happier in an aquarium.
Robert R. Reilly writes from Washington DC. He is a contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.