“Man is irremediably a symbol-manipulating animal”

Some wise and witty words from Theodore Dalrymple here as usual: “Nothing is important or unimportant, but thinking makes it so. Nevertheless, other people’s priorities infuriate us: We think them fools for worrying over trifles, while they disregard entirely what we think is of the greatest significance.

No one’s emotions are stirred, however, in precise proportion to the importance we ascribe to the matters that stir those emotions. I may think the Crimean crisis is a turning point in world history, but I am much more concerned by a tax demand or an argument with my wife. I do not think I am unusual in this; on the contrary, it is perfectly normal, and this in theory should make intellectuals in particular more tolerant of the interests others express, though it seldom does. Besides, a world in which everyone was moved in precise proportion to a rational scale (if such a scale could ever be laid down) would be intolerably boring.

There is a further point: Man is irremediably a symbol-manipulating animal. What may seem at first trivial is often symbolic of something much more important: Disagreement over something trivial may really be disagreement about fundamental philosophical problems. And at least for intellectuals, there is no greater fun to be had than disagreement over the fundamentals of philosophy. Such disagreements stave off boredom and also the fear of personal insignificance that bests us all whenever we look at the starry heavens above.

So let us not sneer, then, about the worldwide, or at least Europe-wide, furor over the death of Marius, the two-year-old giraffe in Copenhagen Zoo. Marius was deemed by the zoo’s scientific staff to be surplus to its requirements and to those of all zoos throughout Europe. He was therefore shot, autopsied, and thrown to the zoo’s lions (four of whom, it so happened, were soon to follow him). The death of a single Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata born in captivity sparked more commentary and emotion than the million human tragedies that must have occurred the same day. Often, it seems, we love animals more than ourselves, and with good reason (by “ourselves” I mean other human beings, not ourself). The subsequent polemics were about more than the fate of poor little Marius.

The combination of the appealingly gentle nature and face of the giraffe, and the completely unemotional, deadpan, and almost mechanical pronouncements of the zoo’s scientific director, Bengt Holst, was perfectly calculated to fan the passions of many polemicists, especially those in professional need of something to say. Marius was a test case for many antinomies: thought versus feeling, fact versus value, Man’s dominion versus Man’s guardianship of nature, sense versus sensibility, unvarnished truth versus tact, appearance versus reality, science versus religion, expedience versus deontology, rationality versus instinct, prose versus poetry, and no doubt many others. If Marius had been not a giraffe but some unattractive beast such as a star-nosed mole or an aye-aye (both exceptionally ugly), let alone a crocodile, boa constrictor, or Komodo dragon that had just eaten a child, there would have been no outcry. Nature mystics, who believe in biodiversity as a good in itself, are generally not worried by the prospect of the elimination of the Guinea worm Dracunculus medinensis or the much more widespread but equally repellent Ascaris lumbricoides (there is, as far as I know, no Society for the Preservation of the Intestinal Roundworm of African Children, though there is a Save the Guinea Worm Foundation with a hilarious website that I heartily recommend).

It is when you look at the commentary on reports of the case of Marius that you realize self-expression is not an unequivocally good thing. I am unsure whether the ease nowadays of expressing oneself in public, thanks to the Internet, has called forth an immense quantity of bile or whether the bile preexisted the Internet and was only awaiting the Internet to be publicly expressed, but I suspect that bile rises to meet the space which will accommodate it. Certainly the blogosphere gives the impression that the world is filled with bitter, angry, resentful people who spit venom at the slightest pretext and think that abuse is an argument—indeed, the only argument.

Bile in the blogosphere springs eternal because arguments go off so quickly at tangents and so give fresh cause for offense to someone. But the case of Marius was like fatty food to the gall bladder; it caused an outpouring second to none. The comments that follow online newspaper articles are often more revealing, at least to students of human nature, than the articles themselves. The Guardian recognizes this by often allowing the reader to skip the article altogether and go straight to the comments.

In the discussion following an article about the Marius case, however, the newspaper felt constrained on many occasions, even more than usual, to intervene:

A moderator removed this comment because it didn’t abide by our community standards. Replies may also be deleted.

Since comments such as “What an effing s.o.b. the zoo director is” passed muster, one can only conjecture what the impermissible comments must have been like.

But there were many comments intended to be constructive. Someone calling him or herself “yellowsnow” wrote to reply to the Danish zoo’s explanation that it had killed Marius to forestall inbreeding among giraffes in European zoos:

If the captive gene pool is so weak, then artificially inseminate from the wild population. It’s not rocket science.

To this suggestion, “Pinkythedolphin” answered:

Artificially inseminate from the wild population – have you tried harvesting sperm from a wild giraffe? Rocket science might be easier.

Having expressed her disgust in no uncertain language, “ellatynemouth” said that she hoped people will boycott the zoo, to which “gavshaky” replied:

Yeah, boycott the zoo. I’m sure financial ruin…will be so beneficial for the rest of the animals living there.

And to another suggestion that the zoo be closed down, a correspondent wrote that the animals should be released into Denmark’s extensive jungles and savannahs.

Another reader worried that the lions to whom the carcass of Marius was fed might not have really liked the giraffe meat they were served. What was wrong with good old chicken? To this came the answer:

Yes, regularly wild lions hunt down the weak and young from the big herds of majestic chickens which roam the savannahs….

There were many charges of hypocrisy against those who criticized the Danish zoo. After all, Longleat (a stately home in England surrounded by a wildlife park) had recently put down several lions because they had become dangerous. To this, a reader replied with a question: Has anyone ever heard of a non-dangerous lion?

Actually, I have. Was it not Victor Mature who said, when it was proposed that he fight a lion in the film Samson and Delilah, that he didn’t want to be “gummed to death”? (The lion’s teeth had been pulled.)

Here, I think, is the way forward for zoos: edentulous lions with nasogastric tubes for nourishment by soy protein drinks. There would be no need, then, for the moderator to preserve community standards. They would preserve themselves.” (http://takimag.com/article/bile_in_the_blogosphere_theodore_dalrymple#axzz2xTZ31dAz)

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