Sunday, 17 July 2011


Back in 1986, Levan Merritt, then only 5, fell into the gorilla enclosure at Jersey Zoo. Falling onto concrete, he was left with a cracked skull and broken arm and unconscious for several minutes. The horrified witnesses, including his parents, watched as an adult male silverback, Jambo, lumbered over to the prostate boy. But instead of tearing the child apart, Jambo took a protective posture alongside him keeping the other gorillas away and even, at one point, stroking him.

Jambo's arm reaches out to sroke unconscious Levan
A few weeks ago I saw TV film of what I consider one of the more moving finds in archaeology, a withered bone from the right arm of a male Neanderthal. Why is it moving? Because he survived many years after his crippling injury, meaning that his community nursed him and then fed him – he certainly can’t have been up to much as a hunter in later life.
Withered and healthy bones of our Neanderthal
- and the skull wan't in good shape either
Several times a week I’m reminded of the confrontation that took place earlier this summer between our cat Misty and the crows from across the road. He seized one of their young that had fallen from its nest but before he could dispatch it he found himself under violent attack from the beaks and talons of the parents. Although equipped with deadly claws and teeth himself, he couldn’t fight off birds so committed that they'd run mortal danger themselves to save their young, and indeed he’s learned real respect for them: whenever they see him now they caw, and when he hears them cawing, he runs for home.

Since I work in the healthcare world, I often think of Mary Seacole. She was a Jamaican born in the time of slavery in the nineteenth century. She turned herself into something of a cross between a nurse and a doctor. Florence Nightingale, who made her name nursing soldiers during the Crimean War, refused Seacole the right to join her, as did the rest of the British establishment, no doubt convinced that no-one with skin that dark could be trusted to care for the sick and injured. Seacole travelled to the Crimea independently and set up a hotel and supplies operation for the troops, enabling her to tend to the ill and wounded. She realised her ambition to be the first woman into Sebastopol after the city fell, and nursed many Russian soldiers as well as others from the Allied side there. She struggled back to England, again at her own expense, and was declared bankrupt soon after her return. She was only freed from destitution by friends running fund-raising events in her support.
Mary Seacole at the time of the Crimean War
What do all these stories have in common?

They’re all about individuals making sacrifices to help others, to alleviate distress. In the case of the crows and the Neanderthals, the sacrifice is for kin, but Mary Seacole and, indeed, Florence Nightingale cared for strangers. And Jambo came to the rescue of an individual who wasn’t even of the same species.

It seems to be something of an instinct, to bring help where it’s needed.

And yet – all the world’s major religions include injunctions to help each other in this way, which rather suggests that while we think it’s admirable, we do need to be reminded. And when we look around at other aspects of human behaviour, it’s fairly clear why the reminder is needed.

Over the last few years we’ve been repeatedly assured by leaders claiming to represent civilised values, that it is permissible to torture those we suspect of threatening us. In Britain, it seems that according to its own own studies, the government’s policies will make 40,000 additional families homeless and Ministers preferred to try (unsuccessfully) to conceal the studies rather than change the policies. And in the name of human rights, the great Democracies of the West are engaged in three wars which have led to countless civilian deaths – literally countless in the case of Iraq, with General Tommy Franks telling us ‘we don’t do body counts’ .

So remember the Neanderthal, remember Misty’s crows, remember the Jersey gorilla, remember Mary Seacole. And then remember that they represent an aspiration not an achievement. Why hasn't the one turned into the other? I think we're back to my favourite quotation from Konrad Lorenz, about having discovered the missing link between apes and civilised man: it's us.

Feels like  it may be a while before we cross that link.

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