"Looking for insight into human nature by studying our closest relatives in the evolutionary tree--our fellow primates--has become a popular intellectual pastime. For guidance on how to live, we look less to Scripture nowadays and more to our cousins with the low foreheads."---Steven Sailer, National Review.
The Sages of the Talmud say that if we did not have the Torah to guide us, we would be able to learn how to behave from studying the animals. We would learn modesty from the cat, honest industry from the ant, fidelity from the dove.
Modern students of nature have for many years now been studying at close range the behavior patterns of a wide variety of creatures. They have assembled a bulging dossier of beastly goings-on, far from the sanguine picture suggested by our Sages. Infanticide, for instance, has been documented among lions and jacana birds. And among the celebrated chimpanzees of Jane Goodall's studies were some rather vicious practitioners of genocidal warfare against their own kind. It took ten years before she discovered it, but patient, loving observation paid off.
Indeed, the primates in particular throw up a bewildering array of behavior patterns, making them, if not the king of the jungle, at least the conversation pieces of the shrinking rain forest. "Gibbons," writes Steven Sailer in National Review, "are known to be monogamous, egalitarian and affectionate....In contrast, the noble silverback gorilla broods in polygamous mastery over his harem. While anti-utopian philosophers find their pessimism about human nature vindicated by the thuggish common chimpanzee, whose basic social unit resembles the Hell's Angels...Feminists and aging hippies have recently discovered to their delight that there is a rare second species of chimp, the bonobo or pygmy chimp, in which the female plays a much more important (and maybe even central) role." Seizing on the bonobos female bonding in self-defense against male aggression, "a Washington Post reviewer rhapsodized that bonobos "could be the key to a more harmonious human future."
Each species seems to be giving a free lesson in life, but how is anyone to know, even with advanced degrees in anthropology and the social sciences, which to learn from and apply to human society? Without Torah to guide them, the scientists are very much on their own.
The question arises, then, about the statement of our Sages. Why would we learn good traits from good animals? Why not bad traits from bad animals? Why not immodesty from the horse? Or theft from the jackal? Or promiscuity from the chimp of your choice? Why shouldn't we conclude that the kinds of aggressive behavior that G-d gave to the vast majority of the sub-human denizens of the planet are meant to be our role models? And that the cat, ant and dove are priggish deviants in a world teeming with moral and sexual anarchy?
The answer is that it depends on what you're looking for. For those who inquire into the world around them in order to learn how to behave like human beings, and not like animals, the incongruity of refined behavior in a bestial habitat will cry out for explanation. The existence of even a tiny minority of animals that act in a non-animal-like way will force the question---Why do they act that way? There is no apparent reason, no prohibition on animals against promiscuity or immodesty or theft. The Sages are telling us that the answer that would have come is that nature does have a lesson to teach us, and it is a single lesson---that just as there are animals which exhibit non-animal behavior, we too, although we are also much like animals in our physical make-up, there is an essential something within us that transcends the merely animal. And the very fact that those animal role models constitute a minority also holds an important lesson for us: Just because everybody else is doing it, doesn't make it right.
Somewhere along the line, however, we began to develop other agendas, and the lessons that G-d intended to teach us through nature were lost. So it is now only with the help of the Torah that we can reliably discern animal from human, right from wrong. Until we learn to look once again to the Torah for guidance, everyone will be on his own, learning from the chimp of his choice.