Monkey see, monkey do at the primate research centre

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The Independent Online

Professor J Edgar Dyson has every right to be called the most nervous man in Britain today. That is because he runs a primate research centre near Oxford, and primate research centres are suddenly the fashionable target for protest.

But if Professor Dyson's centre were to be attacked by animal rights activists, it would, he thinks, be slightly unfair. That's because there isn't a single animal in the place. All the research done in the centre is done on archbishops, bishops and similar primates.

"There is absolutely no cruelty involved in these primate experiments at all," says the Professor. "Well, apart from the slight element of cruelty involved in keeping a lot of bishops in the same place in each other's company. I suppose that's a bit like locking up 20 cockerels in the same place with no hens.

"One of the things about bishops is that, like cockerels, they like to think they are the only one. They each have their own kingdom. And it's hard to feel powerful when you're surrounded by your peers. So there's a certain tension in an all-primate gathering. But cruelty? I don't think so."

Is that what he is researching at the primate research centre? The effect of power on highly promoted clergymen?

"Well, among other things," says the Prof. "Bishops are a fascinating field of study for the operation of power. When someone enters the ministry he is, in effect, saying: 'I am a good person and I shall try to serve God humbly.' If he is promoted, he finds himself with more and more power, and by the time he is a bishop he is bossing around a whole diocese, and casting ambitious eyes on an archbishop's throne. So a person who orginally was chosen for his humility and was a bit of a saint now has to show leadership powers and be a bit of a bastard."

Hmmm. But presumably by the time they become bishops, they are adept at disguising their ruthlessness?

"Oh, yes. That is one of the things we are researching - just how their holy demeanour can conceal earthly ambition. But we go deeper than that. We are doing research into whether bishops really have souls, whether goodness can be transmitted genetically, what percentage of bishops are homosexual, what effect it has on a man to dress up in purple robes for the day job, things like that."

And have they found a gene for goodness yet? And if they did, wouldn't that rather undermine the whole idea of Christianity, which depends on people choosing to be good, not inheriting it?

"Good question," says the Prof. "In fact, too good. Ask me another."

OK. How many primates here are homosexual?

"Officially, none. In fact, a few are, but won't admit it to their colleagues. And a few others are, but won't admit it to themselves. Of course, it would be totally illogical if no primates were gay. Statistics show that in any human group, about 10 per cent will be bisexual or homosexual. Why should primates be different?"

Well, isn't that a bit like saying that the proportion of Christians in any human group should be the same as the proportion of Christians in a group of primates?

"Yes. And oddly enough, it IS about the same. Not all bishops are Christians, by any manner of means. Becoming a servant of God does not guarantee you against losing your faith in God. But if you are a bishop who has lost his faith, it is very difficult for you to resign, as you are not qualified for any other kind of work, and anyway, it's rather nice having a palace..."

Just then there is some shouting outside his window. We go to take a look. Outside, there is a small crowd chanting and waving banners reading: "Cruelty To Primates!" and "Let Our Bishops Go!"

"So it's started, has it?" says Dyson grimly. "We'll see about that." He speaks into an intercom. "Calling All Bishops! All Bishops To South Entrance To Disperse Unbelievers!"

A moment later, a squad of men dressed in flowing purple robes has swarmed out of the building and is driving off the protesters - somewhat brutally, to my eye.

"Never cross swords with a primate," says Dyson, smiling. "Remember that and you won't go far wrong."