In a just world, primates would get equal time to refute the bad rap that’s implicit in such put-downs. This isn’t a just planet, of course, but the books of Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal go quite a ways toward setting the record straight. You can’t read them without noticing how faithfully the people around you are imitating the animals de Waal has studied for three decades — chimps and their close relatives, bonobos — in ways that illuminate how admirable and complex the apes really are.
In his 2005 book, “Our Inner Ape,” he tells the story of a bonobo named Kuni, who picked up a starling that had crashed in her enclosure at a British zoo, carried it up a tree, gently spread its wings, and then launched it like a toy airplane. When the still-stunned bird fluttered to the ground nearby, she protected it from curious juvenile bonobos until it recovered and flew off.
De Waal’s yarn about a Machiavellian, older chimp named Yeroen should have a Washington, D.C., dateline: Yeroen helped Nikkie, a bullying simpleton, become the alpha male, then manipulated the big dope like a puppet to get what he wanted.
De Waal’s nuanced, overarching theme is that both our angelic and demonic sides are rooted in behavior patterns that are readily observable in powermongering chimps and make-love-not-war bonobos. (Known for managing social tension by continually engaging in all manner of sex acts, bonobos are the free-loving “hippies of the primate world,” he says.) The full, rich mix of our inner selves and outer behaviors — ruthlessness and empathy, selfishness and sharing, male competition and powerful female alliances — apparently arose in prototypical form long before Homo sapiens came forth.
Modern people love to misuse approximations. “It’s almost like that other thing, therefore, we should treat it as if it were,” when it’s convenient for them.
When we face the apes, we see almost-like-but-not-quite, and it unnerves us, I think. We all know how far a fall down the evolutionary ladder it would be, whether ten percent or one percent of our DNA is different (thanks to SNPs and movable structures in the DNA, it’s probably much larger). We also all know, unsettlingly, that we’re still not so far removed that we cannot see our failures in the apes.
I once owned mice and was surprise to find out that they recognized each other, even after several weeks’ absence, and were glad to see each other again (we had to separate breeding females from the rest, in addition to separating males from females). Every creature has personality and a capacity for kindness.
What makes humans different is that we can recognize our thoughts as distinct from the world and create our own map of reality. Further, we have evolved in civilization and with tools, so our brains are shaped to use those. At least, those of us who did evolve in civilization have.
If we are to treat ethnicity as clinal, as some “experts” say we should, I think we should treat species the same way as well. In fact, with our small DNA differences, it’s possible we can even breed with some apes. So maybe we should assess each person as a certain percentage of monkey based on their behavior.
While that’s not very PC, I noticed a gentleman driving yesterday who I would guess was 54% monkey. He was in a large pickup truck, on the phone, wearing a hat and had an Obama/Biden sticker on the truck. Predictably, for someone so narcissistic and thus oblivious to the world around him, he was ambling down the left lane at a right lane place and, when he discovered people passing him, made the most abrupt and unplanned lane change I may have ever seen.
Maybe DNA analysis will enable us to rank people by how monkey they are, and send the monkey-people away from those who might constitute the next evolutionary level of not just our species but all apes.