Monday, March 2, 2009

The Ape in the Mirror

When I bought our HDTV after Christmas I decided to throw in a Blu-Ray disc set with the deal so I could see exactly what my PS3 could do with the latest video technology. The Blu-Ray I purchased was a splendid nature series narrated by David Attenborough and produced by the BBC entitled Planet Earth.

Each episode is filled with incredible photography and surprising information about our precious habitat on this pale blue dot of a home. What the viewer sees is often beautiful but sometimes it can be terrible as well. Nature does feed off nature, after all.

At the conclusion of the episode on "Jungles" there is a segment that made a tremendous impression on me. In the rain forests of Uganda, we saw a group of 150 male chimpanzees organize themselves and attack a neighboring territory. Their object was to drive the native chimps out and overtake their feeding grounds. Several were killed in the successful attack. Among the dead was an infant, its frail, limp body passed around from chimp to victorious chimp and eaten - almost ceremoniously - down to the skeleton after the battle was over.

I was shocked and amazed. I have never seen anything more "human" in the animal kingdom before.

As we were watching the attack I kept saying to Jennifer over and over: "This is just like 2001! The Dawn of Man! This is just like the way 2001 begins!"

And so it is. Apes fighting over control of scarce resources due primarily (we think) to the pressures of localized overpopulation.

Sound familiar? Not only is this exactly the way Kubrick chose to begin his magnificent film, it is precisely what we have observed in many primitive human tribes faced with similar situations.

Researching the topic after the episode I discovered that anthropologists and primate experts have been studying this behavior for a number of years. There is an intense disagreement about what it means and about what - if anything - it might suggest about the origins of war in humanity.

Pacifistic scientists are inclined to see the events as isolated incidents and certainly attributable to the need for resources due in no small measure to the encroachment of human development. They argue that there are important examples of cooperation among the chimpanzees as well (though I'm not sure this is between groups). Less apologetic scientists see it as a reflection of a deep-seated aggressiveness in higher forms of conscious culture.


No less a primate specialist than Jane Goodall has made note of a "four year war" among the primates of Gombe.

For me, nothing seems to adequately explain the cannibalism of infants captured and killed in such attacks, however. There is no "necessity" in this act. It seems to me to be entirely cultural, suited to an unstated need in the psychology of the chimpanzees themselves.

I am someone who believes war has always been with us. That war is as natural an expression of our humanity as, say, belief in deities or our need for love. Our expressed violence is a deeply rooted, possibly genetic, part of who we have been for countless generations.

Whether the chimpanzees of Uganda consciously choose to kill another group for the sake of killing or whether they do it out of a instinctual need to meet their basic needs for food and territory, the act of killing becomes something they come to know. And that knowledge cannot help but affect the culture of the group as it continues to struggle for existence.

To some degree it defines who they are.

I could pose the same questions about humanity. Surely, we are at the point where we can consciously choose not to go to war. We can negotiate. We can find other means not available to the chimps. But does that elevated awareness clearly possess any kind of ethical or moral high ground over the fact that almost everything about human history has been warlike?

Rational minds, we like to think, can reason through the need for war. But that has not been the case in the history of western civilization since the Enlightenment. Our wars, if not more numerous, have taken on unprecedented levels of death and destruction thanks to the inventions of rational minds.

Diplomacy and atomic bombs are all alien to the chimpanzee, but both are products of who humanity is. We reason among ourselves but we also pull the trigger.

Perhaps what we see in these Ugandan chimps is not the tragic behavior of an isolated group of primates. Perhaps it is a mirror in which we see not the savage beast of some irrational lesser evolved creature. Rather, it could be the familiar face of the highest primate of all - the one that sings and dances and makes policies of "preemptive wars" in the name of protecting a perceived, mythic liberty.

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