Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Il est deux heures

At the New Yorker, a magically good article about bonobos by Ian Parker.

Of course I'm obsessed with the great apes in any case (at age seven and eight, I was absolutely in thrall to Jane Goodall's In the Shadow of Man, and really believed that when I grew up I was going to be living in Tanzania and spending my days crouched in a tree under some sort of tarp watching chimpanzees through binoculars), but it's pretty much perfect in the writing also.

Here's the intellectual meat, which makes me happy because it shows so clearly why my eight-year-old self would not have been sorry to learn I would be studying the eighteenth century instead of primates:

In 1974, not long after Horn left Africa, Goodall witnessed the start of what she came to call the Four-Year War in Gombe. A chimpanzee population split into two, and, over time, one group wiped out the other, in gory episodes of territorial attack and cannibalism. Chimp aggression was already recognized by science, but chimp warfare was not. “I struggled to come to terms with this new knowledge,” Goodall later wrote. She would wake in the night, haunted by the memory of witnessing a female chimpanzee gorging on the flesh of an infant, “her mouth smeared with blood like some grotesque vampire from the legends of childhood.”

Reports of this behavior found a place in a long-running debate about the fundamentals of human nature—a debate, in short, about whether people were nasty or nice. Were humans savage but for the constructs of civil society (Thomas Hobbes)? Or were they civil but for the corruptions of society (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)? It had not taken warring chimps to suggest some element of biological inheritance in human behavior, including aggression: the case had been made, in its most popular recent form, by Desmond Morris, in “The Naked Ape,” his 1967 best-seller. But if chimpanzees had once pointed the way toward a tetchy but less than menacing common ancestor, they could no longer do so: Goodall had documented bloodlust in our closest relative. According to Richard Wrangham, a primatologist at Harvard and the author, with Dale Peterson, of “Demonic Males” (1996), the Gombe killings “made credible the idea that our warring tendencies go back into our prehuman past. They made us a little less special.”

And here's a bit of the descriptive writing Parker does so well (the article is just packed with lovely details, in the observation as well as in the phrasing):

At the Lui Kotal camp, which Hohmann started five years after being expelled from Lomako, the people who were not tracking apes spent the morning under the Audubon calendar, as the temperature and the humidity rose. Ryan Matthews put out solar panels, to charge a car battery powering a laptop that dispatched e-mail through an uncertain satellite connection. Or, in a storage hut, he arranged precious cans of sardines into a supermarket pyramid. We sometimes heard the sneezelike call of a black mangabey monkey. For lunch, we ate cassava in its local form, a long, cold, gray tube of boiled dough—a single gnocco grown to the size of a dachshund. A radio brought news of gunfire and rocket attacks in Kinshasa: Jean-Pierre Bemba, the defeated opposition candidate in last year’s Presidential elections, had ignored a deadline to disarm his militia, and hundreds had been killed in street fighting. The airport that we had used had been attacked. The Congolese camp members—including, at any time, two bonobo field workers, a cook, an assistant cook, and a fisherman, working on commission—were largely pro-Bemba, or, at least, anti-government, a view expressed at times as nostalgia for the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko. Once, they sang a celebratory Mobutu song that they had learned as schoolchildren.

Bonus links:

I'm a great admirer of William Boyd's novels in general (and if you have ever suffered from insomnia, Armadillo's the must-read!), but Brazzaville Beach is my absolute favorite. It's an extraordinary book, I highly recommend it, and at its core is a set of incidents among chimpanzee groups that's fairly closely based, I think, on the episode Parker alludes to in that first quotation.

I am also a fan of the much-mocked eighteenth-century Scottish jurist and philosopher Lord Monboddo. Almost none of my much-cherished Monboddo material is going to make it into the breeding book, though I have dementedly large collections of notes on his two six-volume contributions to the theory of language and human nature (one reason Monboddo's more mocked than read, I fear, is that his preferred form of publication was so inconvenient--the six volumes on language appeared at more or less irregular intervals between 1773 and 1792, and the wide-ranging Antient Metaphysics between 1779 and 1799).

Monboddo believed that chimpanzees were a kind of human and that humans naturally walked on all fours. (He also believed that some humans had tails, that the closest animal analogue to human society could be found among the beavers, that all exercise should be taken naked, that Egypt’s early rulers were not human beings but “daimons” or minor gods and that the Aristotelian syllogism was more powerful than anything in Locke, Newton or Descartes.)

Anyway, here's a nice bit of Monboddo to conclude:

There are, I know, many, who will think this progress of man, from a quadruped and an Ourang Outang to men such as we see them now a days, very disgraceful to the species. But they should consider their own progress as an individual. In the womb, man is no better than a vegetable; and, when born, he is at first more imperfect, I believe, than any other animal in the same state, wanting almost altogether that comparative faculty, which the brutes, young and old, possess. If, therefore, there be such a progress in the individual, it is not to be wondered that there should be a progress also in the species, from the mere animal up to the intellectual creature...


  1. Come visit the Gorilla families that live near me, just over the border in Uganda! you are welcome.