Tuesday, October 25, 2016
Proud man or angry ape?
Do humanity's fantastic tricks make the angels weep or Darwin laugh?
What did a 29-stone gorilla do when he escaped his London zoo enclosure? He hit the juice boxes. The silverback guzzled five litres of undiluted blackcurrant squash before being sedated and put back in his cell. It might be behaviour worth of an unruly toddler, but primates fascinate us. Another of our evolutionary forebears, an orang-utan, stole the headlines this week after being snapped hunting for figs in the jungle of Borneo.
As it happens, I’ve been to another part of that jungle and seen orang-utans there. While visiting a friend in Jakarta after university, we took a boat trip down a river in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). The first day was spent listening to the sounds of chainsaws as the rainforest was hacked down around us. On the third day, we turned up a smaller tributary
A protective mother Orangutan shoos away a wild boar with a stick in Borneo CREDIT: YULIA SUNDUKOVA/ YULIA SUNDUKOVA
Why? I asked our guide. It turned out that much of the river was downstream from a goldmine, which regularly dumped its waste into the waters, turning it cloudy. We’d finally reached an unpolluted part of the watercourse. The orang-utans were strange and interesting – swinging and falling their way from tree to tree in a movement both athletic and lumbering.
During the sunset boat ride back, I looked up into the trees and was astonished to find them filled with dozens of monkeys, visible as far as I could see along the river. They weren’t chattering and fighting, but sitting peacefully in little groups on the longest branches overlooking the water, their long, bluish tails hanging below them as they gazed into the dusk.
Male western lowland gorilla; London Zoo’s Kumbuka CREDIT: HEATHCLIFF O'MALLEY
Food: Fruit, supplemented with grubs
Habitat: West Africa, centred around Gabon, Guinea and the Republic of the Congo
Size: (male) 5' 1" tall, 25st.; (female) 4' 5" tall, 12st. 12lbs
Conservation status: Critically endangered, with about 170,000 individuals worldwide
Chief threats: Ebola, poaching and deforestation
Notable western gorillas: Koko, Harambe, Guy (immortalised as a statue at London Zoo)
Monkeys, we were told this week, can produce stone tools that archaeologists had, until now, always credited exclusively to humans. The monkeys don’t actually use the tools, but make them as a by-product of smashing rocks whose dust they like to eat. This humanlike behaviour by primates has thrown into doubt widely accepted tenets of evolutionary science.
This keeps happening. Some years ago, geneticists at the Harvard/MIT Broad Institute (one of whom, I should disclose, is my brother-in-law, David Reich) discovered DNA evidence suggesting human and chimp ancestors might have interbred for thousands of years. This challenged the idea that humans and chimps split off from each other cleanly on different evolutionary tracks, as had been previously assumed.
A few years after that, another genetic study by the same scientists further challenged our idea of Homo Sapiens as uniquely clever beasts. The data suggested that, after moving out of Africa and coming across Neanderthals, humans had interbred with them too. And there’s a growing body of evidence that Neanderthals weren’t the dumb, grunting creatures of Hollywood lore, but were capable of conceptual thought and possibly even religious rituals involving mysterious piles of stalactites.
Our surprise at these discoveries just goes to show how attached we are to the myths of creationism, even if we think we’re modern. Darwin’s theory has been accepted in the West, but we keeping searching for that moment, that line in the sand, when humans stopped being animals and became instead that special creature made in God’s image. Was it with the appearance on earth of a strange alien monolith that apes suddenly picked up and used tools, as Stanley Kubrick imagined in 2001? Was it when we finally stood fully upright and donned loincloths? Was it when we invented sponge cake?
Or perhaps evolution isn’t a linear, teleological story, but a messy, chaotic process full of dead-ends, switchbacks and lulls, arriving at the modern juice-swilling gorilla and his cousin, the juice-guzzling toddler. Humans are unique, of course, but only in being a particularly advanced breed of animal. I find it helpful to remember that when I witness the strange, imitative mating rituals of the flirting couple, the prowling, chest-thrusting postures of the presidential candidate or the vicious squabbling of young children. The wonder is not how far we’ve come. The wonder is how savage we still are.