Chimp Lessons, part 1

Let us begin with a recitation of the litany of "us":
  • 13.8 billion years ago the universe began.
  • 4.6 billion years ago, in the last third of the universe’s lifespan, our sun formed, and within about 60 million years, the Earth.
  • 3.5 billion years ago, a billion years after our Earth formed, life on Earth began.
  • 2 billion years ago, after a billion and a half years of prokaryotic life, eukaryotes (cells with a distinct nucleus) appeared when symbiotically linked prokaryotic cells fused into one organism.
  • 800 million years ago, some eukaryotes developed into the first animal.
  • 535 million years ago, within the last 4 percent of the age of the universe, some animals developed into the first vertebrates.
  • 200 million years ago, some vertebrates developed into the first mammals.
  • 60 million years ago, some mammals developed into the first primates.
  • 25 million years ago, some primates developed into the first hominoids (apes).
  • 20 million years ago, the hominoids split into the hominids (great apes) and the gibbons.
  • 17 million years ago, the hominids split into the homininae and the ponginae (orangutans).
  • 10 million years ago, the homininae split into the hominins and the gorillins (gorillas).
  • 6 million years ago, the hominins split into the australopithecines and the panina (chimps and bonobos).
  • About 2 million years ago, some australopithecines developed into the first homo genus. There have been 8 or 10 species of homo, many of them on earth at the same time.
  • 200,000 to 300,000 years ago, one of those homo species became the one called sapiens.
  • 40,000 years ago, homo neanderthalensis, the last non-sapiens homo, went extinct -- though not before interbreeding with homo sapiens enough that today the average human's DNA is 2% neanderthal.
I love recounting this litany of our place in the family of life. I have to re-look-up the numbers every time I assemble this litany. I don't retain all the numbers in memory -- and, besides, the numbers keep getting tweaked as more of the fossil record is revealed, and interpretations of that record rise or fall among scientists. Maybe you won’t remember any of those numbers, but just to hear them and hold them for a moment offers a chance for awe, both humbling and glorifying at the same time. How small we are – and yet how grand the long story that brought us into being.

Consider the period since vertebrate life first appeared on earth – not life, not eukaryotes, not animals, but just the time since vertebrate animals appeared. If we expressed those 535 million years as a single year -- with the first vertebrate animal life appearing the moment of the new year on January 1, and right now being the ball dropping on the end of that year – then the first mammals didn’t appear until August 17 of that year. The first primates weren’t here until November 21. The hominids (the great apes) got here on December 18. The last common ancestor of humans and chimps lived and died on December 27. And humans didn’t show up until about 8:30pm on December 31. That’s us, on the time scale of vertebrate life.

Early homo sapiens probably played a role in the extinction of other homo species, but two other hominin species have, so far, survived humans: chimpanzees and bonobos, both of the genus pan. Outside the regions of the African habitats of chimps and bonobos, human civilization in Europe, Asia, and the Americas unfolded unaware of our closest relatives. Up until the 19th century, Westerners never saw live apes other than humans. As Frans de Waal tells it:
“When the first [nonhuman] apes went on display, no one could believe their eyes. In 1835 a male chimpanzee arrived at London Zoo and was exhibited while clothed in a sailor suit. He was followed by a female orangutan who was put in a dress. Queen Victoria saw the exhibit and was appalled. She couldn’t stand the sight of the[se] apes, calling them painfully and disagreeably human.” (Mama's Last Hug, 17-18)
Charles Darwin also saw the exhibit and also found these apes strikingly human-like, but he was not repulsed by this. “He felt that anyone convinced of human superiority ought to come take a look” (18).

Earlier, I referred to the long story that brought “us” into being, and subsequently said, “that’s us, on the time scale of vertebrate life.” But who is this “us”? That litany of life I conducted offers concentric circles of “us” – us humans, us hominins, us hominids, us hominoids, us primates, us mammals, us vertebrates, us animals, us Terran life forms. It’s all “us.” Sometimes we need a little help remembering that all homo sapiens are us – whatever their class, or color, or gender identity or affectional orientation. Sometimes we need a little help remembering that not only homo sapiens are us.

I trust this will not come to you as painful and disagreeable as it was to Queen Victoria – whose brief observation of Tommy the chimpanzee revealed only a tiny sliver of what we now understand about chimps, yet revealed more than she was comfortable knowing. I get how being disabused of human specialness can be disconcerting – but it can also be, as it was for Charles Darwin, exhilarating. It offers us new possibilities for connection, opens a door for a larger love – while at the same time, because there are important ways that we hominins differ from each other, offering us lessons in respecting people and beings that aren’t like us.

To accept and embrace kinship while respecting difference – this is the project of making community within our species, and it is the project of making community within our genus (if there were any other extant homo species), within our hominin tribe, our hominid family, our primate order, our mammal class, and our chordate phylum.

Part of respecting differences is knowing that chimps can be dangerous. Frans de Waal writes that
“no human in his right mind would walk into a cage with an adult chimpanzee. Chimpanzees don’t seem large to us, but their muscle strength far exceed ours, and reports of horrific attacks are plentiful.” (14-15)
So the story de Waal tells of two elderly hominins is all the more remarkable. One of them was dutch biologist Jan van Hooff nearly 80 years old. The other was Mama, a female chimp at the Arnhem Zoo Chimpanzee Community, a month shy of 59. The two of them had known each other for over 40 years, but hadn’t seen each other recently when Jan came to visit the dying matriarch of the Arnhem Chimp colony.
“Curled up in a fetal position in her straw nest, Mama doesn’t even look up when Jan, who has boldly entered her night cage, approaches with a few friendly grunts. Those of us who work with [nonhuman] apes, often mimic their typical sounds and gestures: soft grunts are reassuring. When Mama finally does wake up from her slumber, it takes her a second to realize what is going on. But then she expresses immense joy at seeing Jan up close and in the flesh. Her face changes into an ecstatic grin, a much more expansive one than is typical of our species....Half of Mama’s face is a huge smile while she yelps – a soft, high-pitched sound for moments of high emotion. In this case, the emotion is clearly positive because she reaches for Jan’s head while he bends down. She gently strokes his hair, then drapes one of her long arms around his neck to pull him closer. During this embrace, her fingers rhythmically pat the back of his head and neck in a comforting gesture that chimpanzees also use to quiet a whimpering infant. This was typically Mama: she must have sensed Jan’s trepidation about invading her domain, and she was letting him know not to worry. She was happy to see him.” (13-14)
The video of Mama’s last hug is here. Let me know if you get through it with dry eyes. I did not.

If Queen Victoria was disturbed to see Tommy in a sailor suit, what could she have made of this tender encounter?

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