Free the chimps!

Our primate cousins have just had their worst week ever. But they have a lot to teach Wall Street and Obama about setting our country right.

Published March 2, 2009 11:22AM (EST)

It's been a rough 10 days for chimps. First of all, the comic, lovable humanoid no longer seems to qualify for such adjectives in the wake of the Stamford, Conn., tragedy in which a pet chimpanzee named Travis was shot dead by police after severely mauling a friend of his owner. The famous primate also took a hit when the New York Post ran an idiotic cartoon alluding to the tragic attack that implicitly likened President Obama to a chimp.

The fallout from these events isn't all bad. Congress is moving to clamp down on selling primates as pets, and the furor about the Post's cartoon has administered a booster shot against racism to the body politic. But unfortunately both incidents have reinforced the anti-Darwin crowd's antique argument that apes are so far removed from and beneath us that comparing a person to them ranks among the greatest of insults.

Our primate cousins and forebears deserve better, not just in the way we treat them, but in how we think about them. That's a tall order, though, given our long custom of anthropomorphizing them in the service of dubious causes.

Religious and political conservatives are particularly fond of the primatological put-down -- remember cheese-eating surrender monkeys? At the Scopes monkey trial in 1925, William Jennings Bryan sarcastically lamented that according to Darwin, man was descended "not even from American monkeys, but from old world monkeys." In a famous 1860 debate on evolution, Bishop "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce sought to deck T.H. Huxley by asking him, with a withering smile, whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey.

Of course, the left goes in for simian dissing too -- picturing George W. Bush as a monkey practically constitutes an entire genre of political lampooning.

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.

And the duplicity of a female chimp named Puist would make a juicy anecdote for the society pages: Taking umbrage at younger female, she lured the foolish young thing to come close with a show of friendship, then grabbed her and gave her a bite to remember.

Unlike some Darwinians, de Waal doesn't push his analogies too far, and he doesn't posit that people are just naked apes with clothes and credit cards -- evolution has done a lot of tinkering with our kind since hominid brain size took off like a rocket 4 million years ago. Indeed, he notes, human social skills are far beyond the ken of apes. As the recent Connecticut tragedy has made terribly clear, there is no such thing as a domesticated nonhuman primate, despite the fact that the incident's rampaging 14-year-old chimp was used to eating lobster at the table, wearing human clothes and watching TV. On the other hand, mass executions would be utterly incomprehensible to chimps. And waging war on another band of chimps because its alpha male happened to be the mother of all blusterers would be unthinkable.

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.

This isn't news to students of Darwin. In "The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex," he delineated the origins of our social instincts with arresting examples of animals behaving like lovable Disney characters, such as a female baboon that not only adopted monkeys of other species, but stole young dogs and cats and carried them about.

During most of the past 50 years, however, pop primatology has been dominated by the idea that we evolved from "killer apes," hence inherited hearts of darkness from our primate ancestors. Jane Goodall, among others, brought to light shocking instances of violence among chimps in the wild. (It's hard to imagine that anyone familiar with the primatology literature would keep a chimp as a pet, much less dress one up in clothes and offer him lobster at the dinner table.) While not denying this side of our evolutionary heritage, de Waal shows that traits we classify under headings such as compassion and Christian charity -- long considered the most unassailable evidence that humans are radically different from animals -- have apish roots too.

De Waal's observations on coalitions and power in the primate world are especially trenchant -- his works should be required reading for politicians (and political cartoonists). Shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, he was invited to a Washington think tank to discuss what America should do as the sole superpower; the meeting's premise was that the U.S. had free rein to do pretty much as it pleased on the world stage. His iconoclastic message to the group came right out of chimps' playbook: Strength is weakness.

A telling anecdote involving Yeroen, the wily old chimp, shows why. When faced with the choice of allying himself with Luit, the strongest, dominant male in his chimp colony, or with Luit's closest rival, Nikkie, Yeroen chose the latter. Yeroen then helped Nikkie displace Luit as alpha male. That left Nikkie heavily indebted to Yeroen, who became the young alpha's puppet master, a far more powerful position than the aged manipulator would have had as Luit's right-hand chimp. The upshot was that Luit had arrogated too much power to himself, for as the colony's sole superpower, he became the leading target for gang-forming alpha wannabes. Coalition-building is everything in the chimp world, where the unilateral exercise of power is insanely dangerous. In the end, the mighty Luit was murdered in the night by Nikkie and Yeroen.

In recent years, Luit's story seemed urgently pertinent as the Bush administration compiled the second worst foreign policy record of any U.S. president, according to C-SPAN's recent Historians Presidential Leadership Survey. (For some reason, W. was judged superior to William Henry Harrison, who died of pneumonia after only a month in office.) But other de Waal nuggets now seem more relevant, particularly those that bear on how the socioeconomic pendulum has swung ever more forcefully toward competitive self-aggrandizement -- most visibly at Wall Street investment banks -- and away from cohesion.

In a provocative 2003 study titled "Monkeys reject unequal pay," de Waal and a colleague showed that nonhuman primates have a sense of fair play, and that violating it makes them uncooperative. The researchers taught capuchin monkeys to exchange small pebbles for pieces of cucumber. Working with pairs of female monkeys, the scientists sometimes gave one of the animals a grape, which are much yummier to capuchins than cucumbers, in the pebble-trading game. When the other monkey saw she was getting a raw deal for her pebble -- the usual cucumber -- she went on strike, and sometimes even threw her cucumber piece on the floor.

De Waal subsequently showed that chimps similarly reject unequal pay, and in another follow-up study demonstrated that the greater the effort that monkeys must expend to get food rewards, the more negatively they react when the rewards are unequal. De Waal and other scientists have also shown that when primates must cooperate to get food, as they do when hunting in groups, greater sharing of the rewards increases cooperation, which boosts the chance of success and the gains for all the members of the group. Again, de Waal is careful not to push his data too hard -- primates have a prototypical sense of fairness and enlightened self-interest, he has noted, not the full human thing.

Still, the rise of the obscenely overpaid executive has given us our own version of de Waal's socially disruptive game, undermining the cohesiveness that has always been America's great strength during crises. President Obama's recent blunt words about the trend appeal strongly to our inner primates, and his effort to stem the socially toxic trend toward economic inequality initiated during the Reagan administration represents a vitally important part of his agenda. Even crafty old Yeroen would never dream of using his power to amass a superabundance of food (or female consorts, the male chimp's idea of true wealth) -- a move that would precipitate chaos in his group.

So while it's important that we forgo the simple-minded anthropomorphism that inspires keeping primates as pets, let's not get unreal about it -- they have more to say to us than many people would like to admit. And the next time you see a cartoon trying to demean someone by comparing him to a chimp, consider this: If more of our own alpha males were as attuned as their primate counterparts to "the basic solidarity that makes life bearable," as de Waal puts it, we might pull together and get out of the current mess a lot faster than we otherwise would.

By David Stipp

David Stipp is a freelance science writer in Boston.

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