Primates

Kage Baker didn’t like most humans very much. But she didn’t like most animals, either.

The curious thing about her generalized dislike is that it led her to a wider recognition of sentience, emotions, intellect – humanity – than most people develop. Maybe it was being a science fiction writer, whose tendencies  favour a more experimental view of what constitutes “people”. Maybe it was the Asperger’s, which really makes one work at defining human in the first place. Maybe it was just hyper-critical Kage, who never took a revealed  truth for granted until she’d analyzed it herself.

She especially didn’t like primates – the larger ones, particularly; the more they looked like human beings, the less she could stand them. We always had to avoid the ape displays in zoos, unless it was for some of the tiny little guys that look like evolved cats – tamarins, marmosets. The clever hands were cute – the humanoid faces gave her the horrors. There is nothing so disturbing as something that looks almost human.

And, let’s face it, most of our relatives act like us. Which is not too attractive a set of behaviours.

Oddly enough, gorillas were pretty much acceptable – perhaps because they don’t look or act as much like us as chimps do. They are honestly a little alien. They have an innate slowness, thoughtfulness and steadiness that is not apparent in either chimpanzees or humans; maybe because they are basically herbivores. Maybe they just pursued some quieter intellectual pathway than anything the more hysterical members of the family – that would be us and chimps – bothered to explore. She was horrified at the plight and fate of gorillas, but not by the creatures themselves.

But Kage couldn’t stand chimpanzees. She thought they were downright horrible. Until she began to research them …

For a story called “Hanuman”, she decided to find out all she could about chimpanzee society. It’s a fool these days who denies they have societies, even culture; the information compiled over the last 30 years or so makes it very plain that there is a lot going on under those hairy foreheads. Kage encountered this information with very few preconceptions, due to her lack of previous interest. She studied  intently; she pursued the articles on communication, ritual behaviour, tool-making, mental illness, child care … she finished with The Chimpanzees of Gombe, figuring that Dr. Goodall would be both the most scholarly and the least objective.

When she was done, she looked up and said, “Jesus, these are people.”

And that was how she wrote about them. Also how she spoke of them hereafter; how she regarded them. She continued to collect information, to study and learn about chimpanzees. She came to the conclusion that they were getting a rotten deal from us, that Homo sapiens was committing a dreadful sin in its treatment of Pan troglodytes and that someday we’d have a huge debt to pay off.

It wasn’t anthropomorphism – I think Kage had trouble anthropomorphising humans. But she had no difficulty at all in recognizing sentience when it bit her on the nose, as it were. She became convinced, as the goal posts kept moving all over the field with desperate scientists in pursuit, that there was a lot more to intelligence than the cut and dried definition of Man. Darwin commented that he felt the intelligence of non-humans was a difference not of kind, but of quality – that animals’ minds worked just like ours, but not with the wattage we exhibit.

Mr. Darwin has proven to be, in this as in so much else, essentially correct. Test after study after article has shown – in all animals, but especially in primates – that while we might be the only 8-cylinder mental engines, everyone else is still using the same model we are. We can even see how a tune-up might increase the power available to our closest relatives.

I was brought to recalling this by a spate of recent articles like this one:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/09/science/09chimp.html?_r=1

And this one:

http://io9.com/5830123/chimp-and-human-brains-are-even-more-alike-than-we-thought

Also, by the fact that I have to re-read “Hanuman” today – which was the pivot point of Kage’s change of attitude. And the fact that a new Planet of the Apes movie is out. I have watched them all so far. I read the Boulle novel when I was 12, and have loved the ideas ever since. Kage finally read it too, when this new view of our cousins burst on her – it contributed to the weight of her final observation, horrified and astonished as it was. It’s how I’ve always felt, too:

“Jesus, these are people.”

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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5 Responses to Primates

  1. Margaret says:

    Years ago, there was an old, male orangutan at the Bronx Zoo who looked at the human primates on the other side of his moat with such a calm, Margaret-Mead-like expression when they were jumping up and down and yelling ‘Monkey, monkey, look at me!’ Then he’d lie down with his legs up the wall and return to stretching a big rubber band on his fingers, then his toes. “So boring and unimaginative, these noisy creatures,” When I first read about Sir Terry’s orangutan librarian, I was thus enabled to know exactly what he looked like.

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  2. Kathy says:

    Go read Songs of the Gorilla Nation, a book written by a PhD in animal science, who has high functioning autism and has made a life study of gorillas. She believes, as Darwin did, that we and they share a common ancestor, and that autism/Aspies have some traits of the common ancestor and/or gorillas, such as enjoying nice quiet lives in very small groups, and objecting to loud noises and unexpected eye contact. It’s an intense book, as the author had a very hard life before she figured things out, but really worth reading.

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  3. Kate says:

    Orangutans separated very early from the rest of the early primates, and seem to have retained a quieter frame of mind. They are loners, much more so than any other primates – usually intimate only with their immediate families. Gorillas seem to have separated next – still quiet, but happy in groups. Chimps and human apparently continued along together until fairly recently, and somewhere along the way they all developed this tendency toward being thugs … that was Kage’s theory, anyway. Chimps are among the few animals as nasty as we are. And they’re nasty in the same ways as us.

    Orangutans, though – very cool folks. I love Terry Pratchett’s treatment of the librarian, whom he never tries to portray as a man in a monkey suit. The Librarian is a happy, well-adjusted orangutan.

    Kathy – folks along the autistic spectrum often seem to have a deep sympathy with other animals. Songs of the Gorilla Nation is a wonderful book. Temple Grandin’s work is also tremendously sensitive and fascinating.

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  4. Margaret says:

    One could also make a case for gibbons being more closely related to us behaviorally than they are genetically. They’re so beautiful and graceful when they’re brachiating efortlessly from tree to tree and have those sweet little fuzzy faces – then I found out that they spend a great deal of their time shrieking at their neighbors in defense of territory, and shoving their teenage offspring out of the family group. Very hominid.

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  5. Kate says:

    Gibbons, too, split off quite a while ago – apparently before that group consciousness thing came into vogue. They are positively anti-social! There’s no doubt they are our cousins, though!

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