by Ursula Goodenough
I did an interview a while back during which I made the point that, biologically, human beings are apes. A few days later, I called the interviewer to ask how the article was going.
She paused and then said, "Promise you won't laugh?"
"Well," she said, "I thought I was really sophisticated about these things, but when I went home after our interview I found myself sobbing in my husband's arms in the deep realization that I'm an ape. An ape!" And she proceeded to describe the anguish she was experiencing in coming to grips with this understanding.
I'm happy to report that she recovered and indeed came to embrace the notion. But it haunted me. Why is it that so many humans find this concept so distressing?
Well, I figured, maybe a lot of the problem is how we feel about apes. Where does that come from?
The answer, of course, has much to do with familiarity. When apes are foreign entities behind zoo bars or photographed with telephoto lenses from SUV's, it's pretty easy to develop a sense that they are other. This is particularly the case in childhood, when most of our biases are engendered. "Stop doing that! You're acting like a chimpanzee!" Not to mention what children might be told along these lines in Sunday School.
So I oversaw production of a children's book, the goal being to nurture a child's love for bonobo apes and hence embrace and identify with their own ape-selves.
We used a series of splendid close-up photographs, taken by Marian Brickner, that depict two young bonobo half-siblings, Lucy and Kaleb, who live at the zoo in Jacksonville, Fla. with their mothers and an aunt. The story, by writer Mathea Levine (full disclosure: my daughter), was told in the first person.
"Hi," the book begins, with a stunning Lucy looking straight at you and holding out her hand. "My name is Lucy. I'm a bonobo. I'm a whole lot like a chimpanzee and a lot like you."
We mocked it up, obtained an impassioned Forward from Jane Goodall and sent it out to some publishing houses. In each case, they expressed interest but, we were told, major changes would be needed.
One editor, for example, wanted the inclusion of information about Africa ("when we swing on ropes it's like swinging on liana vines") so the book would have an "educational component" to encourage schools to use it.
But the most telling rejection, and indeed the last straw, was the editor who wanted it all to be in the third person.
"This is Lucy. She's a bonobo. She's a whole lot like a chimpanzee." And, perhaps needless to say, the "she's a lot like you" line would have to go.
So we gave up and found the resources to produce a very classy book with the original first-person text intact. It's called I'm Lucy: A Day in the Life of a Young Bonobo and it's available here, where any profits (none yet!) will go to the wonderful Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI).
Our proximate goal was to nurture a child's love for apes and hence for his or her ape-self, but our long-term goal was and is to foster planetary concern for the survival of bonobos (and indeed all great apes) in their native habitats. This entails, of course, conserving these native habitats, which turn out to be rich in timber and other so-called "human resources." Both the apes and the habitats are terrifyingly endangered. Hence it will be both complex and daunting to do what needs to be done to keep them with us, requiring the kind of commitment that best bubbles up. and perhaps only bubbles up, with love.