Understanding Our Inner Ape

A chip being laid to rest. i i

hide captionAt Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Centre, Dorothy passed away amongst her adopted family of chimpanzees.  Here, it is evident that they are mourning her.

Monica Szczupider/National Geographic
A chip being laid to rest.

At Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Centre, Dorothy passed away amongst her adopted family of chimpanzees.  Here, it is evident that they are mourning her.

Monica Szczupider/National Geographic

This photograph, courtesy of photographer Monica Szczupider and National Geographic, has haunted me for weeks, not only for what it tells us about chimpanzees but also for what it tells us about us.

In the foreground is Dorothy, a chimpanzee in her late 40’s who died of heart failure. Her human caregivers at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center in Cameroon prepared her for burial and wheeled her passed the enclosure housing other chimpazees in the group.

They immediately assembled at the fence, their faces etched with grief as they held one another. They also fell into silence — highly unusual for a group of chimpanzees — as the procession passed and watched as she was lowered into the ground.

Bouboule, an adolescent male whom Dorothy adopted and raised, is shown at the funeral here, where his sorrow is as palpable as the sorrow of the human villagers pictured at the ceremony.

Prior to her rescue, Dorothy had for decades been chained by her neck at an “amusement” park, where visitors were particularly amused by her addiction to cigarettes and threw butts into her cage. Once at the center, and despite a lifetime of abuse, she became a respected and beloved elder. She died in the presence of her best friend Nama, who sat close by, touching her gently and not wanting to leave her side. Jacky, the alpha male of the group, “fell on his back and screamed in distress until he finally accepted the comfort of some of the others.”

A front-page story in the New York Times this week summarizes the careful documentation of chimpanzee warfare in Uganda wherein, over a 10-year period, males in a large community carried out “raids” into a contiguous region, killing 18 non-group members and eventually expanding their territory.

Meanwhile, in a wonderful NPR Diane Rehm show a few weeks ago, guests describe the peaceable communal habits of the endangered bonobo apes living in the Congo, whose social structure is markedly different from the chimpanzee even though the two lineages diverged only 800,00 years ago.

So what does all this say about us humans? Researchers are appropriately cautious about drawing conclusions given how little is yet understood. But the more we learn about the non-human great apes, with whom we share most recent common ancestry some five to six million years ago, the more we come to recognize features of our own nature.

Returning to the photograph of the funeral, we witness first-hand the kind of deep love that chimpanzees develop for one another, a wake-up call to those who would posit that humans have somehow been endowed with novel capacities along this axis.

As Frans de Waal lifts up in his splendid book, Our Inner Ape, our language-based brains afford us with distinctive modes of cognition, but our inherent ape-ness is something we are called to both understand and honor, generating the attendant sense that preservation of ape habitats represents something along the lines of a commandment.

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