Saturday, March 7, 2009

Something Wild?

When I spent a few misused months reading about serial killers, I often noticed that the common refrain from those interviewed was that the killer was such a nice person, though a bit odd. Seemed so much like us but not quite "all there," etc. There is a subtle link here between this fascination that we humans have with our own dispositions toward certain types of social behavior, and how we tend to see the creatures that share many of our social habits and genetic makeup --- from altruism and compassion to killing and ruling.
So it was interesting that Charles Siebert touched on some of these issues in his piece on human attempts to anthropomophize great apes.
"Something Wild" by Charles Siebert, New York Times
It is a good article, and it will be interesting to read Siebert's forthcoming book.
Of course, anthropomorphizing an animal is quite an old habit for humans. Take a look again at any of the cave paintings left by some of our ancestors while resisting the need to read them in spiritual or religious terms as we understand such ideas now. We can anthropomorphize apes precisely because they are so like us, and because we are embarrassed by what we are, we tend to attempt to change them rather than see that many of our behaviors are just as brutal, if not more so because of the massive scale at which we go about killing each other as well as other forms of life. So one way of saying that "we were never really so bad" or that "All the good things were there from the beginning" is to force apes to be human in the sense that we misunderstand what it means to be human.
As I have often noted in my studies, the views that we have of apes today are remarkable similar to the views that we held of slaves in the past. And the uses we put apes to today, as well as our justifications for such barbarity, are justified by language quite similar to that used to justify the treatment of slaves, whether that treatment came from "benevolent masters" or the worst of the slavers. But as Darwin noted, the slave reminds the master of the master's inhumanity.
It is precisely because they are so like us and yet so different that some humans want to make them human (aka "civilized"), as though civilization has only given us the good stuff.
A couple excerpts:

Chimps are, like us, given to occasional violent outbursts, but they have exponentially greater strength. Chimps also have, like us, minds enough to lose and memories that can hasten the process. Wild chimps “recruited” by poachers for entertainment watch as their mothers are gunned down — the only way a chimp mother would ever relinquish a child. Chimps born in captivity are spared that experience, but they suffer the same premature separation from their mothers, isolation from their normal social groups and often mistreatment from trainers and keepers, all traumatic events that have been shown to cause deep psychological scarring and, as in human beings, can lead an animal to overreact to the slightest stimuli: the look in someone’s eye, the color of someone’s hair or, as with Ms. Herold’s friend that day, hair done up in an unaccustomed style. These are, in short, deeply conflicted beings, evolutionary anomalies that only we could have created: chimps with names and yet no recollection of trees.

Lucy, Travis and all the others died for the same reason that Tulp couldn’t draw the actual being seated before him: our ongoing inability to see animals outside our own fraught frame of reference. The chimp that Tulp, in fear of science, preserved as a mythic human, Temerlin tried to make a human, in science’s name. Lost in the shuffle of either agenda were the animals themselves, creatures we still can’t regard and respect for what they are and just leave alone.