Chimping out

By Maralyn Lois Polak

While I’m real pleased the federal government has given $8 million toward building a $14 million rest home in Louisiana to house 300 aging chimpanzees – senior simian refugees from laboratory research, show business and perhaps even politics – still, I’m wondering: Don’t they have room for me?

Thirty million dollars have been set aside for these noble beings who have served their country well, and I would like to become the Shreveport sanctuary’s Jane Goodall of Medically Maimed Chimps, observing the minutiae of their daily lives and applying that wisdom to our own.

I simply adore Louisiana.

Just give me a three-room tree-house, some bergamot plants to attract hummingbirds, an unobtrusive digi-cam, an endless supply of Tarzan DVDs showcasing Johnny Weismuller’s voluminous pecs, an MP-3 of Morton Subotnik’s stunning electronic composition, “The Wild Bull,” a few strands of lianas to restrain unwanted visitors … and I will be deliriously happy observing and recording the nuances of chimpanzee behavior.

The New Tribalism. Can’t you just see it on the cover of Time Magazine? And for their first official act, I bet the chimps reinvent Reality TV. That is, before recreating Anna Nicole Smith.


Send my mail care of the Eddie D. Jones Nature Park, and don’t look for me for several days – at least not until my hair gets acclimated to the humid haze that passes for weather down there, my breathing stabilizes amidst the lethal tropical mold, and my velour edgy retroanimal-print jungle wardrobe’s finally in style again.

These are parlous times for Boomers. We have seen our nest-eggs eroded by a capriciously fandangoing stock market, our retirement funds siphoned off to fuel outlandish executive severance schemes, our futures shrouded with bleak prospects of perpetual war from that farrago of fools in charge of our imperious country.

Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

In “Ishmael,” planetary philosopher Daniel Quinn’s prize-winning novel of a decade ago, the eponymous protagonist’s a thousand-pound silverback gorilla, a “student of ecology, life, freedom and the human condition, and also a teacher, teaching what all humans need to learn – must learn – if our species, and the rest of life on Earth as we know it, is to survive.”

“Ishmael” is a teacher-student story with a switch – a kind of interspecies “My Dinner with Andre,” in which a man learns some big global answers from a great ape. At once anthropology, sociology and history, “Ishmael” reminds you of Kafka, Hesse, the Bible and “The Little Prince,” before seizing a direction all its own to become Daniel Quinn’s Gorilla-Gram to a desperately threatened world.

Since the book first emerged, “Ishmael”-inspired communities have been springing up across America, focusing on breaking through to alternative, non-exploitive ways of living that don’t involve “conquest” of nature, domination of other species and pillaging resources.

While it may be fashionable to idealize animals, guess what? Warfare is not uniquely human. Although as recently as 15 years ago, a distinguished cadre of scientists issued the Seville Statement on Violence, postulating war does not occur among other animals, but is almost entirely a product of culture.

How wrong they were.

When anthropologist Richard Wrangham traveled to the rainforests of war-weary Central Africa to investigate the origins of human violence in our closest genetic relatives, he noted, according to Tom Pelton writing in Harvard Magazine, that chimpanzees live in patriarchal groups “in which males regularly rape, beat, kill and sometimes even drink the blood of their own.”

And yet Wrangham’s book, “Demonic Males” (Houghton Mifflin), holds out the hope “humanity could … overcome its 5-million-year rap sheet of murder and war” by creating more peaceful. that is, less aggressive, societies where – don’t faint! – males and females share power.

But here’s the part of Pelton’s Harvard Magazine piece that blew the top of my head off:

Wrangham’s theory is that human civilization would be more civilized if women seized more political power through elections and used it to counterbalance the male instinct to constantly define “enemies” and attack them. To make this advance, however, women must first abandon a tendency they share with female chimpanzees: to reward and select aggressive males as their mates.

“The example of the bonobos reminds us that females and males can be equally important players in a society,” says Wrangham. “And by giving us a model in which female action works in suppressing the excesses of male aggression, the bonobos show us that in democracies like our own, women’s voices should be heard more than they are.”