Memoirs of a Superfan, Vol. 11.1
A Most Chimpathic Year
The beauty of the Lunar Zodiac is that it brings us affinity with our animal kin, real and mythological. We live out our years under our animal sign, manifesting their astrological personalities. Each Lunar New Year, one of a dozen naturo-celestial tribes (gendered and in elemental sub-type, according to the Tibetan and other traditions) asserts itself and imbues the year-to-come with its character, its particular je ne sais quoi. Each Lunar New Year, we look ourselves in the mirror, and – what is the opposite of anthropomorphize? – we animalize ourselves into our spirit beings, enlarging and accessorizing our egos with ethological counterparts. But no year is quite like a Monkey Year. No animal is a closer metaphor to us than the ape, no creature a closer cousin. In fact, the monkey is not a metaphor at all, more like a simian-synonym for human being. We belong to an Order including almost 300 discovered species of monkeys, and a Family of hominids with at least six other “great apes” and nine great and not-so-great presidential candidates as of this writing. This Monkey Year, this year of choosing directions for ourselves, our country and world, asks us to consider our relatives even more keenly. Ask not what the Monkey Year can do for you – ask what kind of Monkey you are.
Noted primatologist Frans de Waal puts it this way, in The Bonobo and the Atheist:
“No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives. Just like us, monkeys and apes strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we have computers and airplanes, but our psychological makeup remains that of a social primate.” (p. 16)
We differ primarily in degree, rather than distinction, from our arboreal kin. The other apes use tools and language, are aggressive and empathic, form tribal societies, cooperate and go to war. We are “The Third Chimpanzee”, as Jared Diamond put it in his book by the same name, alongside the other two (bonobos – once called pygmy chimpanzees – and their larger counterparts, chimpanzees). We split from their line about 7 million years ago, and from the lineage that produced gorillas about 10 million years ago. We share about 98.5% of our DNA with chimps and bonobos, and about 97.7% with gorillas. Queen Victoria didn’t need DNA analysis and molecular clocks to tell her of kinship. In 1842, she saw an orangutan at the London Zoo, and pronounced it “frightfully, painfully and disagreeably human.” Darwin soon countered that the monkey was indeed our uncle. Chancellor Disraeli emphatically declared that man was angel, and not ape at all. To the creationists, the deniers of evolution, it was worse than finding out Darth Vader was your father. God, giving Adam life on the Sistine Chapel, was replaced with a Gorilla. Humanity’s identity crisis has gone bananas since then, as we amassed research and ruminations, field studies and philosophy. We reflect on these living reflections, our chromosomal comrades, and wonder who we are, who we can be, and to whom we are inescapably bound.
Our species, Homo sapiens, has only walked the Earth for perhaps 100,000 years, and has had civilization for 6,000 years. Only 1,500 generations separate you from the first human, and only 240 generations from our first “society”. We’ve walked a lot longer as apes, and it’s still relevant to ask whether we’re more chimp or bonobo. The chimp has been described as more aggressive. The bonobo is known for a more tender form of conflict-resolution. They make love, not war. De Waal notes that mixing chimpanzee groups leads to violence. “Bonobos…however, produced an orgy instead. They mixed (RC: euphemistically speaking, that is) freely, turning potential enemies into friends.” (p. 65) Male-to-female, female-to-female, and male-to-male, they not only groom each other (as chimps do), but they get that Marvin Gaye feeling for sexual healing. For a bonobo, sex is better than Xanax for soothing ruffled fur, or even just to say hello. In flagrante delicto speramus, for the bonobo, and for the bonobo within. But it’s not just about sex – bonobos are incredibly caring, and even feel guilt and shame for accidentally harming others, sometimes even years after the fact.
To be fair, chimpanzees are very empathic as well. Chimps have been known to care for their sick and frail fellows, and to promote equity by refusing treats until a neighboring chimp gets his treat too. Perhaps that’s out of fear of retaliation, but de Waal makes the case that chimps and bonobos are likely experiencing the same emotions that we do: love, empathy, even compassion. Compare that to capuchins. Give two capuchins cucumber slices, and they’re both happy. But if you give one capuchin a cucumber while his neighbor within sight gets a grape – look out! (Check out this great TED talk by de Waal on moral behavior in animals with great video of the capuchins in action. A capuchin was the Friends monkey…but make sure you’ve got grapes, if you want to stay friends.)
This isn’t too far, of course, from Occupy’s anger at the 1%. The capuchin’s envy is our own, even without Facebook.
What about us? Do we make more love or war? We upright upstarts are the greenest shoot on evolution’s tree, and the first shoot capable of wiping out the tree itself – so this is an extremely important question. In the immortal words of Donny and Marie, “we’re a little bit chimp-y – and we’re a little bit bonobo-o!”
I asked a bonobo-loving friend which presidential candidate she thought was more bonobo. She replied, without hesitation, “they’re all chimps, aren’t they?” Maybe so…running for president seems a very alpha and aggressive thing to do, at least. But family leave and health care read like a bonobo Bill of Rights, although the Right to be Horny tops their list. In order to form a more perfect union, indeed. I’ll ask my friend again in November. But it seems to me that if I share 98.5% of my DNA with bonobos and chimps, I must share even more with Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and all the rest, with minor variations. We are all the 99.99%, of each other. Of course we must choose wisely this fall, but it’s important to keep in mind that our opponents are practically our twins. Yes, you heard it here first: The Donald and I are practically twins. Not all siblings get along, of course. A few receptors, enzymes, morals or dollars can set us on divergent paths. But in the broad view, the long view, we are all one. Our differences don’t have to be speciation events.
We are one with our enemies, we are one with our friends. We are one with our animal relations, mitakuye oyasin. Our lives are continuous with all the natural world, our destinies common, our codes congruent. To know our kinship is to expand our vision and deepen our love, the trait most emphatically shared, most painfully abandoned, and most urgently needed, on this most tender, green branch of the tree of life.
Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! See you at CAAMFest!
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Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. He writes The Pacific Heart blog for Psychology Today. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or best of all, sign up for an occasional newsletter at www.RaviChandraMD.com, and find out about his upcoming book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, and his e-book on Asian American Anger, now available for free download. More CAAMFest MOSF blog posts can be found here and here. You can find his posts about the Snake, Horse, and Ram years as well!