Monday, 13 May 2013

How human are you?

A Beautiful Truth, by Colin McAdam

What does it even mean to be human?  Anthropologists used to claim that using tools is what separated man from beast.  When a variety of species were discovered using tools, that claim was abandoned.  Every time a squirrel aims a rock at me in my back yard, I think of that old claim, almost wishing it were true.
Next came the claim that only humans use language.  Now we hear that birds sing in different accents in different locales, whales communicate in complex ways, and chimpanzees who have been taught sign language and symbols use both with a fair amount of dexterity.

In A Beautiful Truth a childless couple adapt an infant chimpanzee who has been brutally imported from Africa.  They raise it as they would have their own child.  Initially he sleeps in their bed, wears diapers, and wins their hearts.  They are enamored by its people fingers, and people eyes.  One of the characters reflects on the amount of similar DNA that chimps share with humans.  A white eyed vireo and a red eyed vireo are apparently further apart in their bird DNA than we humans are from chimps.  This resonates with me.  I have experienced horrifying guilt after an ape locked eyes with me from its cell in a zoo.   

Some readers might think that McAdam stretches the truth a little when he describes Looee, the chimp, behaving in ways that are eerily human.  Yet McAdam did his research.  In his afterward, he lists many sources, including people associated with Lucy Temerlin, a chimp adapted by a couple of researchers in the early 70s.  If anything, McAdam has been restrained in describing Looee’s human behaviors.  He opened the fridge to grab beers for visitors, opening the pull tabs and handing them around, to himself included.  The actual Lucy used to go into the kitchen, put on the kettle, and make tea for visitors, as casually as any host would do.
Interspersed in the chapters describing Looee’s domestic life, are chapters that are initially bewildering and poetic.  Someone is describing something as “galagang”, there is a “plekter-fence”, a squirrel’s little “goon” comes off, and “pokol-people” are about. 

In various chimp researchers’ accounts, it is recorded that chimps not only recognize and understand words and symbols taught to them, they also create their own words.  The famous Lucy named watermelon “candy drink” and onions were “cry-hurt-food”. 
Another ‘human’ behavior shared by chimps is showing disdain for others.  When a chimp raised by humans is introduced to other chimps, creatures she has never seen before, she names them “black bugs”.  Similarly, Looee is aghast when he meets other chimps, and they drink from water bowls, rather than from a glass (or beer can) as he had been raised.  He calls these chimps “dog people”. 
Weirdly enough, I found these passages reassuring.  Not long ago, at my book club, there was discussion about a character who, ironically enough, was labelled ‘despicable’ for looking down on others.  I winced a little, thinking, sheesht, I’m like that too!  When I found out that chimps do it too, I didn’t feel quite so guilty!  Apparently, we come by it honestly.
Another character in this novel, Mr. Ghoul (a name given by the other chimps to the older, wiser, Ghoul) is stressed by a new aggressive and manipulative chimp whom the scientists have thrust into the chimp compound: “Mr. Ghoul would feel drawn as much as obligated to groom Jonathon because awful people are strangely compelling.”

This novel is a heart breaker, but it also illuminates what it is to be human.  As one of the characters states, “We’re apes and we’re doomed not to know it.”

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