When I was fourteen I read Desmond Morris “The Killer Ape” [I’m reliably informed Morris wrote The Naked Ape, which if I remember also went on about how violent we were, though maybe not uniquely so. There was however a “The Killer Ape.” I just don’t remember the name of the authors. It’s been 44 years, okay?] and because I was fourteen and virgin of any real history, anthropology and/or psychology, particularly animal psychology (to be fair, so are college graduates in those fields. In fact, college has become a way to cultivate and preserve ignorance and misconceptions, sort of a bell jar over the mind that lets no contrary facts in.)I thought it made a good point.
Since then I’ve read a lot of books about people who observed actual animals, and not only are we not the killer ape, but we have nothing on chimps, who flip on a dime from friendly to stone cold killers and will kill babies in their own pack. In fact, our frenzies, our occasional mob behavior is probably a return to that part of the brain that comes from our deep ancestry.
And yet the idea is still out there that we’re humans because we’re the worst of the worst. For the record, btw, every mammal goes to war. Mostly territorial or subspecies war. I rather suspect some birds might too. It is the way of the animal to defend and expand territory, and yep, mostly for those who are like them/close relations.
Yesterday I came across one of those pages that come up with “news” (if you intend to read only the crazier left, meaning this always annoys the heck out of me) when you bring up firefox. I didn’t read the article, but right there, on top was an article about the ape and the mushroom, according to which we became humans because we ate a lot of magic mushrooms — man! Trippy! — and in my head canon I want you to know every sentence in that articles ends with a variation of “have you ever looked at your hand?”
Like the idea that men were the killer ape, this seems, at best misguided. Anyone who has lived with cats knows that every mammal tends to get stoned given a chance (Well, actually Greebo wasn’t fond of it. Catnip seemed to have no effect on him besides a mild attractant. He loved the catnip rat a friend made for him, but I think because it was a toy his size. The little catnip mice disintegrated under the onslaught of his claws. And Valeria completely ignores catnip. And toys. She’s a little, broken cat. We won’t talk about Havey, though.) We know that apes eat fermented fruit full of alcohol. I very much doubt they don’t eat other things that make them high. (Some of us hate being out of our minds which must serve as my excuse for not even liking to be drunk. Fortunately, genetically, I almost never am. OTOH I moderated my drinking considerably as aging seems to have made me more susceptible.)
So, magic mushrooms made us human, uh? I wonder what the person who came up with that thesis was smoking.
But while I was thinking about it, I related it to the stuff above, and came up with a weird thought: We’re not the ape who kills. All apes do. We’re not the ape who gets high, all apes do. We’re the ape who loves. We’re the ape who loves so much we take — and took, even when our life hung on a knife’s edge of need and scarcity — creatures of other species to our hearts and make them part of our band, our pack, our family.
If you look around, that’s pretty weird. Sure, some species have symbiotic relationships, and sure, man and wolf/dog hunted together.
But if you think about it, that’s different form the mutually exploitative relationship of other symbiotic species.
Oh, we make use of our friends, but also as far back as we can remember or find evidence, there’s marks of affection.
And anyway, we’d never have started hunting together if we had eaten those wolf pups — tender meat — we found in a cave, instead of keeping them and training them and teaching them to ENJOY being around us, enjoy being petted, to defend us as if we were members of their pack, because we defend them like members of ours.
Cats, even stray cats we feed at the door, bring us kills, trying to support us as we support them.
What I’m trying to say is on both sides there’s a volational step to love those who are utterly different from us.
And that seems to be what made us human.
Sure you can say we’re horny apes. You can presume that the traces of other human races all of us carry around are part of being horny and “humans will screw anything” and you can assume it was all rape.
It’s hard to tell, that far back in pre-history, before records, but I’m going to bet you it wasn’t all rape. I’m going to bet you, because of course, if we can love cats and dogs (and bunnies, mice, snakes, fish, even monkeys) as children, we can surely love things that look more like us closer/better.
I bet you there were mixed couples. I bet you there were childless couples taking to their bosom orphans found in the forest. (There are enough legends about that, and those are sometimes the most reliable accounting of our ancestry.) I BET you there was love. Love is what made us what we are, a hybrid species that we find, more and more, carries genes of many others, and are better for it.
This is also, btw, no matter how much bigots on both sides of the isle howl, there is no such think as a pure race human. Yes, I know what gene analysis says, but bah, it’s early days yet. I remember when the earliest gene analysis made us basically chimps. THP.
Humans love. Humans love across species, across race, across what should be the unimaginable gulf of phillum and clade.
If we go to space and find aliens, I give you a couple hundred years, tops, before some human is trying to get a scientist to help him make a child with his smart octopus girlfriend.
How did that make us human?
Well, besides the obvious and improbable genetic mix with other human species some as yet unidentified (We’re in very early days of the field) and hybrid vigor, it forced us to develop empathy and imagination.
Cats, dogs and horses, our closest, most faithful companions, do not talk. We had to bridge the gap. We had to communicate with them, understand how they were communicating, and carry the relationship.
Which in turn made us more capable of understanding humans who weren’t like us, humans far away, humans in the past.
And, by giving us empathy, as a trained trait, (Perhaps a neo-natal trait that persisted because — as someone said in comments, tribes with cats kept more grain, and therefore raised more children. My reading on the brain indicates mirror neuron and structures babies possess allow one to integrate and avoid being killed. I think our domesticating animals/being domesticated by them makes use of those.) they made it possible for us to live in cities, in large groupings, and thereby to develop civilization.
If we go to the stars someday (please) it is because some neolithic hunter didn’t kill a litter of wolves, but brought them home and made them his children/his brothers. Because some hunter-gathering primitive didn’t strangle the kitten and put it in her sack, but fed it and petted it and made it part of her circle, raised with her children.
We are the ape who tames itself. But our taming started with love across species barriers, across the gulf of misunderstanding, across the vast chasms of different self interest. And that’s why we’re human.
Which might be worth — maybe — the occasional writer who gets all mired in grief at the death of her curmudgeonly, protective black cat.
Now I’m going to go help son put his doors back in and install floor transitions: me and my broken heart.
And I know the broken heart is the price for doors, for floors, for civilization. And yes, for empathy and stories as well.