Monday, April 26, 2004

Planet of the Humans

The reality that scientists and anthropologists have spent several lifetimes searching to find the Missing Link, only to discover that humans are likely no more than an inferior cousin to monkeys must come as a bitter disappointment to readers of the New York Times story which chronicles the human/animal moral superiority switch.
I mean here we are, all set up and organized with communities and convenience stores and the dream of a Starbucks on every corner and a Walmart on every Main Street mere heartbeats away, only to find that we've been overtaken by Kenyan baboons as the most civilized race on the planet.
A disappointment surely; but now that we know, how can we avoid the reality of what the handover will mean? Those hoping the transition will be smooth - no more than an exchange of money for the more valuable peanut as currency, the treetop nest replacing the condo loft conversion... a photo of KoKo the gorilla edging out George Clooney on the cover of People magazine recognizing the 50 Sexiest Primates of the New Millennium, are probably living in a dream world. The fact is, a change that monumental is likely to be as sticky as smearing banana all over the Chrysler building in order to draw King Kong from off the Empire State: a course of action rife with the potential for monkey business.
But as Natalie Angier writes in the fascinating article, when the troop of some 62 savannah baboons transformed from an unpleasant gang of miserable monkeys bullied into submission by the rigidly hierarchical males of their species, into a family of nurturing, supportive simians bent on co-existing peacefully were discovered, to a man, the minds of the scientific investigators were totally blown. The social implications were (and remain) astounding.
Some 20 years ago, a freak circumstance occurred that suddenly and completely changed the demographics of the group (known collectively as the Forest Troop) and from that day forward, thousands of years of evolution was turned upside down. From a status conscious, hierarchical and violent male-dominated society, the Forest Troop metamorphosed into a community of affectionate pacifists, more interested in mutual grooming than heavily aggressive troop politics. If only, right?
But those apes had luck on their side; a chance occurrence wherein half the male baboons – the dominant half – in arranging a hit on a local human garbage dump, became exposed to meat tainted with bovine tuberculosis; in short order the bossy baboons did everyone a collective favour by unceremoniously dropping dead.
The shift then was immediate – the tribe’s makeup changed literally overnight from a male to a female majority, and the subordinate male baboons left behind clearly got quickly with the new program – the new program being cooperation, affection, mutual grooming and peaceful conduct.
Twenty years later, the troop remains much the same, even training male newcomers in the ways of the Forest Troop community. And this is perhaps the troop’s greatest achievement: passing on the message. Give one monkey a backrub and you satisfy his nit-picking needs for a day – give a whole troop the ape equivalent of a 24/7 massage parlour and they’ll lie there in peaceful harmony, perhaps occasionally asking for it ‘a little higher – and just a bit to the right. Yesssss… that’s the spot.’
Observers are quietly hopeful that the baboons will continue to maintain their chosen path, but are concerned that if too many aggressive male aspirants apply to the tribe all at once (for this is how baboon society works: the females remain with their nascent tribe, while the males strike out to spread their nasty sperm far and wide) the careful balance will shift yet again, descending immediately into the familiar violence, fang-bearing and thuggery for which baboons are justifiably famous.
So kudos to the Forest Troop – high fives and thumbs (opposable) up all around; and now for the real work: repeating the experiment in the human population. Clearly tainted meat won’t work twice – but perhaps a few strategically placed banana peels…

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