Half-full or Half-empty?

What we saw that morning in Kibale was the tourist end of the chimpanzee forest; not the research end. We got a glimpse of the latter that night. Richard Wrangham, author of Demonic Males (highly recommended reading) and a member of Harvard University’s Biological Anthropology faculty, joined us for dinner. We were staying at Ndale Lodge, a hostelry built high up on a ridge that overlooks one of the district’s many crater lakes. The owner of the Ndale is a young Britisher, Irish, I think. His parents ran a pub back home. Now he runs Ndale in the heart of Africa. On the side of the next hill over he points out his sister’s home. She is an experimental farmer, trying her hand at raising a new crop, tapioca, I think. Richard and his wife, Elizabeth, have a house nearby, convenient to his research center in the Kibale National Forest. I have the impression of a tight British community in the area, people who have exchanged the cluttered civility of England for the spacious opportunity of Africa. Since this life doesn't suit me at all, I don't suppose I'll ever know how wide of the mark my impressions are.

Over coffee and dessert someone asked Richard about the chimpanzee's use of tools. The questioner had been told that they have been known to use thick clubs to crack open nuts and thin sticks to gather in honey. Richard said that there had been a great deal of research on the tool use of chimpanzees. He added that the one thing that his research group could claim as purely theirs was not food related. Non-alpha males will beat females with sticks. Richard surmised that they do it to make females mate with them; in other words, a form of rape if, indeed, one can talk about “rape” in the chimpanzee world.

Richard's view of the primate world is a nasty one. Beneath a facade of placidness, these brutes are constantly engaged in strategies of domination, subjugation and oppression. They are doomed to a lifetime of testing and being tested. Who shall be number one? Who shall not? This testing is, according to him, preprogrammed. Males do it by pushing one another around until one of them is no longer pushable. Females do it in a more roundabout way. They leave the community at childbearing age and are forced to find a place for themselves in a new community. The ones who manage it are, presumably, fitter than the ones who don't.

Like it or not, I have drawn lessons about ourselves from all this. Some of us see the glass half full. Others see it half empty. I see it not only as half-empty, but cracked. I assume that I have inherited my dismal bent from a like-minded ancestor, probably my mother. Richard thinks we may have inherited a lot more than a dismal outlook from our ancestors. The genocidal inclination of human beings he sees as a behavior inherited from chimpanzees. He acknowledges that we have a cerebrum that can control such inclinations but the inclinations themselves may well be hardwired, a survival strategy in chimpanzees gone haywire in homo sapiens. The mutual slaughter along tribal lines in Kenya between the Kikuyu and the Luo is just the most recent instantiation of this unhappy inclination.

A walk in Kibale National Forest is a walk on the wild side.

Click here to listen to this entry in audio