A Crazy Man's Utopia: Aping Humanity


Marge: "Do you ever think about the future?"
Homer: "You mean, like, will apes be our masters?"
—The Simpsons

The full political implications of chimpanzees have rarely been explored. There have, of course, been attempts, such as Francis de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes and those PBS specials examining the politics of chimpanzees, notably diplomacy through flea picking and coups d'etat accomplished through the use of "secret weapons" such as gasoline cans (banged together noisily).

Nonetheless, these studies usually fail to make the point that chimps aren't just goofier versions of humanity; they are (very nearly) humans stripped of culture.

(Politically correct disclaimer: There may be no objective standard by which to judge chimpanzees "cultureless." From a chimpanzee perspective, the development of the termite-catching stick undoubtedly represents a huge cultural advance, while the steam engine may seem the height of folly.)

The reason that humans stripped of culture should be of great interest is that so many political and philosophical debates are about which human behaviors are products of our nature and which behaviors are "mere" social constructs. The Rousseauian left, feminists, deconstructionists, and radical environmentalists, in different ways, all claim humans would be swell if it weren't for civilization and technology. Cynics, conservatives, and pseudo-conservatives tend to emphasize the nasty, brutish, and short aspects of life in the jungle. Civilization and morality, suggest antinaturalists from Voltaire to F. A. Hayek to Camille Paglia, are fragile protections against that nature.

Think how much more quickly this debate would be resolved if everyone simply looked to the chimps for answers instead of to Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade. Unfortunately, few chimps have composed bodies of work comparable to Nietzsche's and certainly none with as many sex scenes as the Marquis de Sade's. (The whole debate is stymied by the reluctance of conservatives to admit that Bonzo and Reagan spring from the same stock and the reluctance of the left to assign the status of personhood to anything—human or otherwise—that can't appreciate avant-garde film.)

Could it be that most people, even after Darwin, just don't see the close similarity between chimps and humans? If so, I feel frustrated by this blindness in much the same way that comedian Jerry Seinfeld feels frustrated by friends who don't want children but do have a pet chimpanzee. Says Seinfeld: "If you've got a pet that can roller-skate and smoke cigars, make that extra little evolutionary step."

Indeed, the chimp's resemblance to humans is close enough that it might be a good idea—as a friend of mine at Harvard Law (one with no special sympathy for animal rights) suggested—to let chimps wander our streets freely as citizens, returning a given chimp to the zoo only if it commits a crime. I'm told that a monkey in India was recently jailed for serial sexual assault (really) and later released at the urging of animal-rights activists, so there is a real-world precedent for this sort of thing. (Politically correct disclaimer: The fact that the monkey was released shows that the animal-rights crowd does not understand the gravity of sexual assault.) Most chimps would probably be productive members of society, though, such as the bar-tending chimp I saw on That's Incredible years ago. (Expect union opposition to this proposal.)

Any serious consideration of this chimp-liberating proposal leads one into complicated questions of sentience and the definition of personhood. The chimp should hover—like the flying monkeys of Oz—in the background of debates about moral competence in court cases or the rights-bearing status of all creatures. Why doesn't it? Where are the courses on Philosophy of the Chimpanzee? Where are the professors of baboon political science? Where are the gorilla ontologists?

Yes, facing the harsh truth in Bobo's face may be difficult for many of us. Are we just chimps with neckties? I think back on primates I have seen: the monkey at the San Diego Zoo who ate his own dung, the depressed snow monkey in the Central Park Zoo who picked clumps of fur out of his forearm while silhouetted against the New York City skyline, the chimp on Nature the other night who poked his fellow chimp in the eye with his foot while trying to do a handstand.

In the end, I smile proudly and long to pick a grub out of my scalp.

Todd Seavey is a writer living in New York City.