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Chimpanzees and culture change

These remarks were presented at SolFest 2006, a sustainable living and environmental education festival at the Solar Living Institute in Hopland, California, August 19-20.

Many people have asked me how I got the idea for my eco-thriller novel, Primal Tears, and what motivated me to write it. Primal Tears is the story of Sage, a young female human-bonobo chimpanzee hybrid.

It all started back about ten years ago when I was reading reports of our genetic closeness to the chimpanzees and learning that we share 98-99% of the same genetic material. Jared Diamond and others say we are so close to the chimps that taxonomically we should be put in the same genus - humans are actually the third chimpanzee. The common chimp is called Pan troglodytes, the bonobo chimp is called Pan paniscus, and so the human chimp would be called Pan sapiens. Or we could induct our chimp cousins into the Homo genus, in which case the names would be Homo troglodytes, Homo paniscus and Homo sapiens.

I was motivated to write this book because in my work to save ancient forests I constantly ran into the human chauvinist attitude that we are superior to - not just different from but superior to - all other species on this planet earth. This attitude is embodied in the Great Chain of Being, where humans occupy a special level below the angels but above the beasts.

The Great Chain of Being was a medieval construct that seems to be based on the Bible, on the Genesis story of the Creation, in which God gives Adam and Eve "dominion" over the beasts and "every living thing that moves on the earth." The idea is deeply ingrained in our culture.

But what if we could prove that humans are not a separate rung on the ladder? Here's where the idea for Primal Tears came from. Reading those figures for genetic closeness, I realized that the gap between humans and chimps was no greater than the gap between a horse and a donkey, or a lion and a tiger, and yet those species have interbred and produced offspring. Doing a little further research, I found that Carl Sagan had also speculated about this. "For all we know," Sagan said in Dragons of Eden, "occasional viable crosses between humans and chimpanzees are possible ..."

So there I was, working as the director of a grassroots forest protection group in Oregon, entrenched in a daily battle of ideology: do we humans have the right and even the duty to cut down 500-year-old trees to make more and more houses for an ever increasing human population, or do those trees have the right to exist for their own sake and for the sake of the entire ecosystem of plants and animals that depend on them?

I was continually searching for ways to communicate a value system that recognizes that we humans are a part of this planet. We are not separate. We cannot survive without functioning ecosystems. But this Great Chain of Being concept has given an awful lot of people the idea that we are somehow exempt from environmental concerns. Economists are a big part of this too. We can hear them now saying: "Peak oil can't be happening because we are humans, damn it, this can't happen to us. The magic of the market will save us."

And so I latched on to this idea of a human-chimpanzee cross. If such a creature were produced, it would be convincing proof that humans are animals, just another species in the genus Homo, subject to the same natural laws. At one point, I even fantasized about doing the experiment on myself! I could put a personal ad in the paper:

Female, age 40, seeks wild, swinger male for procreation purposes, no commitments. Bonobo preferred but regular chimpanzee acceptable.

I was out of luck, of course, because chimps don't read. But people do, so I came to my senses and realized that instead of trying it myself, I could write a book about this idea.

Primal Tears takes place in the Ecotopian landscape of Northern California and Southern Oregon. The story opens when Sage's mother, Sarah, is fired by her principal for teaching evolution to her 8th grade class. She goes home and a friend tells her about a great ape research program that is looking for women to act as surrogate mothers for endangered bonobo embryos. They want to increase the captive breeding pool of these highly endangered bonobo chimpanzees.

Sarah volunteers for the program, but something goes wrong and it turns out that a bonobo sperm has impregnated one of her own eggs, and her daughter, Sage, the human-bonobo hybrid, is born.

The rest of the novel follows Sage's adventures as, like all teenagers, she copes with feeling different and worries about her appearance. She launches a crusade to save her bonobo relatives that takes her to the Congo, and as she grows older, she has to cope with her high level of sexual desire.

One of the most interesting things about the bonobo chimpanzees is the way in which they handle conflict. Common chimps are like us. When there is conflict over a scarce resource, like food, they beat each other up. But bonobos have a different approach. They are the "make love not war" chimps. When tension arises in the group, they drop everything and start having sex. Everybody. All at once. Later, after everyone has calmed down, they share.

We humans also have the ability to share. We do it all the time. Only now, as the world grows increasingly crowded, we are challenged to share like never before. We must do everything in our power to keep from descending into violence and war over scarce resources.

Another interesting thing about bonobos is that, even though they have all that sex, they don't have too many babies. They don't overpopulate their habitat. They don't lose a lot of their population to predators, so they are regulating their births somehow. How do they do that? Answering that question is a major theme in Primal Tears.

Finally, coming back to Genesis, I want to acknowledge that there is more than one way to interpret the language found there.

In Genesis 1:28, God urges Adam and Eve to "be fruitful and multiply" and "fill the earth." But what happens when the earth is full? Nothing in the Bible says we are supposed to be fruitful and multiply without end!

The concept of "dominion" is also open to interpretation. A modern translation by Leslie Thatcher renders the words of Genesis 1:28 this way:

And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Develop as human beings and become great; complete the earth and look after the fish of the sea and the birds of the skies ..."

I think it is also worth noting that in the Genesis story of the Great Flood, when God sets a rainbow in the sky, he says it is the token of the covenant that He makes directly with "every living creature of all flesh." The covenant is with all species, not just humans.

As we humans take seriously now the task of living sustainably on the earth, we need to create and honor covenants with all flesh.

So, I recommend that you go and read Genesis again with these different interpretations in mind. And you also might enjoy reading my novel, Primal Tears.

Kelpie Wilson is the t r u t h o u t environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she is the author of Primal Tears, an eco-thriller novel published by North Atlantic Books.

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