August 20, 2017

Chimpanzees and Man – who is apeing who?

With more than a century to have got used to the notion that man and the other living apes had a common ancestor in the not so distant past, it is no longer astonishing when molecular biology shows that the DNA content—and presumably the genetic material—of chimpanzees and man differs by no more than a few percentage points. Yet for all the similarities lying at the heart of cells, many people still cherish the idea that man is something special by virtue not simply of his increased intelligence but also through his possession of a soul—an attribute not apparently shared with the rest of creation. In that respect Jane Goodall’s incomparable study of chimpanzees in the wild, in the forests of Tanzania, must come as something of a rude awakening insofar as it demonstrates unequivocally how close we are in certain essential behavioural characteristics to our arboreal cousins.

Jane Goodall has watched her groups of chimpanzees for some 25 years, and seen them go through a whole range of experiences. She has seen them foraging for food, and was able to report how they can fashion tools for catching termites, when the baboons sharing the same habitat had to rely on termites scurrying around out of the nest to catch them. She has seen her chimpanzees pick up heavy sticks to use as weapons to threaten and chase away baboons twice their size. She has watched as chimpanzees, working as a group have captured young baboons which they have then devoured.

She has also observed an incredible spectrum of behaviour ranging from that which we in our own civilized societies would call normal, to that which is patently aberrant or even delinquent, all encompassed in one group of many individuals. The young male chimpanzee who clung to the breasts of his ageing mother, even though the time had long since passed for him to have become independent and even though his mother had again given birth, was one poignant story, ending first in the disappearance of the new born, then in the death, presumably through old age of the mother, and finally in the pining away of the youngster in obvious mourning of his dead parent.

Another mother had a penchant for eating the newborn of other chimpanzees, invoking the help of her adolescent daughter to wrench away the infant from its own mother’s clutches. According to Goodhall, the infantophagic mother must have devoured a considerable number of baby chimpanzees, a particularly unhealthy habit given that chimpanzees are slow to breed.

But perhaps the most disturbing behaviour of all came about after the group she had been studying for many years split into two, one group moving off into another part of the forest. Some years after the split, members of the group that had moved away invaded their old habitat and working as a gang, methodically set about isolating the males who had remained and grown up there, beating them down and in many instances killing them.

That internercine war, so reminiscent of our own aggressive history, would seem to indicate a common link, innate certainly to both the chimpanzees and man, if not to other primates. The difference, admittedly of momentous consequence, is that man has fashioned tools and weapons of such devastating power that he does not simply obliterate his enemies and rivals but the entire environment in which they live as well. If man has a soul and the chimpanzee does not, that possession does not unfortunately appear to make man, taken as a whole, into a better creature and one who can keep his aggressive tendencies under lock and key.

It is perhaps unfortunate too for apes and monkeys that they should be similar enough to man to make them tempting subjects for experiment. Indeed many thousands have finished up in laboratories throughout the world, but particularly in the industrialised developed world, as targets for hideously inhumane experimentation, much of it connected with weapons research and defence. SAM—Friends of the Earth in Malaysia—have been carrying out a 5-year campaign to stop the export of macaques, a trade which had been gathering momentum after India and Bangladesh instituted their own export bans in the late 1970s. In 1977, one year before the Indian ban, Malaysia exported 5000 Macaques, a year later the numbers had risen to 17,000.

At last SAM appears to have succeeded in its lobbying of the government, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment bringing about an export ban to take effect from June 15, 1984. Even monkeys bred in captivity are not exempt; indeed the Laursens of Research Primates who run a monkey breeding farm in a. joint venture with Hazleton Research Animals Corporation of the USA, have so far failed to get permission to export some 750 macaques to a Japanese research institution, despite threatening to put all the monkeys down should the ban be enforced. SAM suggests the Malaysian Wildlife Department should take upon itself the responsibility of rehabilitating the macaques in the wild.

If the export of monkeys for use in research is morally repugnant so too should be their use as suppliers of organs for human beings in need of replacement surgery. The transplantation of a baboon’s heart into a newborn human infant last October in the United States can have no justification whatsoever. The human race is not at present faced with extinction other than through its own folly and greed, and has no real need of bits of apes and monkeys to keep the species going. If parts are needed they should be obtained from other human beings in ways that do not contravene ethical laws.

Meanwhile, exports of animals, particularly of endangered species, can be justified in today’s world only when serious attempts are made to establish breeding colonies. Too often populations of rare species in zoos have been allowed to dwindle, and not necessarily through poor management, with numbers having to be made up through imports.

At Melbourne Zoo, in Australia, artificial insemination of the female gorilla, Yuska, led to the successful birth of a young male. According to Angus Martin in Zoo News of Melbourne that achievement is of considerable importance inasmuch as it opens the door to increasing the breeding rate among captive populations of the great apes where the rate of breeding has gene been extremely low, and certainly below replacement.

Furthermore the number of males that have successfully mated in captivity can often be counted on the fingers of one hand. In Britain, for example, Martin tells us “just two wild-born male gorillas have between them sired 18 of the 28 captive-born young which were alive in 1983.” The use of artificial insemination should therefore make it possible not just to increase the rate of breeding but also to increase the number of fathers and hence ensure that reasonable levels of genetic variation are maintained.

The success at Melbourne may be just a first small step, but it does seem to be one more justification of keeping captive populations of certain endangered species such as the great apes.

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