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Alex Beam

Monkey love

They’re cute and playful and smart. Is it any wonder we can’t get enough of the hairy primates?

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / July 22, 2011

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The mainstream press and public radio have been beating the drum for a movie that very few Americans will ever see: “Project Nim,’’ an affecting story about a kooky attempt to raise a baby chimpanzee with a bunch of hippies who may or may not have succeeded in teaching the little ape sign language.

If you had any doubts about the ignominy of higher primate behavior - I am referring to Homo sapiens of course - “Nim’’ quickly dispels them. The scheming, dodgy Columbia linguistics professor has an all-too-human habit of sleeping with his underlings. Nim’s caretakers regale him with marijuana and alcohol. I’m no prude, but something tells me that’s not exactly species-appropriate behavior, where Pan troglodytes is concerned. Naturally, everyone falls in love with Nim, who responds by scratching, biting, and at one point swinging his human “mother’’ around his cage like a rag doll.

Because he is a chimpanzee.

I’m just saying: Maybe it’s time to call off the one-way love affair with our primate ancestors. We assign them cutesy names and convince ourselves they are “asking’’ to go to the bathroom. In truth we have no idea what they are asking for; probably some peace and quiet. There may well be a chimp hand sign for “First thing we do, let’s kill all the primatologists.’’

Around the time I saw “Nim,’’ The New York Times published an article “Baboon Study Shows Benefits for Nice Guys, Who Finish 2nd.’’ Apparently primate researchers discovered that being second banana in Baboonworld wasn’t such a bad thing. “Beta males . . . had much lower stress levels,’’ the Times wrote, adding that hookups were available even for these monkey losers: “They had fewer mating opportunities than the alphas, but they did get some mating in, more than any lower-ranking males.’’

I correctly predicted that this story would quickly hit the Times’ most-e-mailed list. While it didn’t put up “Shamu’’-like numbers - that refers to Amy Sutherland’s famous essay about, yes, human and animal behavior that remained “most e-mailed’’ for six months - it did stay on the list for a day or two. That’s not because monkeys are always funny, it’s because humans think monkeys are always relevant - even when they aren’t. “There are implications in the story that we are just like the baboons, but we aren’t,’’ says Harvard human evolutionary biologist David Pilbeam.

Talking chimps are another staple of humans’ wishful thinking, Pilbeam notes. “Everybody now understands that chimpanzees don’t have the language ability that humans have,’’ he says. “They are the raw material we started out with.’’

The latest chapter of the hominid-hominoid love affair got rolling with Jane Goodall’s memorable dispatches from the Gombe chimpanzee colony in Tanzania, and also with Dian Fossey’s widely publicized work with highland gorillas in Rwanda. Human rights activist Samantha Power likes to say that during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, US officials received more calls expressing concern for the fates of the threatened gorillas than for the millions of African humans who were eventually slaughtered.

Let’s not forget the cuddly bonobos - everybody loves the bonobos. This gracile chimpanzee, as it is sometimes known, ostensibly lives in a peace-loving, matriarchal society dominated by females. This prompted much speculation that, if only women ran our society, everyone would just get along. Would everyone eat one another, too? That’s a bonobo behavior trait that doesn’t figure so prominently in most feminist tracts.

If you want to see a researcher gone ape for a primate subject, check out the Web page for Koko the captive gorilla, www.koko.org. Koko supposedly uses a computer and even chose a male silverback companion via video-dating, according to Stanford magazine. Now Koko’s handler/owner/champion/amanuensis Penny Patterson has decided that the 40-year-old Koko’s klock is ticking: “Koko’s greatest desire is to have a baby,’’ according to the website. “She has indicated that she will teach her children sign language, which will engender the next generation of interspecies communication.’’

Koko seems to be having trouble conceiving. This was not a subject Patterson cared to discuss. Does Koko Skype? Next time I’ll remember to ask.

Maybe our hairy ancestors are tiring of our condescending anthropomorphism. Just two weeks from now, Hollywood will serve up “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,’’ in which research chimpanzees decide they are mad as heck and aren’t taking it anymore. “Evolution Becomes Revolution,’’ the posters bray. About time, I say.

Can research scientist James Franco save the world? I doubt it - he’s only human.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.