Searching For A Primate Quintessence Written
by M. Buck
We humans are a smug species. We’ve been convinced of our own uniqueness for centuries, complacently self-assured that we sit at the pinnacle of the natural world. Some believe this is our rightful place as ordained by divine will. Others argue we represent the highest rung of the evolutionary ladder (a persistent, if erroneous, metaphor). In our defense, we are remarkably successful animals: we’ve populated every continent, adapted to every climate, and produced a dazzling array of cultures. Among our accomplishments we can boast of language, art, mathematics, philosophy, science, and a formidable technology. With such a resume, we may be forgiven if we harbor a secret agreement with Shakespeare’s words:
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!
Yet the irony of Hamlet’s comments should not escape us: they are a rejection of humanism, not a celebration. Alas, poor humanism: one in a plethora of speculations about human nature, all fodder for advanced degree theses but ultimately impotent. We are left without a satisfactory answer to Hamlet’s final question: “What is this quintessence of dust?”
Artists, philosophers, and religions have traditionally held possessive court over such queries. Science, in contrast, has only recently begun to offer its own insights. A little over a century ago the idea of systematically investigating human behavior gave rise to such disciplines as psychology, sociology, and anthropology, all seeking new perspectives on the peculiar human animal. Of these, anthropology is broadest in scope: its subfields encompass the study of extant and extinct societies, language, human evolution, and nonhuman primate behavior. Each has its own delights and surprises, revealing unexpected variety and commonalities in our behavior, plumbing the connections between mind and perception, and literally rewriting our evolutionary history. But primatology has offered something more: a chance to see our own shadows and chart what defines humanity.
Historically we have had an ambiguous relationship with our closest living relatives. Primates frequently serve as psychologically resonant symbols of our “savage” nature. Poe’s "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" features an orangutan as the perpetrator; aggressive and intelligent apes are the villains in Michael Crichton’s Congo; the juxtaposition of ape and human underscores Boulle’s dystopian commentary in Planet of the Apes; King Kong is an enduring icon. Conversely, primates may be subjected to infantilization, a convention presenting them as “cute fuzzy little people.” Here we find Curious George, organ grinder monkeys, Marcel, the pet capuchin from Friends, and Clyde, the orangutan in the films Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can. Although reflecting our recognition of the similarities we share with nonhuman primates, such stereotypes serve ultimately to stress the differences. This emphasis on human uniqueness is not entirely misplaced: clearly there are differences. Opinions as to what and how great those differences are, however, have radically changed since the advent of primatology. Our relatives have undermined some of our most cherished ideas about what “being human” actually means.
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