Thursday, July 08, 2010

Original Sin

Such an article of faith it was, among my people, that it was civilization that had ruined mankind. Like all radicals, we looked back to a golden age – in our case to the golden age that “the gentle Tasaday,” we thought, had never left, and to which we could return by the simple and wonderfully attractive expedient of refusing to do anything we didn't like to do. It's sad but not surprising that the idea of actually taking the Tasaday seriously, and trying to understand how they had achieved a peaceful and egalitarian civilization, never occurred to us. We really had all our prejudices intact. What was there to study? They were natural. They had by definition no civilization: that was what made them good. Our project was not to build, but to dismantle.

It's easy to make fun of this mental substratum now. Less easy to get rid of it. It has been shocking to me, reading about orangutans. Rape was something I associated with civilization: in fact I realize now that it was almost my definition of civilization. Institutionalized rape. To find it common among another species, among the species arguably most like our own, seemed to me both horribly wrong and nightmarishly probable. Like those moments in horror films when it turns out that everything is just as bad as you always thought. So that's why I've always been afraid of this: because it's true.

But things aren't true because we're afraid of them, any more than they're true because we want them to be true.

I love orangutans. Always have. I used to gravitate to them at the zoo: I loved their slow, deliberate movement, their meditative, melancholy aspect, the way their clear brown eyes were wells of sadness. I wanted to sit down beside them and absorb their quietness. I loved the fact that they were so strong: four times as strong as human beings, said one of my books. If an orangutan gets hold of something, good luck getting it back, said another. If it gets hold of your shoe or your camera, you just wait till it's done, and hope it doesn't pull it to pieces. Even a youngster is stronger than we are.

I love their posture, even more slumped and pot-bellied than mine. I love that they think things through. Chimps given a bunch of boxes which, stacked the right way, will allow them to get to a treat, will go to work at once, stacking them every which way, figuring it out by trial and error. An orangutan will sit there and work it out, solving the whole problem before lifting a finger, and then slowly, deliberately, set box on box and climb up to the treat.

To find that they have a bully-wins-all social organization, and a propensity for sexual violence – well, it meant that the Catholics were right all along. Original sin.

That's silly, of course. Orangutans are no more early human beings than the Tasaday are. We don't know where we came from. A couple crates of old bones and chipped stones is all we have to go on. But I think I need to read more about all of the great apes. Anything they all – chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans – have in common, is very likely to be our heritage too.

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