Planet of the Apes

What happens when our human society starts to have an open discussion about the possibility that it’s a “monkey society”? We’re going to find out pretty quick folks, because everywhere I turn, I see this primate stuff popping out of the seams. It’s creeping into mass culture – “King Kong,” CBS’ new show Love Monkey, the most popular show on Czech television right now, is a reality show featuring primates and “human-like” situations they are put in.

And it’s starting to creep into academia – forget postmodernism and gender theory, “literary Darwinism” is the hot ticket to tenure. And it’s obliquely started popping into my own conversations with my loved ones, who, I am sure, only a few years ago never once thought about this stuff. But it takes a while to really “get” the literal significance of this chitchat. Just saying we are animals does not a self-aware monkey make.

Cold, hard proof of this is a story about a minute-long sketch movie one of my oldest friends made with her Hollywood pals on a weekend lark. She showed me a tape of it last year. It starts with a guy and a girl sleeping in bed together. The guy wakes up and screams, “Oh my god!” The girl (my friend), half-asleep, asks, “What’s wrong?” The guy says, “I just realized: I’m a monkey.” Then there are a few scenes of him walking on the street with a gorilla mask covering his face, and him staring at his simian reflection in store windows.

I was rather taken aback. “Wow,” I said, “I had no idea you were there already. I only just figured this stuff out myself recently.”

“What stuff?” she asked.

“That we’re monkeys.” I got a rather blank look in return. After a rather intense discussion, it came out that in fact, neither she nor her friends were actively aware that they were monkeys. The movie sketch was another of those unconscious messages we send to ourselves, a proclamation from our inner Ouija board. I’ve found things I’ve written absent-mindedly that had the same function, like “Take care, you’re getting sick,” or “She’s cheating, cheating on you.” Only when I read them later did I consider the possibility of those two things – both of which were true of course.

But to get back to the original question I posed, I think the good news is that a lot of the things I hate about human society will stop happening when we start talking about what we are. Myths about how the rich deservedly made their money and deservedly spend it will go up in smoke. “Chimps with nukes” will be any rational man’s starting point about discussions to do with our most deadly weapons. More importantly, after a shortish period during which we discard our middle-class lies – like accepting the idea from a frocked monkey that we should worship a dead monkey who said he was the son of god on a patch of land 7,000 miles away and 100 generations ago – people won’t consume the earth as quickly; they’ll just stay close to home and socialize with their neighbors, just like monkeys.

And it’s my hope that using this basic unit – the monkey – as the measure of all our actions that we’ll be able to look at our practices and institutions and see them for the nightmares of slavery and mind control that they’ve become. Like school. K-12 might have been about the facts and knowledge, but I can hardly remember a thing they told me. Looking back, the one thing that didn’t change from year to year, class to class, is that I had to sit still and be rather quiet at a desk for hours on end. The rest was incidental. It was more my instinct to move around and talk to my friends, so why couldn’t I? The answer isn’t that there’s some evil mind at work, but rather that inertia and incremental social developments have taken us to this kind of scholarly arrangement. “School” was, once upon a time, a much looser term.

That’s not to say it’s a bad thing to learn how to read, or watch, day by day, as a lima bean turns into a leafy plant. But the truth is that I learned how to do those things with my mommy. My uncle taught me how to draw. And the kids in my neighborhood taught me how to swim, throw, and hold on to my money.

Look, already good proposals for radically changing our lives by “experts” founded in the true, basic unit of our existence have started to appear with frequency. I am especially pleased with an essay in the January/February issue of “Foreign Affairs” by Robert M. Sapolsky, titled, “A Natural History of Peace.” Sapolsky hilariously sets out to “prove” to his audience the truth about what we are, with science:

Humans have long taken pride in their specialness. But the study of other primates is rendering the concept of such human exceptionalism increasingly suspect. Some of the retrenchment has been relatively palatable, such as with the workings of our bodies. Thus we now know that a baboon heart can be transplanted into a human body and work for a few weeks, and human blood types are coded in Rh factors named after the rhesus monkeys that possess similar blood variability.

Hah! Why not just say we’re animals and be done with it? Makes me think that, despite his essay and fairly stark pronouncement about what we are, Sapolsky isn’t totally there yet. But it doesn’t matter. He’s there enough to propose that there’s nothing inherent in us that makes us “killer apes” destined for violent conflict – and that we can become anything at all:

Humans have invented the small nomadic band and the continental megastate, and have demonstrated a flexibility whereby uprooted descendants of the former can function effectively in the latter. We… have come up with societies based on monogamy, polygyny, and polyandry. And we have fashioned some religions in which violent acts are the entrée to paradise and other religions in which the same acts consign one to hell. Is a world of peacefully coexisting human[s]... possible? Anyone who says, ‘No, it is beyond our nature,’ knows too little about primates, including ourselves.

Yeah for Sapolsky! Let me tell you monkeys something: He’s right. And if any of you just dwell in this line of thinking for long enough, you too can supply the answers to solve all our problems.

Send them to the Monkey:


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