Our Inner Ape

As Unitarian Universalists, we rally around a religious vision of people connecting with the Sacred in life-of being changed and transformed by this, called into acts of compassion and hope, expanding our circle of concern beyond self-interest so that we can be satisfied with nothing less than peace and justice for all. We rally around this vision of spiritual and ethical interdependency, and here at UUCA, we know that one of the essential ways of living the vision and making it real is being healthy in our relationships together: being mindful of how we communicate with and about others, seeking a peaceful and constructive resolution process when conflicts arise, celebrating the diversity within our community, building the common good. This is what we know, and rally around.

Yet my question this morning is one of depth. The religious vision I just outlined, and its corresponding commitment to healthy relationships: how deeply rooted is it in our nature? Deep roots, or shallow? Teach a dog to fetch a newspaper, and that resonates with a basic capacity that is already deeply instilled in him-is this what Unitarian Universalism is trying to accomplish in us? Just cultivating and bringing to fuller expression potentials which are already ours in some way? Or, are we more like cats, and a capacity for fetching is just not part of who we are-and yet our religion foolishly persists in teaching us this anyhow?

Scratch the surface of who we are, and what’s underneath?

It’s a question that has been asked with great intensity, especially since the savagery of World War II-the holocaust, the atom bomb, the willful destruction committed in Europe and Asia by otherwise civilized and scientifically enlightened people. Out of this, a dominant answer that emerged firmly rejected the “onward and upward forever” naïve optimism about human nature that so characterized nineteenth century liberal religion. In the harsh light of Nazi atrocities, or Soviet atrocities, this optimism appeared completely ridiculous. What seemed far more realistic was the grim idea that, deep down, humans are basically violent and amoral. And so, for example, a prominent scientist at the time, Konrad Lorenz, argued that aggression was a pressure within the human psyche that builds relentlessly, completely unrelated to frustrated desires and aims, without understandable and reasonable cause. The inexplicable pressure to destroy is within us, and it just builds and builds over time until it bursts through the thin veneer of human decency which religions and ethical systems like ours try so hard to shore up, but always in vain.

Then there was the thought of science writer Robert Ardrey. His 1961 book African Genesis argued what has since become known as the “killer ape” theory, which is that the ancient ancestors of humans were distinguished from other primate species by their greater aggressiveness, and that’s what drove their evolution, that’s the prime mover behind human development. It’s the famous scene in the classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, where a fight breaks out among a group of our ape ancestors, in which one bludgeons another with a zebra femur, and then that ape ancestor flings the femur triumphantly in the air, where, millennia later, it turns into an orbiting spacecraft. This is what the “killer ape” theory means: we’ve gotten to where we are today through genocide. Says Robert Ardrey, “We were born of killer apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments?” This is who we truly are, says Robert Ardrey. Liberal religion tried to throw away the idea of original sin, but secular science revalidated a version of it. Scratch the surface, rub off the thin veneer of religion and ethics and civilization, and we find something horrible which is nothing less than the secret of our success-which makes it even more horrible. (Not one of our favorite things….)

And so where do we go from here, if the horrible vision is true? Another movie scene comes to mind, this time from the classic The African Queen. Surrounded by the jungle, Katherine Hepburn’s character says, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.” In others words, work even harder to shore up the thin veneer of civilization, so that the jungle within us-the inexplicable pressure to do violence-is kept bottled up, pushed down. Sing hymns louder, perhaps-meditate more-repeat the Purposes and Principles regularly and often, as well as our Congregational Covenant of Healthy Relationships. Face your fate like a plucky and undaunted Katherine Hepburn, and rise above…

But this only goes so far. Putting on a brave face won’t take away the dread we’ll never be able to stop feeling about ourselves. The sense that there exists a murderous force within us, so alien to all that we hold sacred and holy, so untrue to the teachings of our greatest prophets, like Jesus and the Buddha. So alien to our hopes for peace and justice for all. So irreconcilable with the idea that people have inherent worth and dignity. No inner light within, but inner seething. Therefore we could never truly relax and trust our instincts; there would have to be constant vigilance to make sure that the thin veneer of sanity is maintained. Not freedom, but authoritarianism, would be the better way in religion and in life. Unitarian Universalism, in short, would cease to make any sense. This is what would happen.

All of what I’ve said so far is background for why the question about apes is so crucial, so momentous to our understanding of ourselves. Says Emory University professor Frans de Waal in his fascinating book Our Inner Ape, “If [apes] turn out to be better than brutes-even if only occasionally-the notion of niceness as a human invention begins to wobble. And if true pillars of morality, such as sympathy and intentional altruism can be found in other animals, we will be forced to reject veneer theory altogether.” This is what Franz de Waal says. Take a look at our closest animal kin-great apes like chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-and see what their lives are really like. Perhaps humans can fool themselves and pull the wool over their eyes, but not apes. They are what they are, without deception, without shame. So put all the theorizing to the side. Put “killer ape” theory to the side, and just look at the evidence from the lives of our closest biological kin, with whom we share more than 97% of our DNA.

And what do we find? A fine animal gorilla like Koko. A being who truly and deeply gets what we are doing here today. Blessing our animals companions, our pets-and Koko herself would do the same. Bless her beloved All Ball. Bless Smoky. We hold and rub and play with and talk baby talk to our cats and dogs, and so does Koko. “Koko love Ball. Soft good cat cat.” Stricken when All Ball was killed, as we are when our pets die. Sounding out a long series of high pitched hoots. Saying, “Cry, sad, frown.”

Now it is undeniable: when we look at our great ape brothers and sisters, some of the things we find are not nice warm fuzzies. Chimpanzees are notoriously brutal at times, and they are also incorrigibly tribal and xenophobic, fanatically patrolling group borders, viciously charging against strangers, fighting to the death to preserve the group’s territory if necessary. But, this said, the picture grows far more complex once you consider the larger picture: that there is amazing breadth and diversity within our biological family of great apes, and the behavior of chimpanzees cannot possibly represent the final word. Gorillas like Koko shed a very different kind of light on things. And then you have bonobos. Have you ever heard of bonobos? Bonobos make love, not war. Listen to how Frans de Waal compares them to chimpanzees: “One is a gruff-looking, ambitious character with anger-management issues. The other is an egalitarian proponent of a free-spirited lifestyle. [The chimpanzee’s] hierarchical and murderous behavior has inspired the common view of humans as ‘killer apes.’ […] I have witnessed enough bloodshed among chimpanzees to agree that they have a violent streak. But we shouldn’t ignore our other close relative, the bonobo, discovered only last century. Bonobos are a happy-go-lucky bunch with healthy sexual appetites. Peaceful by nature, they belie the notion that ours is a purely bloodthirsty lineage.” That’s what Frans de Waals says. Our human heritage, exemplified in our closest animal relatives, is mixed. Chimpanzees may be tribal and xenophobic, but bonobos, in the best United Nations way, regularly establish peaceful relations with foreigners. Our inner ape is just not one narrow thing, as “killer ape” theory suggests. What’s deep down in human nature is broad: as much love and compassion as it is murder. And our job is to choose wisely, which impulses we draw on.

Consider this story about a bonobo called Kidogo, who suffered from a heart condition. “He was feeble, lacking the normal stamina and self-confidence of a grown male bonobo. When first introduced to the colony at the Milwaukee County Zoo, Kidogo was completely confused by the keepers’ shifting commands inside the unfamiliar building. He failed to understand where to go if people urged him to move from one part of the tunnel system to another. After a while, other bonobos stepped in. They approached Kidogo, took him by the hand, and led him to where the keepers wanted him, thus showing they understood both the keepers’ intentions and Kidogo’s problem. Soon Kidogo began to rely on their help. If he felt lost, he would utter distress calls, and others would quickly come over to calm him and act as a guide.” That’s the story. The strong helping the weak. Genuine sympathy, genuine altruism, found in the sacred depths of nature, right there. Sending a message that our job as humans is not so much to follow Katherine Hepburn’s advice and “rise above” nature as it is to bring into fuller expression certain capacities it has gifted us with. To draw on the positive aspects of our inner ape so as make a better world. Hubert Humphrey once said that “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” Now if in bonobo society we have the strong helping the weak, why not in human society? Why not?

Story after story documents in bonobos-as well as in chimpanzees and gorillas-kindness and empathy, a capacity for peacemaking and reconciliation, creativity, even freedom-this latter part suggested by Koko’s capacity to tells lies and her sense of humor. Blind actors carrying out a pre-set genetic program just can’t do this sort of thing, aren’t capable of the kind of improvisation and imagination that deception and humor require. Story after story opens up our minds to the fact that “our humanness is grounded in social instincts we share with other animals.” Our inner ape is just not a killer ape. Don’t say to me, “scratch an altruist, and watch a hypocrite bleed.” That makes no sense, in light of the facts. Kindness and sympathy and altruism are not veneer-thin but deep. You can’t scratch it away. It is a gift to us from our great ape brothers and sisters. It means we don’t have to be afraid of ourselves. It means we can replace a feeling of dread with a feeling of wonder. It means that to creation, we belong. Unitarian Universalism is real. Our Covenant of Healthy Relationships is realistic. The animals bring us back to our senses. “Fine animal gorilla” teaches us to say-and gives us courage to say-“fine animal human.”