Kissing Cousins

MARTIN MALLOY

September 03, 1991|By MARTIN MALLOY

Daytona Beach, Florida. -- Most anthropologists say chimpanzees are our closest relatives, whether the chimps like it or not. Theory holds we have a mutual ancestor, making us almost kissing cousins. About 12 million years ago whatsoever had joined us together was put asunder, and we went our separate ways.

Jane Goodall has studied our kinfolks for over 30 years. Her book ''The Chimpanzees of Gombe,'' gave us the gift to see ourselves as we once were, which is a lot like now. The main difference is our bigger brain makes us more intelligent; at least it is supposed to.

Chimp males establish a rank order of high, middle and low. They uphold and challenge it mainly by spectacular displays in ++ which they charge, stomp and slap the ground, throw rocks, sway branches in a carnival of threatening acts. The top-ranked chimp is the alpha, but a male coalition can intimidate him, like a bunch of wrestlers ganging up on the Hulkster. Among these leaders the will to dominate is strongest, similar to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder.

As a foreman may lose his job, rank reversals do occur, usually from an injurious fight, but at Gombe no deaths have resulted from fighting within a community.

One clever chimp became alpha by using ''unconventional weapons.'' While charging, he hit three empty kerosene cans in front of him and the noise scared the others so badly that the wizard bluffed his way to the top.

All males challenge, and like golfers, some hate to lose more than others, and a few hardly care at all. One middle-ranked chimp challenged often, but he also courted the fairer sex excessively, often charming them into a chimp ''honeymoon.'' They, like their perfumed cousins, need to ''like the guy'' before romance, and because he was a successful Casanova, the time and energy he expended in winning their affections, and the affairs themselves, wore him out and he could not challenge effectively.

The displays of a low-ranked chimp often ended in blunders. Once while charging, he tripped on a root and fell on his behind. He wasn't a lady's man. Other suitors often beat his time. He was an affable ape with the fine qualities of a scoutmaster in the parallel world.

Chimps mostly eat plants, but they're cooperative hunters that catch everything from rodents to 50-pound bush pigs. Meat is prized, but everyone usually gets a portion since they share with each other, as we share turkey at Thanksgiving. Following a capture the forest is filled with screams, barks, waa-barks and pant hoots, sounds with their own meaning. The carcass is torn apart and everyone grabs for a piece. It's a wild scene that would shock anyone who has never eaten in a junior high school cafeteria.

Like our own neighborhoods, their community boundaries overlap those of other neighbors, that for reasons not fully understood, hate each other. About once a week males patrol the border. If contact is made with an equal-sized group they usually display, but if unequal, a violent and sometimes fatal attack usually occurs, like hostile gangs in some of our large cities.

Only a desirable female chimp shall overcome the segregated barriers of prejudiced neighbors. If opportunities are better in another community, she will approach its unfriendly border at the climax of her sexuality, a time when nature colors her posterior radiantly pink, like the backward glance of an alluring woman, rosy with lipstick and rouge.

At Gombe, one beauty, beamy pink, was discovered by a patrol in a most compromising position with a stranger. Fanatically they assaulted him like religious zealots, enforcing the commandment thou shall not commit adultery.'' They bit, hit, stamped and dragged him on the ground until he was immobilized by grisly wounds. Then they forced the femme fatale to return with them where she belonged.

The transgressor died from the dreadful pummeling. Although this champ's swan song was graced with notes of pleasure, his fate was predestined. His demise was one in a series of vicious attacks on his community by a bigger group ending in annihilation and annexation of its territory. Then the winners were threatened by an even larger group until adolescent males matured and reinforced the adults.

Dr. Goodall believes these observations are unique in primate field study. In our own species these events have been recorded from the Trojan War to Desert Storm.

Chimpanzees defend their home range and enlarge it at the expense of weaker neighbors. Dr. Goodall says they are at the ''threshold of human achievement in destruction, cruelty and planned intergroup conflict.'' Their nature is not the stoogy image portrayed by Bonzo and Ronald Reagan in a comical movie which showed the chimp to be smarter than his co-star.

What projections can we make from an understanding of our evolutionary heritage? One pressing question: Can the New World Order exchange war for peace?

The warlike nature of chimpanzees convinced Dr. Goodall that they are more like us than she first had thought. Considering our history of aggression, there is no reason to believe we are going to change our ways.

Martin Malloy is a free lance.

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