Sunday, 17 September 2017

No 50 - Great apes, experimentation and fiction

When several items concerning the same subject cross one’s consciousness at almost the same moment, what are you supposed to do? Except take it all as sign that you must write about it – which usually means needing to fill in one or two little gaps, which leads inevitably to a welter of extra reading, which reveals that the gaps are actually rather large, which necessitates yet further reading ... until you’re in a dizzying vortex of wondrous information – disguised as cumulative ignorance – from which you can scarcely extricate yourself.

In this case, it was the loan of a novel, the purchase of a book, a snatch of TV documentary, a student presentation – all about experimentation using chimpanzees.

Why do we conduct experiments on animals – some undeniably fruitful, too many revoltingly gratuitous, all in some way damaging to the animal, and all too often fatal?  Because we can. Because we are in the last analysis a self-serving species that can, whenever convenient, derogate other species to some ‘lower’ order, deny them a requisite degree of feeling, rationalise away their self-evident terror and pain. We have the physiological, technological, and psychological power to do it, so we do.

Or at least, certain highly specialised sections of certain societies do – essentially the scientific elite of the world’s most technologically advanced nations: the Europeans, the British, the Americans. And because chimpanzees and other great apes, already familiar from menageries, zoos and related prisons, came from the colonised corners of the globe, the animals found themselves shackled in an unholy alliance of experimental science and imperial power.

Donna Haraway, one of our most trenchant, idiosyncratic and penetrating writers on human-animal relations, sums it up this way in her magisterial history of primatology, Primate Visions (1989):

Monkeys and apes have a privileged position to nature and culture for western people: simians occupy the border zones between those potent mythic poles. In the border zones, love and knowledge are richly ambiguous and productive of meanings in which many people have a stake. The commercial and scientific traffic in monkeys and apes is a traffic in meanings, as well as in animal lives.

Haraway’s book unpacks in detail some of the sundry laboratories and enterprises set up over decades to study chimpanzees and other simians, often in cruel behaviorist ways, in order to ‘prove’ things that any observant field worker would find perfectly obvious. Haraway includes Henry Harlow’s infamous photograph of a tiny chimp clinging to a wire frame draped with a towel. Wow: an orphaned infant cleaves to anything that might resemble its mother – what an insight! Decades of traumatic experiments involving disease infection, toxins, forced organ transplant, crash dummy testing, and more, demonstrably yielded little of value to humans.

Less invasive ‘social’ experimentation tried to divine similarities between human and ape in terms of language acquisition, cognition, and socialisation – an obsession so pervasive that it can only evidence a deep-seated insecurity in ourselves, a defensiveness about the extent to which our language, our vaunted rationality, and our capacity for co-operation does or doesn’t transcend our “animal origins”.

The protagonist of the aforementioned borrowed novel, Karen Joy Fowler’s We are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2014), expresses a healthy scepticism about the intrinsic limitations of laboratory experiments. I won’t disclose more about the story, which is  doubtless roughly based on the monumentally botched case of trying raise the chimp Nim in a human family in the 1970s. The novel has a couple of nifty twists. I’ll just quote the protagonist on how pervasive is the presence of the ape in academic circles:

Take Introduction to Classical Chinese and find yourself devoting a week to Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, and the chaos he wreaks in Heaven. Take a European literature class and find on the syllabus Kafka’s “A Report for an Academy”, with its ape narrator Red Peter ... Take astronomy and maybe there’s a section devoted to exploration, to those pioneering dogs and chimps of space...

It was just such footage on a TV documentary about abandoned engineering projects that got me going on this jag. The project in focus was the Barcroft space research station,  out in the California desert, about as alienating an environment for chimps as you could imagine – but there they are, being crammed into 44-gallon drums in order to simulate life in a space capsule. I found it almost unwatchable; but there was a scientist stating that the US space programme could not have succeeded without these tortures – “sadly”. And did chimps themselves benefit from these advances? Not one jot.

To be fair, even laboratory scientists expressed affection for their kidnapped primate charges – yet I find the photo of two young chimps clinging to primatologist Robert Yerkes as heart-wrenching as Harlow’s. Yerkes claimed to have loved his chimps, but they were still a thousand miles from the homeliness of coherent chimp society. (The Yerkes primate research centre in Atlanta continues to house more than 50 chimps.) Even that lucid and humane researcher, Frans de Waal, author of the ground-breaking Peacemaking amongst Primates (1991) and Are We Smart Enough to Know how Smart Animals Are? (2017; my recent coincidental purchase), troubles me a bit in his own move from ethology (observation in the wild) to experimentation on captive apes – despite his own scepticism: “One can train goldfish to play soccer or bears to dance, but does anyone believe that this tells us much about the skills of human soccer stars or dancers?” And he let his chimps socialise amongst themselves. Jane Goodall et al have had their impact.

On the other side of the coin, fiction – especially after Darwinian theory placed humans and apes ever closer in evolutionary development – obsessed equally about the possibility of humanising apes – which is to say to eradicate that troubling closeness/difference border-zone. As Virginia Richter shows in her survey Literature after Darwin: Human beasts in Western fiction (2011), these tales ranged from the homicidal gibbon of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Murders on the Rue Morgue” (1841) and the Darwinian experiments conducted in H G Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), through Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ape-raised Tarzan to Franz Kafka’s seminal “A Report to the Academy” (1917) - all evincing what Richter calls the “anxiety of simianisation”.

Almost no subsequent imagining of the speaking ape can fail to refer back to Kafka’s “Red Peter” and his eloquent academy address about his transition from ape to (sort of) human.  Like both Haraway and Fowler, Will Self uses an extract as epigraph to his 1997 novel Great Apes:

When I come home late at night from banquets, from social gatherings, there sits waiting for me a half-trained little chimpanzee and I take comfort from her as apes do. By day I cannot bear to see her; for she has the insane look of a bewildered half-broken animal in the eye; no one else sees it, but I do and I cannot bear it.

Self imagines a whole literate, quasi-human chimp society, complete with chimp artists, doctors and academics, with one deranged individual suffering delusions of becoming human (humans are endangered in the wild).  These chimps substitute “huu” for question-marks, “pant-hoot” for phone, “sign” and “gesticulate”  instead of say and discuss, and indulge in varieties of gross and open sex (perfectly normal for “chimpunity”, of course). It’s a sardonic, heavy, clever, at times funny but oddly unlikeable novel.

There is Bernard Malamud’s futuristic novel, God’s Grace (1982), in which only a human and a chimp (who can speak English as the result of laboratory training), survive a nuclear holocaust.  Malamud’s novel exemplifies Haraway’s observation that primatology “is a First World survival literature in the conditions of twentieth-century history”. Except in God’s Grace, it isn’t the human that survives ...

Finally, the talking apes make their way into South African literature, too.  Red Peter reappears in J M Coetzee’s strange but highly influential  meditation on animal rights, The Lives of Animals (2009). In this country, of course, the ape of first encounter is not the chimp but the baboon, with well-known studies ranging from Eugene Marais’ classic The Soul of the Ape (1969) through to Fransie van Riel’s Life with Darwin (2003; this Darwin being a baboon, not Charles). Michiel Heyns’ novel The Reluctant Passenger (2003) features Cape Point’s  baboons being captured for an experimental facility. Most recently, Cape Town’s perennial ‘house-breaking’ baboon issue is revisited in Ken Barris’ new story, in The Life of Worm & Other Misconceptions (2017), in which a house-owner develops an awkward relationship with an invasive, but human-talking baboon. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well.

It may be impossible not to be complicit in animal experimentation: I have little doubt that some of the medical treatments I have benefitted from would have been tested on rats or beagles; I know that my cat’s pills have been tested on other unwilling cats. There are glimmers of relief, at least for chimps: much experimentation has stopped. The US National Institute of Health in 2013 withdrew funding for chimp experiments, though loopholes remain, and we know less about what happens in private enterprises. There are ongoing legal efforts to accord chimpanzees “personhood”, despite last month’s rejection by the New York appeals court to free two warehoused chimps on the basis of habeas corpus. Their argument? Chimps aren’t humans; simple. I agree: but the chimps should be freed because they are chimps. We have a way to go yet in the task of reversing the tide of human arrogance and exploitation; yet it’s increasingly accepted that we cannot (as Tennyson wrote in In Memoriam, hoping to become an angel) “let the ape and the tiger die”.


Wednesday, 13 September 2017

No 49: A journey in twelve unanswerable questions

(c) Dan Wylie: "Siberia"
1 The first hurdle is to leave the cat. They have done this many times since she was hoicked, bedraggled and savagely spitting, out of the feral gutterlands behind Clicks. And he knows she’ll be perfectly safe – safer, probably, than at home on an ordinary day, raddled as it is with roaming dogs, crowned eagles, adders and the occasional caracal. Yet eight years hasn’t made it easier. He leaves her at the kennels with useless goodbyes snagging painfully in his throat and tears pressing up from somewhere behind the cheekbones. How is it that one can be so in love with that small animal, with a ferocity that exceeds, or at least is different, to any feeling extended to a fellow-human?

2 Why are people so stupid on the roads? On these roads in particular. He has a multi-stage trip to negotiate, but it’s a local mantra that this is the most dangerous leg of all, from his town to the airport. There we go: inevitably, some crazy wanker trying to pass a laden cattle-truck, reeking with fear and impending death, on a blind rise, the double white line as clear as a punch in the nose. He hoots, too late in his misanthropic rage, at the swanky double-cab, the driver a man in his thirties, wife and two kids in the back – what is the arsehole thinking?? He wants to turn around immediately and go home to the cat, all fur and purrs and warm isolation. But he cannot.

3 Having checked through security – take off your shoes, accused of carrying a waterbottle, accused of creating extra work for the X-ray man – he watches through the wide airport windows as his Airbus is prepared for flight. As a youngster he studied aircraft with obsessive intensity: he knows what a triumph of international collaboration this machine is: parts manufactured in the UK, the US, China, Belgium, assembled in France or Spain by workers from the Philippines and Algeria and Germany – now being fed with Middle Eastern fuel, tended by Japanese vehicles like beetles round a corpse, Xhosa and Cape Coloured and Afrikaner workers and security personnel and caterers loading boxes of hot slices of Italian pizza... If such fantastic collaboration is possible, coalesced into this single purposeful blast into the improbable air, why does it not happen all the time, and everywhere?

(c) Dan Wylie: "Trash Bonanza"
4 He moves through shiny impersonal tunnels from one incredibly speeding machine into another – from the airliner to the Gautrain, as if from one toothpaste tube to another. To get to his night lodgings in Rosebank he has to change trains. He waits at Marlboro station. The platform has been designed to be as repellent as possible, only shiny rails at bum height to lean on for a bit, nubbled flagstones painted yellow to warn you away from the rails. A telephone company promises the impossible: Travel far, stay close. Concrete, hissing neon and grey metal. Just the other side of the rails are homes: crowded together in dispiriting russet tiers, all the roofs carrying, like crones with bundles of wood, solar heaters – a good thing, no doubt. Heaps of forbidding trash in the open ground. Beyond that, a glimpse of highway, carved through a lowering sky, traffic bound for – he imagines – Hell itself. Who invented these soulless conglomerates, these labyrinths of insane speed?

5 He realises that he has not flown into Harare since 1979. It wasn’t even Harare then. He has no memory of the airport at all. He has been going back to Zimbabwe once or twice a year ever since, but always overland. He has plenty of memories of the appalling border-post at Beit Bridge, of the baboons scavenging among the rusting girders of the bridge across the Limpopo. He has sworn never to go that route again, not ever. Now he looks out the aeroplane window and sees the Limpopo carving across the dry lowveld. There is not a drop of water in its ochre bed. You could walk across it at any point. People are walking across it all the time, mostly headed south.  Borders are, it seems, designed to be porous, sometimes more so or less so, but always porous. So of what purpose are borders? At least, at Harare’s swanky new airport building, where every passenger has to pause on a red mat to be photographed, the customs official is friendly, even mildly flirtatious.

6 The Chinese have refurbished the road from Harare to Mutare: yellow shoulder lines, new flourescent signage in international green-and-white, cats’-eyes all the way, and not a pothole for 256 km. In this one might discern evidence for Robert Mugabe’s claim that the country’s economy is recovering – though in truth there is little to recover from apart from his own government’s mismanagement. Or, as others argue, it’s a sign of another wave of colonialism, this time by ZANU-PF’s erstwhile wartime backers. Who is saving this country, if it is being saved at all? At any rate, he is glad he's not driving this time; his ride only gets to leave Harare at four in the afternoon, and into the dark they face the blazing headlights of dozens, even hundreds of heavy trucks heading, where? For a land whose economy has teetered for years on the brink of a ‘collapse’ that seems forever to recede, this is a phenomenal amount of traffic. Where is it all going, carrying what? The darkness does not say.

7 How can a great joy at the same time be the greatest pain? When it is visiting his mother. She was once a strapping and vigorous woman, who climbed hills and saved many lives and wrote her heart out. Now she is 88 years old, confined to frail-care, her back buckled into a hoop and her memory slipping its cogs every few minutes. But she knows him, keeps admiring his hard shoulders, can engage with old memories and topics of conversation for a while, then slips back into a few established tracks that groove deeper into her mind with each repetition: How are his students nowadays? Isn’t the tree outside her window beautiful with its pink flowers? Most frequently of all: “I always said, I don’t want to live with any What-ifs, to know I did my best, I think I can say that. There were failures, but no What-ifs.” She says this so often he begins to wonder if, deep down, she really does have regrets, and what they could possibly be. Is it possible to have honestly lived without, to the very end, having no regrets? But if anyone could, she could.

8 The next hurdle is a simple and practical one. The sole of his left boot has fallen loose. With dismay he discovers that Pitamber’s shoe shop, which has fixed his family’s shoes since his earliest years – half a century! – has closed down. It feels like an almost unconscious, at least unacknowledged, pillar of belonging has crumbled. This, he feels, is the true state of the economy. He has to resort to a man who works on the pavement outside his lawyer’s offices. The man says he can do it in half an hour; no, maybe an hour. It is now 9.30. He says to the cobbler, “Fine, do it now, and I’ll pick it up later, at 2 o’clock.” He consults the lawyer on his mother’s affairs, her finances, arrangements for her inevitable burial. Already suppressing tears, he visits her, holds her thin shoulders. They have lunch together, then he walks the kilometre back to town, the struts of his flip-flops chafing between his toes. It is one-thirty, but the boot has not been mended. “You’re early,” the cobbler accuses. “Please do it by two,” he demands, “I have things to do.” He wanders up and down the main street for a while. The teachers have been paid, and are queued up at every ATM; they can draw just $20; the whole country is racked by a cash crunch. There are more street vendors than ever, selling sunglasses, padlocks, eggs, sweets, shoes, battered school textbooks. They don’t hustle. At the corner of Robert Mugabe Way and Herbert Chitepo Street (the first the assassin of the second) two women sell newspapers, sitting on rough boxes and wearing iridescent green vests. Though it’s years since his mother bought papers from them, they remember her; they would always joke and she’d stroke their cheeks, marvelling at their lovely skin. And they remember him, and ask after her, and send their love. When he gets back to the cobbler he is washing a car, and the boot is still in two pieces. What rises in his mind is the ancient shibboleth, of racist Rhodesia: “Ah, typical bloody...” You know the rest. Why, try as he might, over decades, is it so hard to eradicate the prejudices instilled in childhood? He sits with studied (im)patience on a nearby concrete block and watches while the cobbler works away at the boot with small but evidently powerful hands. One hand is missing a finger. He doesn’t ask. The cobbler uses no glue, asks only two dollars, and offers no apologies. It’s not a great job. Well. He puts on the boots and walks away. Round the corner he ducks into the well-supplied MFS hardware store and buys a tube of shoe adhesive. He is going to personally glue the bejumpers out of that boot.

9 His mother asks after his students, admires the pink flowers on the tree outside, claims to live with no What-ifs. Again and again. Who created this pernicious, creeping apocalypse known as ageing?

10 Almost as gut-wrenching as watching his mother’s slow and inevitable, if relatively cheerful, decline, is what has happened to the elephants. Two elephants lived on a game reserve bordering town. One elephant had a weird, special and beautiful relationship with a Basenji dog: they would commune through the electric fence. You can watch it on the internet. But maintenance of the fences is poor; money is lacking; there have long been arguments about whether the elephants should be there or not. Now, border-jumpers desperate to make a living in these impoverished times have been transiting the reserve. A policeman chasing the illegal traders ran into one of the elephants and was trampled to death. The consequence was inevitable: the elephants were shot. Why is it that, in any human-animal clash, it is the animals that get it? How did we so badly lose the capacity to coexist?

11 Driving with a friend back to Harare airport, he chatters aimlessly, trying not to recall the image in his mind of his mother, fragile and bent and bravely smiling, waving goodbye. Astonishingly, no road block stops them; at times, he knows, people get stopped up to twenty times on this road by the police and fleeced on trumped-up charges. Instead, he can admire the colours of the msasa and munondo trees coming out in vivid spring leaf, gold and vermilion and deep crimson and lime green, beneath them the sun glancing through coppery heads of rasping grass. His heart leaps and grieves. How is it that one’s sense of home is founded so fundamentally on the tangential and fleeting sense of a blade of colour, the hint of a scent of a certain soil?

(c) Dan Wylie: "Clay Pits: Aerial view"
12 Two flights reverse his course across the subcontinent. On the first leg he has an aisle seat and busies himself with a crossword, when he is not chatting to an American maths teacher who hopes to live in Zimbabwe forever: “The climate!” he enthuses. He sounds like an old colonial. He has a window seat, and regrets not bringing his camera: the unfolding geology, the snaking river courses, the patterns of fields, the mist on the far mountains, the strip of crisp dunes along the coast – all strike him with a shivery, heart-flummoxing sense of beauty. He has a suspicion that this has something to do with a deeper sense yet, a hollow at the very core of him shaped like the memory of his mother, whom he may never see again. In the car, driving home, he begins to compose a song: “I kissed you once, and then again... Then I had to let you go... What son am I, to leave you so? ‘Go on,’ you said, ‘lead the life you choose’...” A bawl, animal and unstoppable, wrenches itself out of him, hollows him out.  He has to pull over, shuddering. To his right stretches a vast area of
(c) Dan Wylie: "Dust Frenzy"
naked cleared earth, great machines moving through dust-clouds in monstrous silence. Why is ‘progress’ simultaneously destruction? Then he drives on, looking forward mostly just to picking up the cat. His beautiful, companionable cat who – in contrast to the journey out – will miaow loudly and continuously all the way home.