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”.



  1. Another splendid piece, Dan. Thanks for writing it!

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