Source: New York Times
Date: 19 January 2003

Gone Ape


Anyone who has watched much nature television knows that orangutans are by far the handsomest and smartest-looking of the great apes. They're literal highbrows, with wide, soulful eyes and broad expressive foreheads. They're covered not with bathmat fur, like so many apes, but with what amounts to a couture pelt -- red hair so long and fine it seems blow-dried. It's true that orangutans drag their knuckles when they walk, but how else are you going to get around if your arms are longer than your legs? For creatures so large, they are uncommonly graceful, not to mention sweet-natured, so it's gratifying to learn that a team of scientists, writing in the journal Science, has recently certified them as ''cultured'' as well. Metaphorically at least, the news makes you want to extend a cheerful hand to your fellow primate and pump him by his auburn, hirsute paw (it would feel sort of like angora, I'm guessing).

Culture in this sense is not exactly a museum or concert-hall accomplishment. It's behavior that's not genetically determined but, rather, learned by watching others; certain styles of tool use, for example, or systems of social signaling. The theory is that if animals in one place do something a certain way, for no particular reason, and the same animals someplace else do not, then chances are that behavior is cultural, not instinctive.

In the wild, orangutans tend to be loners, and therefore it was believed that they lacked a ''system of socially transmitted behavior.'' But after studying various orangutan populations in Borneo and Sumatra, the authors of the Science article concluded that some of them did indeed show signs of having taught each other stuff. They had learned how to masturbate with sticks, for example -- male and female alike -- and to make ritual ''raspberry'' noises at bedtime before scaling into their nests. They had also mastered the art of creating funny sounds by blowing into leaves, and of catching rides in Robert Frost fashion, by swinging on bent-over tree snags. This is all it takes -- a few useless but highly amusing tricks -- to promote you into the highest rank of primates: the elite group that also includes chimpanzees, most likely bonobos and gorillas and of course us -- the naked apes, to use Desmond Morris's label.

Morris was the British zoologist who in 1967, when most scientists and philosophers were still trying to draw distinctions between man and beast, shocked everyone by declaring that Homo sapiens, hairlessness notwithstanding, was still an ape and thought and behaved like one. ''Behind the facade of modern city life there is the same old naked ape,'' Morris wrote. ''Only the names have been changed: for 'hunting' read 'working,' for 'hunting grounds' read 'place of business' . . . for 'pair bond' read 'marriage.' '' Our biggest problem, Morris added, is that man prides himself on having the biggest brain of all the primates ''but attempts to conceal the fact that he also has the biggest penis, preferring to accord this honor falsely to the mighty gorilla . . . and it is high time we examined his basic behavior.''

In Morris's analysis, much of that behavior consisted of trying to deal with the cruel contradictions of pair-bonding and gorillalike hypersexuality. On one hand, we wanted to retain a single mate, so we became exquisitely and inventively sensual; we turned the female breasts into substitutes for the buttocks and figured out how to have frontal intercourse. (This is the epochal moment memorialized by Rae Dawn Chong and Everett McGill in ''Quest for Fire,'' the 1981 movie on which Morris served as a consultant.) On the other hand, we couldn't be going ape (sexually speaking) all the time, so we had to invent deodorant and the unspoken prohibition against looking people in the eye on the subway.

Some of Morris's ideas now seem more than a little wacky. (He claimed, for example, that after orgasm the breast of the female naked ape increases in size by up to 25 percent.) But Morris gave rise eventually to E.O. Wilson and sociobiology, and no one doubts for a minute anymore that many of our social and behavioral traits are rooted in biological and evolutionary imperatives. We are a lot more animal than we used to think.

In the years since Morris, meanwhile, a number of other scientists have been working to erase the man-animal distinction from the other end -- to suggest, for example, that language may not be unique to humans, and that primates may have culture, something we also believed was uniquely ours. Considering what we think we've learned about our own natures, though, what's fascinating about the orangutan discoveries is how little of their learned behavior has to do with sexual customs (masturbating with sticks aside) and how much with what amounts to just plain goofing off.

Not all the orangutans' cultural accomplishments were pointless. The scientists found them using leaves as gloves and as napkins, and wielding tools to extract seeds and to probe into tree cavities. But the Science article includes a table rating the behaviors in order of frequency, and at the top of the list are the branch-riding, the various kinds of noisemaking, scratching games and building nests just for playing in -- all of which, when you think of it, have human equivalents. At bedtime we nuzzle our infant children on the stomach to make the raspberry sound -- that universal cultural signal, it turns out, at once fond and silly; we teach kids to make a squeaky noise by blowing on a blade of grass; we throw a bedspread over a card table so they can play house. To amuse them (and ourselves), we scratch and mug and sometimes act like complete orangutans. Primates that we are, we presumably learned long ago that our nature at its most essential consists of being able to entertain someone, and of being entertained in return.

Charles McGrath is the editor of The New York Times Book Review

orang photo

Primate Species
Animal Rights FAQ
Orang-utan Culture
Orang-Utan Caesarian
Orang Utan Fact Sheet
New Orang Utan Population