Top ten animals – #9, Chimpanzee

To see any of the apes in the wild would be a big deal. In some ways, the others are more appealing; the huge but (relatively) gentle gorilla, the mournful-looking orange Orang*, and the currently trendy pan-sexual bonobo all have a glamour to them which the chimp has rather lost, with the PG Tips ads and the years spent hanging out with Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson. I was even tempted to choose one of the gibbons; they may be ‘lesser’ apes, but they have a hell of an acrobatic way of getting through the trees.

In the end, though it had to be the Common Chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes.

(picture of chimp in the Gombe Reserve, Tanzania, from National Geographic).

The chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, of course. We’re equally closely related to common chimps and bonobos, but I picked P. troglodytes because – well, I don’t know, really.

One thing that’s not always appreciated about chimps is that if you ever see a trained chimp, in a Tarzan movie or an advert, it’s a juvenile. That’s because while a young chimp is cute, trainable and manageable, an adult male is 120 pounds of unpredictable, aggressive muscle. The one pictured above, named Frodo by Jane Goodall in one of her stupider moments, later stole, killed, and started to eat the child of a park employee. Tolkien would be proud.

Chimps aren’t nice. But they are clever. They crack nuts open with rocks, they strip leaves from twigs and use them to fish termites out of mounds, they hunt cooperatively, they’re political; you can even teach them some rudimentary language. They are nearly what we are; we are nearly what they are. They’re the point at which the mystery of evolution comes closest to home, and yet it’s still not easy to think of something like them turning into us.

Baby chimps look more human than the adults, with flatter faces:

At some stage in our evolution, the physical development of our heads became slowed or interrupted in some way. Desmond Morris called us ‘The Naked Ape’, but we’re also the baby-faced ape.

*isn’t it a pleasing coincidence that ‘orange’ and ‘orang’ are almost the same word?

2 Comments

  1. Aruna
    17 January 2006 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    The one pictured above, named Frodo by Jane Goodall in one of her stupider moments, later stole, killed, and started to eat the child of a park employee.

    Chimps aren’t nice.

    That’s…a useful fact to remember for the next time I get a birthday card with a chimp in a pink tutu on it.

    I like the phrase “mystery of evolution”. I’ve been spending a lot of time with/around religious-arty type people recently, and keep bumping up against this idea that “mystery” (or just interestingness, really, anything interesting on a non-trivia level) is something that belongs firmly on our side of the line — science is all that other stuff, the facts. It’s nice to have reminders of obvious things.

  2. Harry
    17 January 2006 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    That used to drive me nuts when I was at uni, surrounded by literature students. Not just a lack of interest in the sciences, but a certain pride in ignorance. Science isn’t (just) about facts – it’s about hows and whys. Why the sky is blue, why the sea goes in and out every day, why moths fly into flames – how can anyone not want to know these things? It baffles me.

    Evolution doesn’t just say you had a direct ancestor who was an ape, of course. You also had a direct ancestor who was a lizard, and another who was a fish, and before that a marine worm, right back to a single-celled organism drifting around 3 billion years ago in the early sea. I think that’s as potent and exciting a creation myth as anyone could hope for; the fact that it also happens to be true just makes it better.

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