[Note: This is the third sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild Free & Happy. I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while. My blog is home to reviews of 196 books, and you are very welcome to explore them. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.]
The Primate Clans
Primates include both apes (no tails) and monkeys (tails). Over the eons, different primate species evolved in different ecosystems. Each location had a different mix of climate, food resources, advantages, and dangers. These variables encouraged unique evolutionary adaptations. The adaptations that best increased the odds for survival were more likely to be passed on to the following generations. Each ecosystem was also in a process of endless change, sometimes slow and gradual, and other times fast and extreme. Over time, in response to change, primate evolution fine-tuned beneficial adaptations, and abandoned the duds.
Since Neanderthals disappeared from the stage, our closest living relatives are the chimps and bonobos, with whom we share up to 99 percent of our genes. Next closest are gorillas, and in fourth place are orangutans. The ancestors of all four relatives have inhabited tropical forests for millions years without trashing their ecosystems. Mainstream culture teaches us that they are less intelligent than we are (an advantage?). Unfortunately, evolution has not outfitted them with bulletproof hides to protect them from bushmeat hunters and crabby farmers. They do not instinctively mob and exterminate loggers, miners, and developers.
Let’s take a peek at a few of our primate relatives.
Japanese macaque (snow monkey) habitat ranges from sub-tropical to sub-arctic. In their sub-arctic locations, temperatures can dip to -4°F (-20°C). Snow might cover the ground for four months, in depths up to 10 feet (3 m). As winter approaches, their summer fur grows and thickens into gorgeous insulated coats. Bands sometimes take a pleasant soak in a hot spring, on a snowy winter day. They have been observed at elevations as high as 10,433 feet (3,180 m).
During the summer, they build up body fat by feasting at the warm season buffet, which includes the fruit, seeds, nuts, the vegetation of 213 plant species, and the crops of crabby gun-toting farmers. They also dine on fish, insects, and invertebrates. In winter months, they survive on stored body fat, and rough foods like leaves and bark. They huddle together to keep warm.
Hominins (human ancestors) evolved for life in the tropics, where there was no need for warm fur. When they migrated into non-tropical regions, life got dangerously chilly. To survive in snow country, they needed warm clothing and shelters — technological crutches that require tedious time-consuming toil that was completely unnecessary in their natural habitat. They did not gradually move out of warm lands, and let evolution perfectly fine tune them for cooler places. They were already extremely unusual high-tech critters, with their thrusting spears and domesticated fire. They impatiently bypassed evolution. Oh-oh!
When climate change shrank the forest and expanded the savannah, the ancestors of baboons evolved in a way that allowed them to spend much of their time on the ground. Few of them now live in tropical forests, but all baboons have retained the physique for scampering up trees. Baboons intelligently avoid wild predators by sleeping at the top of steep cliffs. Sleeping in trees protects them from lions and hyenas, but not leopards. In daylight hours, when many large carnivores are snoozing, baboons forage in groups, paying constant attention to reality.
Spending time on the ground increased their vulnerability to daytime predators. Male baboons evolved big, strong bodies and large canine teeth. When predators approach, male baboons form a point defense to obstruct a quick, easy, surprise kill. While the males hold off the threat, the females and their offspring have a chance to escape. Baboons did not fabricate weapons and hunt animals larger than they were but, on happy days, they could mob a leopard and disassemble it. Readers who have killed adult leopards with their teeth and bare hands know that this can be very dangerous.
The ancestors of both baboons and humans moved onto the savannah, where they learned to survive as ground dwelling primates in a rough neighborhood that included lions, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, and crocodiles. Baboons demonstrate that primates can survive in a dangerous habitat without spears, fire, or complex language — and they can do this without causing irreparable ecosystem degradation. With smaller brains, grunt communication, and sticks and stones, the baboons have brilliantly lived sustainably for millions of years. They continue to enjoy a healthy, pleasant, and traditional wild life. Thus, our ancestors were not forced to choose between tool addiction and extinction.
Baboons have tails, so they are monkeys, not apes. Paul Shepard noted that ground monkeys are “the most aggressively status-conscious creatures on Earth.” High-ranking males have primary access to females and food. The rank order in the hierarchy regularly changed. So, to maintain or elevate your rank, it was important to brutally attack your inferiors at every opportunity. Daily life was a state of heightened stress and anxiety. Any minute you might be chased, pummeled, and bitten.
Robert Sapolsky spent 30 years studying a troop of baboons. Over time, he came to like a few of them, but he really disliked the troop, because they were exceptionally mean to each other, hour after hour, day after day. He came to understand that hierarchy and competition can be a destructive force in a community, and this principle also applied to humans, many of whom are shattered by stress filled lives.
Gorillas evolved a different mode of sustainable living. They never left the tropical forests, and their diet is primarily vegetarian. They would have a hard time surviving outside of the forest. Gorillas spend hours each day stuffing their faces at the salad bar. They have evolved large guts in order to digest this bulky fibrous feast. Insects provide the animal food in their diet. In one study, 25 percent of gorilla poop samples contained bits of termites.
Males can be twice as heavy as females, growing up to 485 pounds (220 kg). The big guys can’t climb trees, but smaller gorillas do. Trees are a place to sleep, and to escape from predators. They live in groups of 6 to 30 individuals, dominated by one or two silverback males. Silverbacks are generally shy and relaxed, except when disturbed by uninvited humans or other gorillas. The only predators they fear are humans.
There are about 20 species of gibbons, apes that inhabit the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. Gibbons are primarily arboreal, and they live in small monogamous groups. They can swing through the tree canopy with astonishing speed — up to 34 miles per hour (55 km/h). Science calls this form of travel brachiation. Today, physically fit humans still have a limited ability to brachiate. As a schoolboy, I used to swing by my arms, from rung to rung, on the monkey bars at the playground.
Members of most gibbon species range in size from 12 to 17 pounds (5.5 to 7.5 kg). Because they are small, confronting large predators is not an option, so the males and females of most species are about the same size. Smallness is an asset, enabling them to travel rapidly through the forest canopy.