[Note: This is the fourth 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 199 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.]
Our orangutan cousins in Sumatra spend about 90 percent of their time in the trees, where they are safe from hungry tigers. Living in low density, often solitary, they enjoy a peaceful life, free from the emotional aggravation of living in an anxious crowd. Of all the apes, they are the least noisy, usually silent. They move through the trees at a leisurely pace, never in a hurry. There is always something to eat in the rainforest. On average, females give birth every eight years, a longer spacing than any other mammal.
Orangutans are very intelligent. Researcher Biruté Mary Galdikas said, “I’ve had this feeling, ever since I was very young, that the tropical rainforest represents the original Garden of Eden. Our ancestors left the garden, but orangutans never did. They maintained a childlike innocence that humans lost a long, long time ago.”
Sadly, a mob of palm oil tycoons are furiously replacing the rainforest with palm plantations, mostly in Borneo and Sumatra.
Chimpanzees can grow to a standing height of 5.5 feet (1.7 m), weighing up to 130 pounds (60 kg). Males are larger and more robust than females. Chimps spend most of their time in the trees. Because of their size, they are less speedy and graceful at leaping through the tree canopy, compared to smaller primates. So, when they want to visit somewhere not close by, they go to the ground and knuckle walk.
Humans evolved for living on the ground, and are optimized for long distance running. While chimps are smaller than humans, their arboreal lifestyle has made them far stronger. One experiment found that the arm strength of male chimps is five times that of humans. Big heavily muscled human wrestlers cannot hold a chimp still, even a young four year old.
Frans de Waal warns that “Having a chimp in your home is like having a tiger in your home.” When chimps feel threatened by a human, the human is in danger, and if he attempts to defend himself, the chimp will be even more brutal. Outdoors, when humans appear to be harmlessly passing through, chimps generally ignore them.
Chimp bands are dominated by an alpha male, who is often backed up by one or more alpha wannabes. From time to time, the alpha is challenged by lower status males, one of which will eventually dethrone the cocky king of the harem. When the alpha is defeated, the new alpha often kills the infants of nursing females, so they will become fertile sooner, and produce offspring having his superior genes. An alpha tends to be abrasive to everyone, to intimidate them, and assert his control. When male strangers make an appearance, they are welcomed with teeth, fists, clubs, and stones. In skirmishes to defend territory, chimps are sometimes beaten to death.
Bonobos and chimps live close to each other, but their rainforest habitats are separated by the Zaire River. The two species have never met in the wild, because neither can swim. They look a lot alike, and until 1929 were thought to be a single species. Chimps far outnumber bonobos, and their territory is much larger. Male bonobos can weigh up to 86 pounds (39 kg), and females up to 68 pounds (31 kg).
The bonobo culture is strikingly unusual for primates. Their groups are matriarchal. Males are second-class. Females determine how food is shared, and they eat while the males wait. Chimps have sex only when a female is fertile. Bonobos have sex almost anytime, several times a day, with anyone interested, young or old, in every imaginable way. Because of this, it’s impossible to know who your biological father was. So, no youngsters are deliberately killed.
Bonobos are incredibly lucky. They live in a habitat with abundant food, and no serious competitors in their ecological niche, an ideal situation that does not encourage competition. Chimps live in leaner lands, and compete for food with gorillas and baboons. They feel the squeeze of crowding, and they reduce this pressure by infanticide, and by killing or driving away competitors.
The first primates evolved from small nocturnal insectivores that gobbled bugs during the dinosaur era. Today, all primates are omnivores, consuming both plant and animal foods. None are vegetarians, but gorillas are primarily leaf eaters (folivores). Most primate species are mainly fruit eaters (frugivores). Tropical forests typically provide a year round supply of fruit, so most primates live close to them. Fruit is 75 percent of a chimp’s diet, and sugar is rapidly converted to energy. It’s interesting that human babies have a preference for things that taste sweet, a relic of our tree dwelling days.
Protein is an essential nutrient for primates, and it is mainly acquired by consuming animal foods, and certain types of leaves. The primary source of animal protein is insects. When insects are abundant, they can provide up to 90 percent of a healthy primate’s diet. Meat is a high quality source of protein, far superior to plant sources. It takes less effort for our digestive systems to utilize the protein from meat. Some primates are good at predation, killing small animals. Some are scavengers, dining on the leftovers of carcasses abandoned by carnivores.
While plant foods are most of their diet, bonobos also eat caterpillars, earthworms, shrews, reptiles, bats, flying squirrels, and small forest antelopes (duikers). Chimpanzees also eat insects, birds, eggs, monkeys, duikers, bushbucks, wild pigs, and carrion. Baboons also eat insects, fish, shellfish, rodents, hares, birds, vervet monkeys, and duikers. The orangutan diet includes more than 400 types of food, but it majors in ripe fruit. They sometimes dine on invertebrates, like caterpillars and worms, and, on rare occasions, meat. Gibbons feed mainly on fruit, but also consume leaves, insects, bird eggs, and sometimes young birds.
Hominins are unusual primates because some species learned how to kill and cook large animals. This was made possible by their experiments in tool making, and the domestication of fire. Unlike other primate lines, hominins are able to digest big servings of highly nutritious animal foods. Shepard Krech noted that the diet of Native Americans could sometimes include six to twelve pounds (2.7 to 5.4 kg) of meat per day. For employees of the Hudson Bay Company, the daily ration was seven to eight pounds of meat. Of course, the diet of wild artic societies consisted almost entirely of animal foods.
The Bottom Line
Non-hominin primates did not make complex weapons, strive to exterminate predators, spread around the world, enslave other species, invent agriculture, explode in numbers, live in filth, and die by the millions from infectious diseases. They did not wage war against infectious diseases, soar into extreme overshoot, load the atmosphere with crud, and blindside the planet’s climate. Instead, they continue to inhabit a niche in their ecosystem, and live as they have for millions of years, without rocking the boat. This is nature’s way.
Somewhere along the path, hominins began exploring new paths that eventually led them farther and farther from nature’s way, into dark and dangerous realms. A growing number of the cool new tricks we discovered had uncool consequences, eventually triggering disturbances that not only rocked the boat, but rocked the planet. Edward Abbey said, “Man is literally undoing the work of organic evolution.” This is the opposite of intelligent.
The accelerating frenzy of half-clever experiments has catapulted human modes of living to places far outside of the time-proven design encoded by our genetic evolution (hardware). The long parade of naughty booboos was the result of an impulsive adolescent fling with cultural evolution (software). I don’t believe that our hardware is fatally flawed. Our software is, without a doubt, a deadly threat to us, our descendants, and the entire family of life.
In the coming decades, our operating system is going to crash, again and again, because of its countless bugs. Before long, our radicalized blind faith in utopian techno-fantasies will be thoroughly rubbished by the nightmares we created with good intentions. As life as we know it melts down, even stupid people (hopefully) will come to reject our culture’s fantasies. What should we do? Any bright ideas out there?
The disintegration and abandonment of the failed culture will create a vacuum, an opening for new modes of being, which must be radically different, radically simpler, and ecologically wise. Now is a good time to be contemplating how things got to be this way. Now would be an excellent time for serious efforts to learn from our many mistakes. Repeating the same mistakes, generation after generation, is so embarrassing for critters with big brains (blush!).
In the following chapters, I’ll sketch out my interpretation of the human saga, from the perspective of humans as animals — not the Crown of Creation. Happy trails!