Alright, before I take you down this slippery slope of intellecuality, I wanna tell you that as I began reading this Salon.com article, “God and gorillas” I was thinking to myself, “What a load of crap! This is outrageous!” But as I read some more, specifically on the second page of the piece, that all changed. There are some outstanding and insightful observations on great ape behaviors that I thought some of you out there may enjoy reading up on. To those out there with no concept on the intellectual and emotional capabilities of great apes, I’ll try to document that with several quotes from this article.
In case you were wondering, the Salon.com piece is more in interview format than as an article. The author, Steve Paulson, interviews anthropologist Barbara King of the College of William & Mary who has worked with other primatologists like Jane Goodall and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. In her faculty profile, Dr. King says she is interested in the evolution of communication and cognition in primates. The scope of this interview is primarily to plug her new book, “Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion,” where King argues,
“[With] two decades [of] studie[s on] ape and monkey behavior in Gabon and Kenya, and at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo… [That] religion is rooted in our social and emotional connections with each other. What’s more, we can trace back the origins of our religious impulse not just to early cave paintings and burial sites 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, but much earlier — back to our ancient ancestors millions of years ago. And today, King says, we can see the foundations of religious behavior in chimpanzees and gorillas; watching our distant cousins can do much to explain the foundations of our own beliefs.”
Before you get all up in arms, defending the sanctity of separating religion and science, King states her interests in documenting religion is not geared to focusing on institutionalized religion. Rather, King tries to decipher how, who, what, when, where, and why primates have become so emotional and so spiritual. King answered one of the first interview questions, “Are chimpanzees and gorillas empathic creatures?” with,
“Yes, they are. Many people may remember an incident that happened 10 years ago at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. A female called Binti Jua was sitting with her gorilla family when a toddler tumbled into that enclosure, to the real horror of onlookers. Here’s this little kid lying on the pavement with these large gorillas. Binti Jua had an infant on her body. She walked over, picked up this human boy, carried him to the zoo staff and got him to safety. This has been interpreted by primatologists as empathy. She’s a mother who had youngsters; she saw that there was a hurt child and lots of very upset adults; and she solved the problem. “
And also, another aspect of empathy but on another level, King talks about how she has observed chimpanzees mourn the death of one of their group members named Tina,
“A chimpanzee female named Tina was killed by a bite to the neck by a leopard. She’d been living in a community of chimpanzees for quite a long time. The group didn’t just pull at her body or tug at it or ignore it. Rather, the dominant male of the group sat with her body for five hours. He kept away all the other infants and protected the body from any harm. With one exception. He let through the younger brother of Tina, a 5-year-old called Tarzan. That’s the only youngster who was allowed to come forward. And the youngster sat at his sister’s side and pulled on her hand and touched her body. I think this is not just a random occurrence. The dominant male was able to recognize the close emotional bond between Tina and Tarzan, and he acted empathically.”
This is behavior is so heartfelt to me. Even though I have had limited experiences with great apes, I have seen and felt they are empathetic organisms and am confident to say that applies all throughout homonoids. I wish I could comment on it a bit more, but I basically signed a non-disclosure agreement saying I can’t ever write about my experiences where I have gathered this conclusion.
Anyways, knowing how cohesive and social great apes are, I often wonder how they cope with death while in capitivity. As King mentions, many zoological institutions now allow fellow group members to see their recently deceased. Which shows to me how as caregivers to these organisms, our attitudes and approaches are changing towards the better. I wish all institutions will allow fellow living primate members see their dead… you know just to say goodbye.
After this section, the article takes a turn from primatology and into a discussion on paleoanthropology and interpretation of the progress of spirituality throughout the archaeological record. Those topics are geared more towards Anthropology.net, therefore I’ll avoid flooding this blog with that. I am deciding on whether I should publish that aspect of the interview over there, so keep your eyes open for something about the rest of this over at my other blog.
Suffice to say, I am humbly impressed. I thought this piece would be another moment where an anthropologist made some absurd claims on religion and tying it to evolution, but from what I have read of Dr. King’s research, I now have much more respect than I ignorantly assumed she will be saying. Her observations and conclusions are very intuitive and void of alterior religiosity fervor. I highly recommend you check out the Salon.com article… and maybe buy the book. I’m putting it on my wishlist and will buy it next time I make an Amazon.com purchase.