This post first appeared in the “Denim Spirit” series in The Finger Lakes Times (NY): http://www.fltimes.com/opinion/denim-spirit-wanted-leaders-that-inspire/article_0b153ba1-73bd-5669-ade8-c941959f71db.html
I once read an article, I have long since forgotten where, by anthropologist and primatologist, Jane Goodall. In it was described her thirty-year study of chimpanzees. Her research, of course, is legendary and had a broad focus. But this particular article was about the history of events taking place in a community of chimps that she observed over three generations.
To bring her study closer to home, her observation of a particular chimp colony over time, would be like someone observing the city of Geneva for sixty years, and noting what took place within and among a given neighborhood.
In Goodall’s study, she gives names to each chimp and identifies each one’s role in the community, and evocatively describes each one’s death.
Beginning in 1960, Goodall describes an idyllic community of interdependence where communal affection and parenting is commonplace, and care for the aged intentional and well-developed.
Then something changed.
I do not remember if she even knew the cause or not, but suddenly a war broke out among the chimpanzees. It was a protracted and bloody war, with weapons and deadly ambushes and attacks. The war ended in genocide.
In the end, the conquering group systematically destroyed every member of the opposing clan, including infants. The dead were left for scavengers.
Peace then ensued, for a time. But then an even more wretched development took place. The dominant female and her daughter, began the practice of cannibalism. Goodall described how the mother/daughter team would forcibly snatch a newborn from other females, and eat them.
This new, awful practice of course, ensured the continuation of only their genetic strain.
The final, sad chapter of Goodall’s history of twenty-six chimp generations, was a polio epidemic. The original community was largely destroyed and in the end only a few remained.
When I first read this account of war, genocide, and cannibalism among a species not our own, I was shocked and dismayed. I had assumed such carnage was a human dysfunction. I had always felt that God was in the frenzied buzzing of bees and in the undulating chamber of the human heart, but looking at that chimp story, I could see atrocities were in there too.
It seems to me that stocking up the house with guns and munitions, barricading the homeland with missiles and fences, justifying predator-economics on either a nationalistic or global scale, are the acts of giving into our chimpness – or grizzly and hyena-like character. While acknowledging the hazards of being human, I would prefer to nurture those elements that have allowed us to reach across our baser instincts, and love beyond ourselves and our own kind.
So much of what we are hearing from the White House, Senate and Congress these days, is truly at the level of Goodall’s chimp society, and that which finally brought them to a tragic end. Where are leaders that will inspire and encourage us to reach higher than our primate beginning?
Correction: Last week there was information in my article that included data I misread. The article stated incorrectly that military spending in one form or another occupies fifty-seven percent of the national budget. It is in fact, only fifteen to twenty percent of all spending, though fifty-four percent of discretionary spending. Thank you to the reader who caught the mistake and notified me.