Our hirsute brothers and sisters
June 18, 2009 9 Comments
Norm sent me a link to an interesting article on his site that suggests we are more closely related to orangutans than we are to chimpanzees. I lack the expertise to judge the research but it certainly seems respectable and comprehensive work.
I hope they’re right, I really do. For one thing whenever I’ve had the chance to watch my fellow great apes I’ve always felt more kinship with orangutans than with chimps, bonobos or gorillas (or even humans, sometimes). Their largely peaceful, solitary, gentle existence would make such a good common ancestral model to aspire to. Chimps always seem a bit nasty to me. Some would say that this makes them a better mirror of humans but that’s only true for modern humans (and indeed modern chimps) – I don’t know that we were always this warlike.
Plus we might have a little more chance of saving the few orangutans who are left if we recognised them as our brothers and sisters. Chimps seem to have a little more time left (not much but a little).
I wouldn’t dare say this in public, obviously, because someone might write deeply affronted comments on my blog or something, but if you ask me the differences in appearance and behavior between many human races are barely any smaller than those between the most orangutan-like humans and the most human-like orangutans. Sure, orangutans can’t talk, but they can do pretty much everything else – row boats, wash clothes, solve problems… They ought to be included in the human race, I reckon (along with the other hominids too). It would certainly challenge us to think more clearly about a lot of things if we expanded the definition of “us” rather more widely. After all, Australian Aborigines were not legally regarded as human beings by whites until 1967. Us and Them is such a basic categorization, something we are all guilty of making all the time: My friends versus my enemies, my family versus the rest of the village, Christians versus Muslims, Catholics versus Protestants. If you ask me (and I realise you didn’t, but this is my blog versus your blog) the more inclusive we make the category of “us”, the less meaningful the category of “them” becomes, and this is a good thing.
The evolutionary tree does not end in big lumps, within which all pigs are the same, all humans are the same, etc. It ends in trillions of individual leaves – every single living thing is unique and more or less distantly related to every other living thing. The notion of species certainly makes sense – there are reasons why some creatures can’t breed with others, and that means that creatures who can interbreed end up being more similar to each other and more different from those with which they can no longer share genes. This is also true to a lesser extent when geography or culture separate people – Irishmen end up looking more like other Irishmen than they do Russians, because they share genes more often. But so what? It’s still true that we are all different and all the same. Hedgehogs, jellyfish, azalias and E.coli are all “us”.
There are certainly places we need to draw lines, but there is no single line that works for all questions, so we need to get into the habit of turning our instinctive black and white categories into more subtle shades. For example we need to draw a line (perhaps a very fuzzy one) between things that are conscious and therefore have moral rights and things that aren’t and don’t. We don’t actually have a clue where to draw that line yet, but few of us are even asking the question. It almost certainly doesn’t fall between Homo sapiens and all other living things, as religion-reinforced intuition and arrogance would have us believe. Sometimes we also fail to differentiate between finding where to draw a line and choosing where to draw it.
Anyway, I realise this little rant would apply equally well if chimpanzees really are our closest cousins, but I just wanted to raise a cheer for orangutans. After all I was (until I went grey) a redhead just like them, so that makes me and the orangs into “Us” and all you dark-haired gorilla offspring can go hang…