Davidson Loehr  @  ChelseaGreen

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Saved by Our DNA

Posted on Saturday, March 14th, 2009 at 1:13 am by Davidson Loehr

We need to start listening to better animal stories. The other day there was an article about a chimpanzee in a Swedish zoo who hoards stones and pebbles to throw at visitors, referred to as "ammunition” caches. And since we share over 98% of our DNA with chimps (I know people who share even more), these are really thinly masked stories about how violent and dangerous we are. This missile-hoarding chimp story came at the same time “Barbie” turned 50, Martha Stewart’s dog died, and the story of the Octuplets mom was still being used to generate comedy skits by Jimmy Kimmel.

These stories are meant to draw crowds for media who aren’t getting many.    Stories of innate violent streaks in other animals are used to reinforce dire pictures of our most dangerous tendencies.  They’re tendencies, we’ve been taught, that can only be countered by … well, what?  Certainly not religion.  Nobody who reads the news would buy that any more.  We’re past the time when religion can claim any great moral leadership (think priest scandals, evangelists caught in motels, hate campaigns against gays, or megachurch pastors urging us to nuke Iran).

This could make our situation pretty dire, if we had to count on religion to save us.  Hype aside, church attendance is down to 17% in America now, and much lower in European countries.  The Catholic Church’s future is in third world countries, which turns that church back to its more literalistic, magical and authoritarian days and ways. But in the West, the churches can’t save themselves, and following the religion beat in the media makes it look like ninety percent of them are giving the other ten percent a bad name.

So we obviously need better animal stories to read about.  Luckily, there are some better stories, not as often reported, that show that we may already have everything in us that we need to live decent and compassionate lives.

You may remember the 1996 story of the gorilla at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago who rescued a toddler who fell into the gorilla enclosure and handed him over to safety.  And we’ve all heard stories about dolphins saving humans from drowning, or the many YouTube clips showing the easy compassion that exists between animals, even between species.

Here’s another one, from our other closest relative: bonobos.  Bonobos are a lot like chimps, only nicer.  It happened at the Twycross Zoo in England, in the bonobo enclosure.   Since apes can’t swim, zoos used to surround their islands with moats, giving them a bit more pseudo-nature for their captivity.  On this day a starling flew into a plate glass window facing the enclosure, and fell to the ground, unconscious.  An adult female bonobo they’d named Kuni went over to the bird and picked it up.  While bonobos don’t eat as much meat as chimps do, they’ll still eat some, and the zookeeper thought this could be a messy scene in front of visitors and all.  She tried to get Kuni to hand the bird over, but no dice.

Instead, Kuni went to the tallest tree on the island and, holding the starling in one hand, used her other three to climb to the very top of the tree.  This looked like the setting for a dramatic and awful finale.  But once at the top, Kuni gently took the bird by both wingtips, stretched the wings out to a flying posture, and tossed the bird into the air.

Nobody would argue the ape had been taught to do this.  She simply seems to have responded to another living thing in distress, and creatively tried to restore it to what looked like its most natural position – wings spread, flying.  This is even beyond the Golden Rule, extending compassion not only to those who have different customs, but also to those in different species – the churches should take notes.

Kuni seems to have done it because that kind of caring is at least as innate as aggression – in apes, dogs, dolphins, and a thousand other species, including our own.  She didn’t learn it in church, and we really don’t either.
It looks like altruism, compassion, and active caring for other living things is innate in us, part of what we are when we are living up to our full natural potential as naked apes.  So while part of our animal nature stockpiles weapons, an equally ancient part naturally feels empathy, compassion and instinctively acts on it as a blessing to the world around us.  We don’t have a fate; we have a choice.

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