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What We Can Learn From Chimpanzees (That Might Help us Become Better Men)
By Dan Williams | May 13, 2021
Back in the Eighties, a 10-year-old named Cyril Grueter dragged his parents to a screening of Gorillas in the Mist. Bold and haunting, it tells the true story of American primatologist Dian Fossey, who bonded with the mountain gorillas of central Africa.
“I was intrigued by the beauty of these creatures,” says Grueter, now in his 40s and a biological anthropologist at the University of Western Australia. “I read everything I could get a hold of about them, and I knew that studying these primates would become my career.”
I reckon I know how Grueter felt. Piqued by the dystopian classic Planet of the Apes, my own fascination with the great apes took hold some years later when my dad gave me a copy of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, a doorstop of a book co-authored by the late Carl Sagan.
What a communicator. Truly, if Sagan had been your science teacher back in high school you’d have abandoned plans to study law or engineering and signed up instead for anthropology or astronomy. A quarter of a century after his premature death at 62, Sagan’s words can still make you think, wonder and marvel in equal measure.
In Shadows (with wife Ann Druyan), Sagan ventures millions of years back in time to probe why we are the way we are.
“We humans are like a newborn baby left on a doorstep,” he wrote, “with no note explaining who it is, where it came from, what hereditary cargo of attributes and disabilities it might be carrying, or who its antecedents might be.”
Sagan homed in on the chimpanzees, with whom we share 98.6 per cent of our DNA. Let that number sink in. We’re about as closely related as horses and donkeys, and closer than mice and rats.
To be clear, we didn’t evolve from chimps; our respective ancestors split 4-8 million years ago. But they are so closely related to us, reckoned Sagan, “that we might reasonably guess that we share many of their hereditary predispositions – perhaps more effectively inhibited or redirected, but smouldering in us, nevertheless. Beneath the elegant varnish of law and civilisation, of language and sensibility, just how different from chimpanzees are we?”
That’s an intriguing question. This being Men’s Health, however, we’re inclined to come at our primate cousins from another angle: what can we learn from them that might help us become better men? Your kneejerk response might be, ‘Nothing! They’re violent, sex-obsessed brutes’. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But there’s more to it than that.
Gradually, over the course of about 200,000 years, we homo sapiens have built evermore complex societies, propelled by one technological leap after another. But in the rush toward something ‘better’, how much of value have we left behind?
Put man and ape head-to-head in various arenas and you may be surprised how often an unlikely – and hirsute – winner emerges.
Conversely, in other respects, we might best regard chimpanzees as anti-role models, diabolically perfect instructors in what not to do. Let’s venture into The Forbidden Zone.
You’re taller and heavier than the average male chimp, which (standing on two legs) is less than 150cm in height – and about 50kg. You’d probably out-squat him, too. But for upper-body strength, the chimp trounces you. A 2017 US study found they were about 1.5 times stronger than humans for having more fast-twitch muscle fibres – the type responsible for explosive output.
In the family of great apes (to which humans belong), chimps aren’t even particularly strong. It’s more a case of us being weaklings, says Zarin Machanda, a primatologist at Tufts University who has spent nearly 20 years studying the wild chimps of Uganda’s Kibale National Park.
“In transitioning to bipedal life, we lost that upper-body strength, whereas chimps have prioritised it because they spend 50 per cent of their lives in trees, swinging and hanging.”
Generally, over short distances, chimps and humans can reach similar speeds, but we have the edge over longer stretches owing to our ancestors’ penchant for hunting and migration.
“Our physiology evolved in response to covering 15km a day,” says Alison Behie, head of biological anthropology at ANU. “Now, most of us don’t do anything like that. We’re sedentary, which is creating a bunch of health issues, whereas the other great apes are living in a very similar environment to that in which they evolved.”
Your takeout: You can compensate for your species’ evolutionary losses by animalising your training.
The Hunger Games
Apes eat smart. “They’re really good at what’s called nutrient balancing,” says Behie. A US study that monitored the diet of a baboon in the Tokai Forest, South Africa for a month found it maintained the same daily ratio of carbs and fats to protein. Exactly how primates do this is unclear, says Behie, who suspects they’re somehow attuned to their body’s needs through their sense of taste.
And chimps don’t gorge. When a group happens upon a tree bursting with figs, it’s party time. They’ll hoot and carry on like a team of cricketers after a big wicket. Then they’ll all tuck in. “But it seems they know when to stop,” says Behie. “They won’t clear
a tree of fruit, unless it’s a very large group. They’ll leave some behind.” That suggests they don’t eat for pure pleasure. At a dessert buffet, we humans don’t always exhibit the same restraint.
The chimp diet is about 90 per cent plants. When they’ve made a kill, however, the meat is devoured with infinite alacrity and zero decorum.
“They’re not squeamish,” understates Machanda. “I have seen them kill monkeys, and they’re eating the monkey, and the monkey is still alive. It’s trying to crawl away on the forest floor and the chimp is pulling it back with its own intestines. I mean, they’re gross,” she adds, departing momentarily from the language of science.
Brain. Scrotum. Foetus. Chimps feast on these parts first. And again, you may be repulsed. But that’s only because Westerners are so used to serving and conceptualising meat in ways that obscure its origins. “Squeamishness is largely a culturally acquired thing, not a biological part of being human,” says David Raubenheimer, co-author of Eat Like The Animals.
Chimps have no such hang-ups. They just eat, with an instinctual sense that organ meat in particular is a vitamin-and-mineral powerhouse.
Last year, doctors in the UK began urging people to do likewise. Responding to the rise of veganism, the Public Health Collaboration launched Organuary, a new-year campaign to encourage the consumption of organ meat twice per week.
For their active ways and clean diet, chimps prosper. “I’ve never seen an overweight primate in the wild, nor read about one,” says Behie.
There’s also very little evidence that wild chimps develop heart disease. What kills them eventually tends to be respiratory epidemics, intergroup violence or run-ins with cars. Sick, old chimps tend to wander off, never to be seen again, which may be their idea of dying with dignity. By contrast, chimps in captivity or with access to human food scraps die slower, more painful deaths. “They are notoriously vulnerable to heart disease and diabetes,” says Raubenheimer.
Your Takeout” Eat a variety of only wholefoods, ensuring you get enough protein before feeling 80 per cent full. The knack of diet-balancing isn’t unique to primates – creatures as rudimentary as single-celled slime moulds do it, says Stephen J. Simpson, co-author of Eat Like The Animals. “So, why can’t we do it? We can – it’s just that our appetite has been subverted by our modern junk-food environment.”
Sex at Dawn
How much do we know about the intimate lives of chimps? Plenty. Studies out of Africa follow the same animals every day of their lives. “Even your best friend in the world – do you know what their average length of copulation is? Probably not. But I know that for all of my chimps,” says Machanda.
Male chimps are insatiable. They want sex constantly – and get it constantly because the females, generally speaking, dare not deny them.
They get their rocks off about 12 times a day, each encounter lasting a frantic 7-10 seconds. As well as the sex there are frequent genital inspections. When raised among humans, chimps have been known to masturbate to pictures of naked people.
The chimp scene has been called a veritable Garden of Eden, devoid of shame and inhibition. It has also disgusted many an observer. One, Charles Gore, a former Bishop of Oxford, lost his clerical cool one day at London Zoo, telling a chimp: “When I contemplate you, you turn me into a complete atheist, because I cannot believe that there is a divine being that could create anything so monstrous”.
As for what’s behind the male’s rampant libido, experts think it has less to do with high testosterone than with male-male competition, which has caused chimps to “evolve enormous testicles for their body size,” says Machanda. “This allows them to keep up much higher levels of sperm production compared to humans.”
Your takeout” You can envy chimps’ powers of recovery; you might even look to boost your own libido through herbs like fenugreek and gingko biloba. But also acknowledge that the chimp approach to sex, were it adopted by enough of us, would bring society crashing down.
Brothers in Arms
Men and chimps do friendships similarly, right down to paring them back in later life. Scientists assumed this streamlining was a uniquely human phenomenon: conscious of time running out, we start shedding chums we regard as emotionally draining – an explanation known as socioemotional selectivity theory. But in research just published in Science, Machanda and colleagues reported that chimps do precisely the same thing, even though we presume they lack our grasp of mortality.
For Machanda, the finding is a spur to rethink assumptions about ageing, specifically that it is something sad or terrible.
“Given that chimps and humans change their social relationships in the same way, this could suggest that those changes are part of a natural process,” she says. Urging older guys to stay connected and to keep making new friends could be misguided, she adds. “Quite frankly, I don’t think they want that – and that’s not a pathology. It’s not even a negative thing, necessarily.”
Chimps’ male-male bonds can be strong, though compared with human equivalents there’s a more conspicuous element of calculation. “When there’s a major shift in the dominance hierarchy, that can break up bonds and reform them,” says Machanda. “These friendships aren’t exactly like ones you may have that endure no matter what. These male chimps are getting something from these relationships, and when there’s a new alpha these males are thinking, ‘OK, who now is going to be a good ally? Who can I spend time with who might benefit me?’”
Your takeout: Focus on the friendships that make you happiest, sans guilt.
The Affairs of Men
In world politics, competent and decent people rise to the top, though so do bullies and blowhards. The same is true in chimp communities, where the position of alpha attracts all types.
In Kibale National Park, says Machanda, “some alphas have been despotic, real tyrants ruling with an iron fist, and others have been really nice”. The thuggish tend to be physically large, while the kinder kingpins rely on friendships to retain power. There are also chimps who seem well-suited to leadership but don’t pursue it, who seem to figure they have better things to do. You could think of them as the Prince Harrys of the ape world.
In stable democracies, humans can remove failed leaders at the ballot box. Dud alphas, on the other hand, aren’t going anywhere except by violent overthrow. On balance, humans do politics better, though tell that to the thin blue line at the US Capitol or the good folk of Myanmar.
Your takeout: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” said philosopher Edmund Burke.
“Yes, violence is part of our nature. but that doesn’t mean we cannot change”
A Beautiful Mind
Ever since Darwin noted the family resemblance, many have sought to pinpoint a defining trait that places humans in a category apart. Alas, almost nothing works. Under scrutiny, umpteen proposed differences – dance, collaboration, foreplay, self-awareness – fold into a matter of degree rather than nature.
We do, however, have the power of speech, which allows us, on the whole, to settle all manner of differences with words rather than battery.
While chimps can’t talk, they can learn sign language. Left alone, they use vocalisations of different frequencies that lead Behie to believe “they are communicating with one another in a more sophisticated way than we understand”.
Humans make amazing things. But chimps are toolmakers, too, a fact discovered 60 years ago by Jane Goodall, who observed a Tanzanian chimp inserting a twig, stripped of its leaves, into a termite mound and withdrawing it, meal attached. It’s a skill that chimps pass down.
So, chimps make termite rods. Well, whoopee-do. We make smartphones, MRI machines and spaceships. Except it’s worth remembering that you didn’t invent any of those things. Left to ourselves, most of us couldn’t make a hammer, let alone a toaster or a flatscreen.
Your takeout: For our comfortable, high-tech lives we ride on the coattails of peers and predecessors. Take it as a wake-up call to develop your practical skills. Or do a survival course.
A History of Violence
It’s nice we have a cousin in nature. But here’s the catch: chimps have some awful propensities, which we share. And that raises the question of whether these traits are hardwired. Are our flaws irreversible? Are we fated for self-destruction? It’s like in Planet of the Apes when Zira asks what Charlton Heston will find in The Forbidden Zone. “His destiny,” replies Dr Zaius.
Chimps are jealous, selfish xenophobes and warmongers. Inter-community combat has to be seen to be believed. “It is chaos,” says Machanda. “It is blood thirst. It is kill, kill, kill.” Even within communities, chimps commit ferocious acts of violence. It’s a madhouse!
“Clearly, the chimps do not see monkeys or chimps of other groups, or even members of their own group, as deserving of mercy or other moral considerations. They may be heroic in defending their own young, but they do not show the least compassion for the young of other species. Perhaps they consider them animals,” Sagan chided obliquely in Shadows.
Machanda sees hope for us. No other species matches us for kindness, compassion and empathy, she says. “These qualities must have been naturally selected for on the basis that an individual will have more reproductive success for having friends.” Globalisation, free trade, charity, diversity, humane asylum-seeker policy… all are proof we can rise above primal instincts. By contrast, nativism is old thinking. It is chimp thinking.
Grueter, who three decades ago saw the film that set his life’s course, is likewise optimistic. “Yes, violence is part of our nature. But just because it is part of our nature doesn’t mean it cannot be changed.” Allow people to meet their basic needs, he says, and anger and violence dissipate.
“Caring about the wellbeing of others, even people we don’t know personally, is one of the hallmarks of humankind,” says Grueter. “Some people believe that we are ‘prisoners of our genes’ . . . that there is no free will. But we are not robots. We can change according to circumstances, learn from experience and recognise opportunities as they arise.”
Your takeout: Let go of thinking that amounts to us versus them. Eschew and denounce violence. Set your default to kindness.
TRAIN LIKE A BEAST
These moves from Animal Flow master instructor
Alisha Smith and elite trainer Andrew Pap will restore your potential for simian power and agility. Add them to your workout or, better still, do them now and then during the day
1/ Deep Ape
Much like a deep squat, this posture helps create “a well-functioning bipedal human, one who is strong and mobile and has total agency over his body,” says Smith. Build up to your maximal depth . . . and hold.
2/ Animal Crawl
Quadrupedal (all-fours) movement does your body a world of good. Crawl forward, backwards and laterally to fire your core, stabilise and strengthen your shoulders and tax your CV system.
3/ Hang Time
Tree-dwelling is behind us but the strength and shoulder-joint mobility you develop from hanging needn’t be. Build up to one-arm hangs of 60 seconds. When you’re ready, try a one-arm pull-up.
By Dan Williams
Dan Williams, Men’s Health’s Associate Editor, is the magazine’s most experienced presence. While his body protests more than it used to, he still insists it honour the MH way, with regular dawn workouts mingled with punishing sessions on the tennis court – all against a backdrop of abstemiousness: he turns into a pumpkin at 10pm.
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