By Desmond Morris
THERE ARE 193 living species of monkeys and apes. One hundred and ninety-two of them are covered with hair. The exception is a naked ape self-named Homo sapiens. This unusual and highly successful species spends a great deal of time examining his higher motives while studiously ignoring his fundamental ones. He has the biggest brain of all the primates, but has remained a naked ape nevertheless. In acquiring lofty new motives, he has lost none of the earthy old ones of his evolutionary past. He would be a far less worried and more fulfilled animal if only he would face up to this fact.
From his teeth, his hands, his eyes and various other anatomical features, the naked ape is obviously a primate of some sort. But he’s a primate with a difference. All apes originally were forest creatures, but somewhere around 15 million years ago, their forest strongholds became seriously reduced in size. Some of the primates were, in an almost biblical sense, forced to face expulsion from the garden. The ancestors of the chimpanzees, gorillas, gibbons and organs stayed put. The ancestors of another surviving ape-the naked ape-left the forest.
Our ancestors had the wrong kind of sensory equipment to compete with other carnivores on the ground. Their noses were too weak and their ears not sharp enough. Their physique was hopelessly inadequate. But, fortunately, in the last million years or so, vital changes began to take place. Our ancestors became more upright, better runners. Their hands, freed from locomotion duties, became strong, efficient weapon holders. Their brains became more complex-brighter, quicker decision-makers. Their bodies became hairless, probably as a cooling device during long endurance pursuits after prey, for which they were not physically well equipped. A hunting ape, a killer ape, was in the making.
Because this hunting ape’s battle was to be won by brain rather than brawn, some kind of dramatic evolutionary step had to be taken to greatly increase his brainpower. The resultant evolutionary trick is not unique; it has happened in a number of cases. Put simply, it is a process (called neoteny) by which certain juvenile or infantile characteristics are retained and prolonged into adult life. A young chimpanzee, for example, completes its brain growth within 12 months after birth, six or seven years before the animal becomes re productively active. Our own species, by contrast, has at birth a brain which is only 25 percent of its final adult size; for you and me, brain growth is prolonged into adult life, continuing for about ten years after we have attained sexual maturity. The naked ape, therefore, was given plenty of time to imitate and learn before he had to go out and survive on his own. He could be taught by his parents as no animal had ever been taught before.
He began using artificial weapons instead of natural ones. Because, physically, he was less fit for obtaining food than the other carnivores, he became a cooperative pack hunter to survive. A home base was necessary, a place to come back to with the spoils, where the females and their slowly growing young could share the food. Paternal behavior of this kind had to be a new development, for the general primate rule is that virtually all parental care comes from the mother. (it is only a wise primate, like our hunting ape, that knows its own father.)
So, the hunting ape became a territorial ape. And because of the extremely long period of dependency of the young; the females found themselves almost perpetually confined to the home base. In this respect, the hunting ape’s new way of life posed a special problem, one that it did not share with the typical “pure” carnivores: the role of the sexes had to become all-male groups. If anything was going to go against the primate grain, it was this. For a virile primate male to go off on a feeding trip and leave his females unprotected from the advances of other males was unheard of, something that demanded a major shift in social behavior.
The answer was the development of a pair-bond. Male and female hunting apes had to remain faithful to one another. This is a common tendency among many other groups of animals, but it is rare among primates. It solved three problems in one stroke. It meant that serious sexual rivalries among the males were reduced, thus aiding their developing cooperativeness. “and the growth of a one-male-one-female breeding unit provided a cohesive family unit for the heavy task of rearing and training the slowly developing young.
So, our ape became an ape with responsibilities. In a mere half-million years, he progressed from making a fire to making a spacecraft.