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26 april 2011

Apes, for John Sorenson, are people who have fallen afoul of a murderous power dynamic. So close to humans that some have proposed we share a genus, so like us in social behavior and cognition that only accidents of the vocal tract may prevent them from sharing human language, apes are human-like, but lack human rights.

I wouldn't go as far in linking apes and humans as Sorenson does in his book Ape, but you don't have to go that far in order to identify strongly with his simian-rights positions. Human exploitation of apes and their habitats in Africa and Asia proceeds with no foresight and no control. Or rather, the only foresight exerted is perhaps that the exploiters realize we'll run out of apes some day, and they're determined to use as many apes as possible before they disappear.

Like all the Reaktion Animal books, Ape surveys the history of apes in literature, mythology, and art. But its real weight falls in later chapters that take up the distressing disregard for the quality of simian life among almost all humans who deal with apes: those who perform research upon them, employ them for entertainment purposes, chop them up for souvenirs, eat them. One feels ominously that, when the last apes go, the ferocity that is now visited on them will descend upon the least-advantaged of humans. Or perhaps, the evolving standards of civilization that have made slavery and genocide taboo at least in rhetorical terms have reconcentrated human hatred upon apes. People somehow seem to get a frisson from maltreating creatures that are recognizably like them, and if legal strictures prevent that maltreatment (in theory) from being visited on homo sapiens, they seem determined to take it out on Pan, Gorilla, and Pongo.

Sorenson shows how apes have always served as a mirror for humans. Apes seem inherently ridiculous, and apes dressed as humans (in art or in real life) show us what fools we mortals be. But the current relation of apes to humans is anything but funny. One of the sterner challenges of the 21st century may be to see how human societies can redeem themselves by respecting apes.

In the end, though, Ape is a pessimistic book. It's hard for it not to be. Apes in "nature" will probably not survive the 21st century, and apes in zoos are no better off than people in prisons. Anti-conservationists (paradoxically, most of them "conservatives") would probably clamor that we have to think of people before we think of apes. Aren't people's jobs more important than some bunch of monkeys? Yet the relentless exploitation of animal habitats in the name of humanity may be one of the most inhumane things about us as a species.

Sorenson, John. Ape. London: Reaktion, 2009.