Thursday, June 24, 2010


The other day I caught the last few minutes of a TV program about Oliver, an elderly chimpanzee now retired to a primate sanctuary, who spent many years as a freak show exhibit, labeled the world's only "humanzee," half human, half chimp. Here's an article about him:


He does look strangely near-human for an ape, as you can see from the picture. Also, he chose to walk upright (until crippled by arthritis) and had many other human-like habits. He preferred the company of our species over his own and only recently started learning to get along with other chimps. DNA testing finally revealed that he has the same number of chromosomes as any other chimpanzee and definitely belongs to that species. Scientists quoted on the TV special, however, suggested that his genetic makeup contains some unique features that may indicate he's a mutant or a member of a very rare subspecies.

Interestingly, one reason he had to leave the home environment where he lived for a long time was that, not being exposed to the company of his own kind, he became sexually imprinted on human females. When he started trying to mate with women, he became dangerous.

The notion of a human-chimpanzee hybrid would have sounded much more plausible in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some anthropologists of that era seriously proposed that non-white races were missing links between lower primates and Homo sapiens. Edgar Rice Burroughs, in the episodes of his Tarzan series set in the lost city of Opar, seemed to think his readers would have no trouble accepting that the degenerate inhabitants of the ruined city descended from interbreeding between human beings and great apes.

The plight of Oliver reminds me of Robert Heinlein's 1947 novella "Jerry Was a Man," set in a future when many kinds of genetically engineered animals are commercially available. A rich woman buys Jerry, a worn-out working chimpanzee with enhanced intelligence and some capacity for speech, to save him from being euthanized now that he has become economically useless. The TV anthology series MASTERS OF SCIENCE FICTION filmed an infuriatingly distorted adaptation of this story. To begin with, the script made Jerry an android, thus abandoning one of the story's major philosophical issues, the question of the boundary between animal and human. And the androids in the show didn't even make sense; the only job we actually saw them performing was walking a grid across a mine field in the role of animated explosive detectors. As if a society capable of constructing artificial human beings would waste them by letting them blow themselves up in a task equally doable by much simpler and cheaper robots! Worse, in Heinlein's novella Jerry the intelligent chimp proves his right to be classified as a "man" by demonstrating his desire for freedom and appreciation for music. In the film, the humanity of Jerry the android is demonstrated by his willingness to lie—where Jerry the chimp shows in court that he not only knows the difference between truth and falsehood but also prefers truth—and his readiness to shove one of his fellow workers into the path of a live mine so he can survive. Once again I wonder what, if anything, TV writers are thinking. (Yeah, okay, I can take a good guess: They think a cynical, fight-for-survival view of "humanity" will impress the audience as more credible than a sentimental, uplifting one. Haven't they ever heard of the altruistic behavior found even within societies of "lower" animals? Aargh.)

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. Mating can be a tricky subject, one for SFR to deal with, preferably IMO!

    I am currently reading Braided World by Kay Kenyon. In it, those "born to bear" have their tongues cut out, and the "upper class" swim in a pond or lagoon to create babies outside of their own bodies since it's considered "wrong" to have them inside.

    Strange world! I wonder how they would have responded to Oliver?