Skip to content
Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the July 2015 issue

Lessons from the Human Zoo

In the 1950s, the behavioral scientist Desmond Morris carried out art experiments with the chimpanzee Congo. What began with a hesitant pencil line drawn by Congo soon led to expressive, powerful, abstract compositions. Julian Huxley and Pablo Picasso were among those who bought the work.

Congo painted with a passion but he wasn’t interested in "impact." He felt no need to display his pictures. In fact, he liked to tear them up as soon as they were finished. Morris had to go to some lengths to get hold of the painting at the critical moment when the ape had already finished it—attempts to take it away from him sooner could end badly—but had not yet begun to destroy it.

The chimpanzee needed no motivation to paint. Quite the opposite—when Morris experimented with giving him a treat for every finished picture, his interest in painting was significantly reduced. He began to splash his works onto canvas as quickly as possible, listless and uninspired, so as to concentrate on the reward afterward.

 

While working on Auswilderung, my first novel, I was often asked how much longer it would take. It’ll take as long as it takes, I said. I’m working on a book, not on a parade ground. But did I even have a publisher, an agent? Creating a product with no prospect of consumers for it—wasn’t that naïve? Maybe it is, I thought, and went back to working on the text.

What if someone had given me a handful of peanuts for every page I finished? What if someone had guaranteed publication, and impact—to be liked, to inspire, to provoke, which is how the zoologist Frans de Waal defines the intentions of human art? What if I’d known that others, particularly members of the opposite sex, would be impressed by my work—which is what the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller suspects to be the purpose of human art—would that have raised my output and lowered my interest? Would the same text have come out?

Literary readers are on a quest for the "nonconformist," we’re told, and apparently it’s increasingly hard to find. The more interesting of my writer friends include personalities like Congo, and it may well be worth the effort of getting their manuscripts out of their hands before they rip them to shreds.

 

In 1931 the psychologist Winthrop Kellogg, his wife, and their ten-month-old son, Donald, tried out living as a family with a seven-and-a-half-month female chimpanzee. The title and aim of the experiment was "Humanizing the Ape." If "wolf children" behaved like wolves, shouldn’t Gua then develop like a human child? The experiment was set up so that Gua was always to be treated like a human and never like an animal or a pet. Donald and Gua were dressed in matching outfits, fed in a high chair, bathed together, and so on.

In actual fact, Gua did learn to walk upright, eat with a spoon, and even understand human language. However, Kellogg’s hope that she would begin to speak was not fulfilled. Donald was a better learner in that respect. Like Gua, he soon relinquished language and expressed his needs in screams, grunts, and barks. He also liked crawling on all fours and chewing on shoes. Kellogg broke off the experiment after ten months.

Do apes have their own culture? There are numerous observations of apes and other animals passing on newly learned or invented cultural techniques to the next generation. Nevertheless, chimpanzees are comparatively indifferent to how others do something, as long as they get what they want. In terms of imitation, the "herd animal man" (Friedrich Nietzsche) has nothing to learn from apes.

We don’t seem to be overly proud of this peculiarity. We talk about "aping" others, not of "humaning" them. Imitation is considered primitive, a behavior common to animals, children, or "savages." Of the latter, Darwin commented, "Apes are much given to imitation, as are savages."

We understand "culture" to be what we ourselves create or recreate. If animals create more and imitate less than humans, then why is the existence of an animal culture so frequently denied? Perhaps because we humans are at an advantage when it comes to distributing cultural achievements. Yet is this advantage also an asset? Dawkins used Beethoven’s symphonies to explain his coining of the word "memes," cultural variants of "genes." Some forty years later, the term "memes" summons up cultural bodies of a very different shape and size.

If you want to write a book and not talk only about Grumpy Cat and MH 370, all influences have to have the same chance to step into the foreground, and to do so they first have to be present in the background. As we can’t stop ourselves from imitating, it’s advisable to exercise restraint in consuming culture. Or we could take Nietzsche’s advice occasionally and opt for "free, willful, light loneliness."

 

How many werewolves have there been since 1850? In one study, Jan Dirk Blom, a lecturer in psychiatry in Groningen, Netherlands, counted thirteen cases of "lycanthropy," a subform of "zooanthropism" or the delusion of mutating into an animal. People who believe they are werewolves hallucinate claws, fur, and fangs. Their language skills decline. They howl at the moon, live outside, and eat raw meat. The cause is a dysfunction in the parts of the brain responsible for our physical perception of the self.

I like to sum up my novel like this: it’s about a woman who wants to be a gorilla. No one wants to be a gorilla, people respond. I do, I say, but hardly anyone believes me. A gorilla can’t write books, they tell me. A minority does admit to envying apes in the forest their lifestyle, like I do. Or cows in the meadow.

If I were a gorilla, I like to imagine, I’d be allowed to live in the open air, barefoot and swaddled in warm fur. Food would be available in abundance and wouldn’t have to be prepared. No moral or social norms would stop me from displaying my affection or dislike. My main interest would be satisfying the demands of the moment. The only threats would be specific and never abstract—poachers, not tax inspectors. And I wouldn’t have ever to think about accumulating anything, "building something up."

Being a werewolf—I imagine that would be great. Not least because as a wolf, I wouldn’t be part of the master species that has "made this planet a human theme park," as Jonathan Franzen puts it. His character Walter Berglund, in Freedom, is concerned, he says, that nothing else is left, that there is only us. If I can’t even escape from human beings in a forest or a desert for all the joggers and tourists, I’d at least like not to be part of the problem.

Ted Kaczynski set out on a walk in the summer of 1983. "There were too many people around my cabin so I decided I needed some peace," he later said. He found his favorite spot ruined by a new road. Then he started building bombs. Does that mean environmentalists are misanthropists? Charles Manson, or the leader of ATWA (Air, Trees, Water, Animals), Pentti Linkola, with his calls for a two-child policy and enforced sterilizations? By no means, if we believe Linkola: If a lifeboat is full, he writes, those who hate life will try to load it with more people and sink the lot.

 

"I decided to live like an animal," is how the geologist Michel Siffre explains what gave him the idea of spending two months in a cave in 1962, "in the dark, without knowing the time." With no idea of when it was time to sleep, time to get up, time to work, what would happen to nine-to-five? In his first experiment, Siffre’s days expanded by only one hour. In his subsequent trials on himself and others, however, all the test persons developed a 48-hour rhythm, with active phases of around 36 and sleep phases of about 12 hours.

I’m writing this at two in the afternoon. I sat down at my desk at around ten. My work started just before eleven. Young writers are often very interested in their fellow authors’ routines. Thank goodness for dailyroutines.com. Wannabe Hemingways can read there that they can knock off work with a clear conscience around noon, after some six hours at the typewriter. Günter Grass, by contrast (10 a.m. to 7 p.m., with two breaks for breakfast and coffee), almost notched up a 39-hour week. Compared to Isaac Asimov (7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.), he was still a lazy so-and-so.

In Sven Regener’s novel Berlin Blues, the protagonist Herr Lehmann is woken by his mother’s boastful phone call: "It’s a quarter after ten, no one’s asleep at this time of day; I’ve been up and about since seven." My own parents will mercilessly tease anyone who’s not at the breakfast table by eight at the latest. We wouldn’t dream of morally judging any other animal for the rhythm of its sleeping and active hours. Perhaps because we’re the only animal that can interfere with that rhythm—or wants to.

 

Europe’s thirty-five-hour workweek is by no means an achievement. Hunters and gatherers worked three to four hours a day. Some indigenous cultures believe it’s bad luck to work two days in a row. Daniel Quinn is right to present the development of agriculture as a story of decline. Having to earn our daily bread by the sweat of our brow is a punishment. Who wouldn’t rather live on nature’s generosity? There are legends about the orangutans on Borneo and the lemurs on Madagascar that say that they can actually speak but are wise enough not to let humans know. Otherwise, they’d have to work.

When are we allowed to follow the findings of scientists like Siffre and sit with our hands in our laps with a clear conscience? The ideal daily routine from a chrono-biological perspective plans for very little activity from midday on, aside from eating, a siesta, a little exercise, and a short productive phase between three and four. In my case, production stops at four-thirty, and I close up shop.

 

The over-justification effect is proved as follows: Take a crowd of test persons, give them an amusing task—jigsaw puzzles, for example—and measure how long they do it of their own accord. In a second phase, you reward the test persons for the time spent doing the jigsaw. Finally you cut out the rewards again. The result is that the test persons now spend less time doing jigsaw puzzles than previously, when they were rewarded for the activity. No great surprise there.

The joke is, in the end—and for the rest of their lives—the test persons spend less time doing jigsaw puzzles than at the very beginning, when they did it voluntarily. That’s the over-justification effect. If we reward humans for their behavior, their inner drive decreases. It’s just that we don’t normally see that from the outside, because the inner incentive has been replaced by an external one, the reward.

"Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life," Confucius said, allegedly. Had he been familiar with the over-justification effect he would have said, "Make a job out of your hobby and you soon won’t enjoy it any more." To play on Kierkegaard: Either you choose a job you love, or you choose one you hate; in the end you’ll hate it either way.

What’s the way out? Quite simply, we mustn’t let ourselves be rewarded for things we like doing. Here, too, looking at science can help us understand—take for example the world of the hard-pressed junior academic. Employed on fixed-term contracts, job shares, poorly paid, not to mention no work-life balance. An email has been making the rounds of the Internet, in which American astrophysics professors answer graduate students’ questions about appropriate working hours with "80–100 hours a week."

When they were in graduate school, the professors wrote, they were almost always at the office, even at nights and on weekends. No one asked them to work that much—they simply enjoyed it, they claim. The implication is that they work less now, and enjoy it less, too. No wonder, what with lifetime tenure, regular working hours, and good pay.

A 2005 auction of three works painted by Congo the chimpanzee brought in $26,250. The artist himself was not paid at all to start with and later palmed off with treats. Morris had no reason to invest in incentives as long as Congo painted voluntarily. Should we accuse him of exploiting the ape, or the ape of exploiting himself? Should young academics start a boycott, go on application strike, fight for better working conditions? If what they’re interested in is raking in a handful of peanuts after hastily and listlessly completing their work, then yes. But if they want to continue to carry out their jobs with joy and love, they’d be making monkeys of themselves. If their passion were better paid, it would degenerate to mere work. 

"Lehren aus dem Menschenzoo" © Bettina Suleiman. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Katy Derbyshire. All rights reserved.  

Read more from the July 2015 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.