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29 March 2012

g is for...


Gratutitous gorillas.

No, really. We could all use a little more gorilla in our lives. They have so much to teach us!

As one of our nearest relatives, they have much to say about our history from an evolutionary standpoint (98.6% of our genomes and 99.6% of our DNA). It wasn't all that long ago, though, that the western world thought gorillas were mythical creatues. We didn't start studying them, really, until Leakey established Diane Fossey in a research facility in central Africa in the 1960s. We've learned so much; we've learned about being human, by studying gorillas. Like us, they are family-oriented and intelligent. The questions which remain in the broadest senses are those of nuanced natures: do gorillas have genders (as opposed to sex)? Probably, but why? Do they have religion? Probably not, but why not? Can we call their behavioral patterns a culture? They have rudimentary language; they have laughter; they practice altruism as much as humans do; they have love, and hate; they are each individuals, with separate personalities like no other.

That's all very general and whatnot.

What about my path? What can they teach me, beyond academia?

Over the past ten months (zomg, almost a year!), I've been working on a research project studying gorillas. I and the people I work with are cateloging hundreds of hours of raw video footage of wild gorillas, taken in Rwanda over the past couple decades. I set up a database for us, and we're currently going through and 'tagging' video (i.e., "from here to here, an infant gorilla is doing this") so we can quickly reference and analyze the whole lot in the future. It's a blast. Really! I LOVE my work. And right now, I wish I had some of those videos on my home computer so I could share one with you.

There's not much cuter than an 500-pound silverback getting overrun by a pack of playful infant gorillas. For real.

But anyway... I did have a point. And here it is:

Watching gorillas reminds me that we aren't so far from nature, after all. All our technology, all our advances and civilization, all those things which seem to push us farther from the natural, spiritual world, are ultimately ineffectual. We are still children of the same earth as our brethren. We are still animals, too. When we move too far from that truth, we lose our humanity. Perhaps that's ironic, but I don't think so. To be human is to be of the earth; to leave the earth in our minds, is to leave our humanity.

That's what the gorillas have taught me, beyond academia.


Oddly, they don't feature much in our mythology very much. I did an internet search for mythology about gorillas, and found exactly one story:

"NZAME (Fan people of the Congo) A vague and shadowy god whose likeness can't be captured in wood, stone or metal. Nzame lived on earth with his three sons, Whiteman, Blackman and Gorilla. Blackman, Gorilla and all their kinfolk sinned against Nzame, and so Nzame took all his wealth and went to live with his son Whiteman in the west. Gorilla and his kin went to live in the jungle. Without the wealth, power and knowledge of Nzame, Blackman and his kin live a hard life of poverty and ignorance, ever dreaming of the western land where dwells Nzame and his favored son, Whiteman."

Whoa. (I know, right?) So... that's a whole 'nother topic for 'nother day...

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