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The Left Bank of the World: Politics, Chimpanzees and Bonobos
"As retaliation for the massacres which the British commit in Iraq and Afghanistan, the mujahideen have successfully done it this time in London."
— al Qaeda't al-Jihad

"Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers."
— Karl Rove

"Dominant males are always paranoid."
— Frans de Waal

My first political hit piece — the one featuring Orange County Congressman Bob Dornan’s head Photoshopped onto the body of a chimpanzee — was an unexpected success.

Nicknamed for his zealous support of the disastrous Air Force bomber program that bilked taxpayers out of $25 billion, “B-1 Bob” was an easy mark for my creative monkey-wrenching. With two photo files and only a few deft strokes of the mouse, Dornan was frankensteined into a chimp in the throes of an exuberantly imposing simian chest-thump. The raised eyebrows, the bared teeth, and the arched neck blended perfectly with the fur-covered shoulders, clenched fists, and erect nipples. It was a fitting posture for the militaristic arch-conservative Dornan, who in the 1980s compared pro-choice activists to Charles Manson and called his political opponents “lesbian spear-chuckers.”

When my completed “Dornan the Chimp” political hit piece rolled off the printing press into the mailboxes of consistent voters in California’s 46th Congressional District, my client was delighted.

“You know, Nathan,” he said with tears in his eyes, “the difference between political hawks and doves is the difference between chimpanzees and bonobos.”

At the time — as a younger, more self-conscious man — I didn’t get it and didn’t ask for an explanation. Chimps? Bonobos? I knew that.

Of course, I didn’t. I should have asked. An explanation would have laid bare the strategy contained in quotes like Karl Rove’s “Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11." To understand the difference between chimps and bonobos is to understand the world's political landscape.

In subsequent years, a squadron of hawkish right-wing political celebrities joined my hit piece brigade of Photoshopped simians. Newt Gingrich enjoyed a banana. Jesse Helms groomed for fleas. Tom Delay swung from a vine.

“Sweet justice,” an Orange County Congressional candidate once told me. “Those anti-feminist fundamentalists are getting what they deserve.”

In a way they were getting more. With their heads atop a chimpanzee’s shoulders they were reunited with their political animus. I think at least one of them, former conservative icon Gingrich, would agree with me on this point. After all, his political rise was the upshot of chimpanzee logic.

Seriously. For real. I’m not kidding. Listen — if you don’t already know.

Gingrich based many of his political strategies on Frans de Waal's, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes.

Published in 1982, Chimpanzee Politics charts the ascendancy of Luit (almost rhymes with Newt), a chimp who wages a campaign to overthrow Yeroen, the top-ranking alpha male in his group. Yeroen belongs to the old school privileged class. Luit, on the other hand, can be seen as a neo-populist — a homespun opportunist with upper-class tastes who targets his message of elitist oppression to the lower-middle class chimp demographic. Like a member of the conservative Club for Growth, Luit mocks the stodgy Yeroen and punishes Yeroen’s establishment supporters. As a result, Yeroen is overthrown and Luit takes power.

Gingrich was so captivated with chimp hierarchy and strategy that, during his reign as Speaker of the House, he assigned de Waal’s book as required reading for freshmen Republicans. Gingrich’s message to them was simple: If you want to get ahead in politics, de-evolve, forget nuance, and awaken your political giant within by aping chimpanzee behavior.

De Waal’s Luit was the inspiration for Newt’s assault on then-House Speaker Jim Wright. After a barrage of Luit- and Newt-instigated right-wing primate power displays, Wright resigned in 1989. As a result, the young Newt became House minority whip and eventually Speaker of the House. Looking back, I must say, Newt looked relaxed and confident with a banana.

There is only so much interspecies head-grafting you can do before you start to question life’s deeper meanings. By the time George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove became co-presidents, my chimpanzee hit piece business was disremembered history… until I heard about Moe.

On March 3, 2005, St. James and LaDonna Davis packed a birthday cake and left their home in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley to be with their old friend Moe for his birthday. A two-hour drive, north on Interstate 5, beyond Antelope Valley and Lancaster, down Highway 14 and Tehachapi Boulevard, past horses and grazing cattle, up a dirt road in a sage and oak covered canyon, they came to Moe’s home in the outback town of Havilah, California.

The Davises and Moe are very close. They lived together in West Covina for three decades — a happy platonic menage a trios until one day in 1999, Moe decided to bite off part of a woman's finger and in the ensuing chaos ruff-up a policeman.

Moe, by the way, is a chimpanzee. His home, the Animal Haven Ranch at Havilah, is a site licensed by the state of California to take in primates. Most of the time they’re zoo rejects — too old, too ornery, too many. Moe, however, was no zoo creature. He came from Africa to live with the Davises after a poacher killed his mom. Lord only knew, trouble was in his cards.

Moe is 4 feet tall and 150 pounds. But don’t let his Napoleonic stature fool you. Like his fellow chimps, he is strong and aggressive with an upper body strength that could put all of my friends — and some of my enemies — to shame.

Chimps aren’t likely to tell you how much they can bench press, but in tests at the Bronx Zoo in 1924 a male chimpanzee using a dynamometer recorded a one-handed pull of 847 pounds. By comparison, a 165-pound zoo employee pulled 210. In dead lifts, chimps have been known to nonchalantly pump 600 pounds. In the wild, they routinely kill and gulp down much larger animals.

By jungle standards, I suppose the woman whose finger Moe chomped-off should have considered herself lucky. In Los Angeles, however, county health officials took a hard line. Moe was taken into custody.

Over the years, the Davises waged a legal battle to be reunited with their loved one, but to no avail. At the Animal Haven Ranch, Moe was essentially in a kind of State Pen — where last we looked, it was time to slice his 39th birthday cake.

St. James and LaDonna stood outside Moe’s cage. The moment was festive. Moe was happy and relaxed as birthday greetings were exchanged.

Then, without provocation, Buddy and Ollie, two chimpanzees who had escaped from an adjoining cage staged an ambush — or as Newt-trained Republicans like to say, “a pre-emptive attack.”

First, Buddy bit off LaDonna’s thumb. She froze. St. James pulled his bleeding wife away and faced the attackers. He even attempted to reason with them. They showed no mercy. It was pure chimpanzee shock and awe.

Buddy and Ollie chewed off St. James’ nose, gouged out an eye, tore off his cheek, bit off all his fingers, twisted and shredded his foot from his body, tore off his testicles, and literally mauled his ass.

The melee went on for seven minutes before a ranch worker shot Buddy in the head. Ollie was dragging St. James down a walkway when a bullet took him down.

The chimp attack had a 48 hour media buzz – bleed lead, interview with friends, stock chimp shots, Animal Haven Ranch skycam footage, interview with wife, photos of the hospital (where St. James was recovering), more interviews with zoo officials and animal rights groups: A shocking story. What a shame. We’ll be right back.

Not so fast. The chimpanzee-perpetrated event dropped in my cerebral mailbox like a red-flagged hit piece.

I Googled Gingrich and, as luck would have it, found a recent hominid-relevant announcement on his website. Newt is “in favor of teaching evolution in schools as part of biology, but not as the source of life.”

Wow. I guess that means Newt wants to take the "life" out of "life sciences." Regardless, Newt's convoluted position on evolution speaks to his fear of facing his, and for that matter everyone’s, deep dark Darwin past.

Biological science has confirmed that chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than to gorillas. In fact, measured by DNA, chimpanzees and humans differ by just a wee bit more than one percent — with striking similarities in our blood composition and immune responses. There's talk of including chimpanzees in the same genus as human beings. Our shared name? Homo troglodytes.

Chimps and humans would be even more akin if it weren’t for what researchers call "lifestyle" changes — things like sense of smell, hairiness and hearing — that occurred in the 6 million years since we disengaged from our common ancestor .

In their book Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson point out another similarity we share with Moe and our chimp relatives.

"That chimpanzees and humans kill members of neighboring groups of their own species is, we have seen, a startling exception to the normal rule for animals,” they wrote. “Add our close genetic relationship to these apes and we face the possibility that intergroup aggression in our two species has a common origin." (See movie here)

This means, more than likely, that war has its roots in evolution. The London Bombings, 9/11 and the War in Iraq sure look like intergroup aggression to me — not to mention "The Four-Year War at Gombe."

What's that you say?

In the 1970s, renowned primatologist Jane Goodal’s chimpanzee acquaintances were engaged in what amounted to primitive warfare. You’ll find it in your history books under “The Four-Year War at Gombe.” What prompted this war? Territorial jealously: An emotion political hawks often confuse with patriotism.

Chimps are known to be fiercely territorial — constantly patrolling and defending their borders. In at least two documented cases of certifiable chimp genocide, a large community of chimpanzees systematically hunted down a smaller community killing all of its members.

Wrangham is also the author of the “Imbalance of Power” hypothesis. Accordingly, animals that carry out mutual group violence — and get away with it — win resources and territory. This, in turn, allows them survive longer and breed more. It’s a kind of extreme natural selection.

But there’s a caveat: We can’t get away with it anymore. We’re too big, too dangerous, too deadly. It’s Russian Roulette. Suicide.

Wrangham warns that, compared to chimps. humans are more apt to overestimate what they can get away with. We certainly have the capacity to be delusional. How else do you explain nuclear stockpiles and the War on Terror?

Our ignorance may stem from that fact that leadership decisions in war have moved from the battlefield to the boardroom. In extreme cases, like George W. Bush for example, our leaders have personally avoided the battlefield while exhorting battle. This can only lead to gross misunderestimations.

In the swampy equatorial forests of the left bank of the Congo River lives the bonobo — a close relative of the chimpanzee that is being hunted to extinction.

Common chimps, like Moe, are sometimes referred to as Right Bank chimps. Their population extends from Tanzania and Uganda to West Africa. While Right Bank chimps — or Right Wing if you prefer — are prone to chomping off fingers and detaching testicles, bonobos are a peaceful lot. They walk upright more easily than chimps. In fact, evolutionarily speaking, bonobos are more evolved. If you want to see a body double for what human ancestors looked and acted like 6-7 million years ago, watch a bonobo.

There is one other big difference between the chimp and bono. Male chimpanzees are socially dominant over their female counterparts. Generally, they are known to have bad relationships with them, batter them and on occasion rape them.

On the left bank — in the world of bonobos — males are still physically larger, but females rule the roost. They are in power, hear them roar.


“The difference between a political hawk and dove is the difference between chimpanzees and bonobos.” That’s what the man said.

If I had asked in my hit piece days, he might have told me that the two species are the yin and yang of the human condition.

On the right bank of the Congo, representing our worst side, you have chimpanzees with an aptitude for violence that haunts the human species.

On the left bank of the Congo, representing our finest side, you have bonobos, a species that somehow has found peace.

Left. Right. Left. Right. It’s the great primate divide. Bush's brain, Karl Rove, knows that.

"Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers."

In his puffed-up chimp bluster, Karl Rove was at least close to being accurate. Hawks, Conservatives, chimpanzees, whatever you want to call them, began preparing for and justifying war with whoever they could get away with after 9/11. Folks, like myself, saw the 9/11 attacks as yet another example of an evolutionary-rooted hominid trait reaching blindly for an apocalyptic resolve.

Rove is yet another Luit, waging a campaign to mock and destroy those who won't get behind his chimpanzee crusade. That Democrats in Congress were offended by Rove's statement is testament to their ignorance of chimpanzee politics. That they would defend themselves by assuming a pro-war stance makes them twice the fools.

In case you don’t already know, I’m a bonobo. I live on the left bank. There are only so many wars you can engage in before you start to question life’s deeper meanings.

— Nathan Callahan, July 7, 2005


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