Search This Blog

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Book Review: Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People

"Whether we finally think of Caliban as an animalized human or a humanized animal, for the other characters of the play he lurches, anatomically and behaviorally, somewhere in between, a disturbing specimen of continuity between human and animal.  The image of Caliban suggests that we are not alone, that we endure on an island-planet troubled, pestered, shadowed by a bestial double."

Outside of Central Africa, humans and chimpanzees have a relatively brief history with one another.  Whereas lions, elephants, and many other animals were well known to the Greeks and Romans, chimps first appeared on the European scene in the early 1600s, when explorers from West Africa brought back the first word of human-like "monsters" in the jungles of Angola.  William Shakespeare - as far as we know - never saw a chimpanzee in the flesh.  He did, however, shortly afterwards write a play depicting a tropical paradise inhabited by a half-human creature.  The play was The Tempest.  The creature he called "Caliban."

In Visions for Caliban, Dale Peterson and Jane Goodall examine man's relationship with our nearest relative (well, apart from the bonobo) through the lens of Shakespeare's character.  Caliban - who has been variously portrayed as an animal, a monster, or an indigenous person oppressed by colonizing Europeans - has always fascinated audiences and been subject to various interpretations.  Caliban represents a sort of mirror to the reader, challenging them to look into it and define what makes them human and him an animal.  The problem with mirrors, we find quickly, is that you don't always like what you see in them...

Much has been written about man's inhumanity towards man.  Visions of Caliban says much about man's inhumanity to chimp.  Peterson and Goodall take the reader across the world, from the African forests where chimpanzees are captured, often pulled from the dead bodies of their mothers, for illegal sale, to the biomedical labs where they wait out their lives in sterile confinement.  We also meet chimpanzees kept as pets - dressed up in silly clothes, performing on stage, or otherwise serving to entertain people.  In one of the most disturbing passages, Peterson encounters a chimpanzee living in an old restroom, attached to a pipe by a two-foot-long leash of chain.  What makes this all the more chilling is that the ape's owner cheerfully introduces the chimp as his son, and then precedes to cuddle with him.

Lest we paint too grim of a portrait of chimpanzee life, it is important to note that the book does convey images of hope (if there is one message you get from many of Goodall's books, it's that she is an optimist at heart).  The reader encounters abuse and misfortune, but there are just as many people out there trying to improve the lot of chimpanzees.  There are folks who are rescuing and rehabbing apes, trying to give them more natural lives.  There are people campaigning for improved living conditions for chimps in laboratories, and for the banning of chimps in the entertainment industry.  Already public opinion and international law have begun to move in favor of chimpanzees... it's just that there is still so much further to go.

One subject that is barely broached in the book is that of chimpanzees in zoos (outside of Africa, that is... we do see some horribly mistreated animals living in ramshackle zoos in West Africa).  Goodall addresses that topic towards the end of the book.  Not surprisingly, based on her past experiences, she states her preference for seeing chimps in the wild.  That being said, she also admits that this idyllic life in the wild is rapidly fading from existence - destroyed by habitat loss and the bushmeat trade - and wonders "if many - even most - of these increasingly persecuted individuals, given the choice, would not opt for life in one of the better zoos."

The subtitle of Peterson and Goodall's book is "On Chimpanzees and People."  If you want to learn more about chimpanzees, then read one of Goodall's many other books.  Visions of Caliban reveals much more about people than it does apes... and it makes you wonder who should be calling who a monster...

No comments:

Post a Comment