Call it sibling rivalry, but human beings and "lower" primates have an ongoing spat. Tell someone he's a monkey's uncle or his great uncle is a monkey and he'll bristle. Tell him the great silverback gorillas are dying out, however, and he'll take on all comers to save them.
Brothers. What can you do?
The mixed feelings humans have about apes could be seen last week in the story about the death of Washoe, the "signing chimp." The chimp was said to be the first non-human to speak human language with a vocabulary of 250 words. Critics abound, of course. And some of them get rather testy. They say it was all "monkey see, monkey do." The president of Central Washington University, on the other hand, said Washoe's death was like losing a daughter.
Love and fear, fear and love.
When word was released that chimpanzees and human beings share 98 percent of the same DNA, one could feel people squirm all the way through the Bible belt. We're happy to embrace the traits of other beasts. Having the memory of an elephant, the strength of a horse, the wisdom of an owl and the power of a lion are real compliments. But nothing good comes from comparisons with monkeys, chimps, apes or baboons.
Tell somebody he resembles a baboon, and he'll throw banana peelings at you. They are not seen as noble. They are all "monkey shines."
Years ago, the famous "Scopes monkey trial" a test case for evolution quickly turned into the "Are we related to apes?" trial. Major scientific issues were clouded over by the outrage people felt. Their dignity was pierced. And human beings do have a storehouse of dignity.
Wrote Chazal, "Monkeys are superior to men in this: When a monkey looks into a mirror, he sees a monkey."
The implication, of course, is that human beings see kings.
As for Washoe the chimp, the debate will continue about her language skills. No, she didn't write "Hamlet" on an infinite number of typewriters, but she did pull tighter the bond between people and their fellow primates.
She also proved Alvah Bessie right. Bessie's the one who said, "When you're dealing with monkeys, you've got to expect some wrenches."