Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Reading Apes

September 10, 2010

On Tuesday, Sara Gruen’s new novel Ape House came out, and I bought a copy even before the Williamsburg Barnes & Noble store had moved it onto their shelves. (A kind employee disappeared into the stock room and retrieved one for me).

Much of the buzz for this book derives from the success of Gruen’s first novel, Water for Elephants. Not in my case though. I was lucky enough to have spent some quality time with the apes—bonobos Kanzi and Panbanisha and their companions-- who gave real-life tutorials in ape sentience and ape linguistic skills to Gruen as she prepared to write Ape House.

At that time, the bonobos, now living at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa (where Gruen visited), were housed at a research center associated with Georgia State University. Through the generous invitation of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, the lead scientist on the bonobo language work, I went to Atlanta to observe, film, and write about mother-infant interactions in bonobos. As an anthropologist interested in the natural communication patterns, I focused on spontaneous interactions among the so-called non-linguistic apes Matata, Neema, Tamuli, and Elikya.

On the side, with the linguistic apes Kanzi and Panbanisha I had some fascinating back-and-forth exchanges-- using spoken English and (haltingly in my case, fluently in theirs) the lexigram symbol board. I felt just like the reporter character in Ape House who observes the fictional linguistic apes: “It changed his comprehension of the world in such a profound way he could not yet articulate it.” (To learn more about Kanzi and Panbanisha, go here
Great Ape Trust and be sure to look for ‘video gallery’ under the library link at the bottom).

Nearing the end now of Ape House, I’m agreeing with the critics who wished for more of the apes and less of humans’ drama. And I’m thinking in general about how apes are portrayed in fiction.

One novel often overlooked in this context is Peter Hoeg’s The Woman and the Ape. Admittedly, it helps to have a certain open, even free-wheeling mindset, to enjoy this novel. At times I felt slightly uneasy at the cross-species romance (yes, a sexual romance), but then again, one joy of reading is to lead ourselves out of our comfort zones.

And there’s so much that’s provocative, in the best (non-sexual) sense of that word, in Hoeg’s novel. A woman named Madelene lives in London; she meets the ape and her world tilts. At the very first, she holds the ape’s gaze: “She shifted position and still the ape kept its eyes on her. She had the feeling that she was being unmasked, spied on, scrutinized, as thought it saw right through her…”

Together the ape and Madelene flee a bad fate intended for the ape. At one point, they nest in London’s treetops, then brachiate away together: “An hour after nightfall the ape rose, wrapped an arm around Madelene, parted the screen of leaves at a shadowed spot and leapt, almost horizontally, into what seemed to Madelene to be a pitch-black void.”

The ape speaks, but even that’s not the central surprise of the book. To a shocking degree, the apes’ lives (yes, it turns out there is more than one) are entwined with the lives of busy Londoners. You’ll have to read the book to understand this point, but the ape’s comment is poignant even on its own:

“It might be that your people sense us. As something missing. Or as something that ought not to have been there. But you don’t see us. And even if you do, you still don’t see us.”

I often wonder how much we humans take the time to see other animals.

And this leads me to a question: What ape fiction would you recommend? Which novels (not science books this time) invite us to see apes a little more clearly?


  1. September 10, 2010 2:04 PM EDT
    I loved Hoeg's novel when I read it a couple of years ago. But I don't know any other novels about apes besides Tarzan and Curious George, which I guess aren't really about apes. I look forward to seeing what shows up here . . .
    - Colleen Kennedy
  2. September 10, 2010 3:54 PM EDT
    sorry, no book suggestions just at this moment, but regarding your wishing it was more about the apes... flashback to 20 years ago and Gorillas in the Mist movie with Sigourney Weaver. I was at a special premiere of this benefiting apes, and was terribly disappointed that though an exciting and moving movie, it said very little about the gorillas themselves, as personalities and beings in their own right. Much about the people. Such a missed opportunity.
    - joanne tanner
  3. September 10, 2010 4:59 PM EDT
    I'm always joking, Colleen, that Curious George has confused generations about taxonomic distinctions within primates! Tarzan 'counts' in my book though. I wonder if anyone will mention 'Murders in the Rue Morgue' by Poe which I've been wanting to reread.
    Joanne, it's a good idea to broaden the discussion to films. Agreed on 'Mist'.
    - Barbara J. King
  4. September 12, 2010 8:49 PM EDT
    Daniel Quinn's "Ishmael" continues to hold a respectable spot on my bookshelf. Once you get past the telepathic gorilla, it's a great reflection on humankind.
    - Neil Zaki
  5. November 10, 2010 6:20 PM EST
    YOU WROTE as follows: How did an engagement with the sacred that is wholly unique to humans... What proof is there that apes are not superstitious? What proof is there that they are atheists? Belonging can mean nothing more the being a fan--such as belonging to "The Gator Nation" Below is my email to the Great Ape Trust. ---------- Forwarded message ---------- From: gary gromet Date: Wed, Nov 10, 2010 at 6:08 PM Subject: Great Apes and religion To:, Dear Mr. Setka, At breakfast this morning, my wife Kirsten and I were discussing UM Philosophy Professor Edward Erwin's upcoming lecture about free will at the University of Miami Nov. 17. We plan to attend even though we suspect that his philosophy may not be love of wisdom as manifested from facts arrived at through scientific discoveries made and being made. Philosophy professors are not known for applying evolution to morals. From the videos and the book Intelligence Of Apes And Other Rational Beings, it seems to me that the scientists at Great Ape Trust observed free will amongst the apes and what humans universally consider moral behavior (Binta Jua's behavoir with the infant in the last century). I regularly see humans demonstrating free will in my actual surroundings. Media (books, video, and other virtual media) has shown me other humans behaving without free will. Those that show a lack of free will seem to be controlled more by religious faith than mere culture. Being aware of my interest in the intelligence of Great Apes, Kirsten raised the issue: Do Great Apes do have religion, god(s), supernatural beliefs (Nazism super race) and the like? I found it a multifaceted puzzle. How does a human talk about the supernatural beliefs held by another human? Very carefully, or the conversation will come to an abrupt end. How can I determine if apes have religious beliefs? And if they do, are their moral values based on religious faith? I do not have anything but an open mind on these questions. I read about the moral behaviors described in Kanzi and Intelligence Of Apes And Other Rational Beings. I am just finishing the later and into the second chapter of the first. (I am retired.) I started researching the issue and how to determine the answer. I came across Barbara J. King, Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. I look forward to reading her book Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion I asked that it be set aside for pickup by me at the Miami-Dade Library. As to the questions above, do you have any input in the way of ideas or peer reviewed papers? Designing a protocol to determine the issue of APE FAITH maybe puzzling for me, but the first step is to see if such a puzzle has been solved. If it has, I can read about it and apply its findings to resolving the problems humans have with religious faith. If not, I can work on solving the puzzle. I found nothing about God or religion on the Great Ape Trust website. Have any of the researchers at the Trust considered studying the issue? If not why not? Sincerely, Gary Gromet
    - garygromet
  6. November 10, 2010 6:48 PM EST
    YOU WROTE: Matters of faith are not amenable to scientific analysis, experimentation, or testing; My cat Nuisance has shown that he will "shake in terror before the power of invisible spirits, to fear for one’s life at the hands of the unknown He isn't superstitious, just a bit stupid. You appear to be denying the fact that superstitions are subjected to such analysis. I think that it's an open question whether apes have religion.
    - garygromet
  7. November 11, 2010 8:46 AM EST
    Gary, yes, some people are interested in the question of whether apes might have a spiritual side; Jane Goodall has often talked about this in interviews. My questions are very different, about 1) the behavioral precursors of religiosity that might be shown in apes, as a kind of evolutionary platform for what came later, and 2) material culture in human prehistory that may point us towards incipient religiosity. You're right, I don't think that it's a testable question whether apes are spiritual or religious.

    On your second comment, just to be clear for others, it's you and not me writing about the cat! (The part I wrote was just the first sentence.)
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.