Since a few weeks, I am conducting a private survey. In noncommittal conversation, I start talking about human evolution and then I raise the question of the smartest animal. Many would name the chimpanzee, another ape, or monkeys. Some mention elephants, pigs, and octopuses. The rats are there, the crow, and the dolphins. To a friend who mentioned her cat, I replied that our dog Blacky was smarter. As to the qualities that made these animals so smart, we would mostly dwell on very human ones: Intelligence, emotion, using tools, playfulness, social behavior, communication. Then, after a while, I would declare that none of all the mentioned animals was actually the smartest one, that as a matter of fact, it was us humans. – The reactions to this announcement are telling. Some would take it as a pleasantry, I would get a doubtful or dismissive smile, and one African friend, a born again Christian, took offense: Humans were created by God, in His image, and had nothing to do with the animal world. And then mostly, our conversation would move on to another subject. Only a very few of the respondents in my survey would confirm and come around to talking about what makes us humans animals.

The problem is that humans are animals that don’t want to be animals. When putting ourselves above the other animals, we refer to our intelligence, rationality, reason, and logic, to our large brain, mainly the cortex, and to our mind – or in the Christian religious version, the soul. Cognition, awareness and knowledge of our environment and self. Altogether consciousness. Primarily, human consciousness evolved to allow us to understand what is going on around us and make best use of it for our survival. Survival is the primal instinct of the physical needs: Eat, drink, sleep; in case of danger, fight or flee. And that’s the instinct all the other animals also follow. So, in the natural world, humans are not at all special and there is absolutely no evidence that supports the humans’ exalted view of themselves just because they have consciousness. It’s rather the other way round, humans have lost connection with the life force that carries them and somehow knows what to do in the absence of consciousness. And following consciousness in life is risky because it flickers like a flame and changes all the time. It can lead you beyond what you need to do for survival and even astray.

As much as humans do not want to be animals, they do not want animals to be human. In 2022 in Switzerland, we had a referendum on the relationship between humans and animals: The people of Canton Basel-City were called to vote on an initiative that wanted to extend fundamental human rights to all primates, namely the right to life and physical and mental integrity. The background of the proposal was obvious: Basel boasts a zoo that keeps in cages all kinds of monkeys and apes and its pharmaceutical industries use primates for research and the development of medicines. We have to radically change our relationship with nature, said the proponents. This will smudge the red line between animals and humans and why only the primates and not also the pigs, said the opponents. Three quarters of the people of Basel followed the opponents: No human rights for animals, even if it’s only for the primates. Human exceptionalism had prevailed again.

In the early seventies, I saw the movie ‘Conquest of the Planet of the Apes’: A virus had killed all of humans’ dogs and cats. To replace them, they took in apes as house pets. Later the apes were enslaved and trained to serve the humans. The dark and violent film then showed the apes’ slave revolt and how the apes were taking over the world. It was the fourth film of the series ‘The Planet of the Apes’ which had started in 1968 with a crew of astronauts – among them Charlton Heston – crash-landing on a planet where highly intelligent apes dominated and enslaved primitive humans. Already in their titles, the films were always about ‘conquest’, ‘battle’, and ‘war’, or then ‘escape’: Deep instinctive ‘fight-or-flee’, aggression, and violence driving the stories.

Since the turn of the century, the ape cast of The Planet of the Apes consists of a bonobo, four gorillas and one Asian relative of theirs, an orangutan. But most of the apes appearing in the films are chimpanzees. And it’s true, evolution has endowed them with extreme violence and aggression. Once they reach a certain age, you cannot hold chimps as pets anymore. And they are known to band together, engage in warfare, and systematically kill the members of other groups. Maybe, when Lucy stepped away from the branch of the chimpanzees, she intended to spare us a Planet of the Apes. But unfortunately, the step she took was too small. We humans and particularly the men, have inherited much of the violence and aggression, and even genocidal capacity from our chimpanzee ancestors. Aggression is not only an animal instinct but also an innate human trait. And The Planet of the Apes films are holding us humans the mirror.

You would expect that modern humans with their highly developed consciousness would have learned to control and contain their violence and aggression. And to a large degree, their communities and societies are successfully doing so. But when human aggression goes unchecked, it will lead individuals, groups, or whole societies to violent behavior, anywhere, at any time. In Liberia, I have seen a people struggling with the aftermath of the savagery of the civil war. The warlords had instigated an atmosphere of violent behavior, deliberately also swaying children to commit atrocities. In Somalia, I have worked in an environment in which Islamist leaders of Al Shabab encourage and train young men to engage in terrorism and kill innocent people, in the name of their God. In the Holocaust in German-occupied Europe during the Second World War, or fifty years later, in Rwanda, modern humans have given their genocidal capacity free rein. And last year, Putin has misled the Russians into an invasion and war against the people of Ukraine. All these human aggressions are not natural animal behavior, and they have nothing to do with survival. They are human consciousness at work, nurturing and exploiting the human drive of aggression for senseless killing.

Thank goodness, from the King Kong and Tarzan movies we know that there are more uplifting features in the relationships between apes and humans than the aggression on the Planet of the Apes: The oversized gorilla King Kong fell in love with a human woman and Tarzan was raised by a chimpanzee mother. So, when it comes to mates and mothers, how do things look between us humans and our closest animal relatives?

To go there, we have to talk about sex. In terms of evolution, the survival of the individual – eat, drink, sleep; fight or flee – only makes sense if it contributes to the continuity of the species. That means the individual has to procreate, reproduce. All animals reproduce sexually, they mate to induce the fusion of a female egg cell with a male sperm cell into a new individual organism that is genetically distinct from the parents. This creates diversity and has become the most prolific way for a species to thrive as a branch of the ‘Tree of Life’. To ensure that animals do mate, nature has installed in them an instinctive sex drive. And after survival, sexuality is the second primal instinct of all animals, apes, and humans.

I am not sure whether I should continue because, as we all are when it comes to sex, I am biased. Here my three inclinations: First, as a baby boomer, I came of age in the sixties and was in my sexual prime in the seventies. This was the peak time of the sexual revolution in Europe and the United States and things were hot and sexy. The old societal norms and sexual values of marriage and virginity were dumped. The women had the pill and – according to the feminists then – were eager for their sexual liberation and empowerment. They wanted to rid themselves of their corsets and bras and fulfill their sexual desires. The Rolling Stones sang, ‘let’s spend the night together’, and seemingly everyone was doing it. – In the late seventies, I got married anyway. But I still listen to the Rolling Stones.

Second, in that same time I had read ‘The Naked Ape’. According to this book, human sexuality evolved to give pleasure to the sex partners so as to foster bonding and mating between them. The pleasure associated with sex is the reward for procreation. Humans grew larger sex organs, became naked to enhance the tactile sense of the skin and developed erogenous zones, all for sexual pleasure. The nape of the neck and armpits are two such sexy zones, for both sexes. And a woman’s breasts are not merely for providing milk for the babies. They are also an erotic zone of the woman and serve for sexual signaling to the men. – All this still makes sense to me, today.

And third, I am now over seventy years old and as my own sexuality is relaxing, human sexuality altogether is called into question. The gender feminists of the day are busy depriving the relationship between man and woman of biology and sex. They run hashtags like ‘TrashTheMen’ and recommend the women to refrain from having sex because it was a submission to patriarchy. They have erased the words ‘mother’ and ‘motherhood’ from their vocabulary because they reflected unequal responsibilities in human reproduction. And they tell me that I had nothing to say to this because as an ‘old white man’ I was racist, sexist, and patriarchal, no matter what. – I will nevertheless say this: They will not succeed, biology is stronger.

Lucy being the established evidence of our separation, we can assume that our human lineage branched off the line of the chimpanzee around 4 or 5 million years ago. Today, we still share 98.5% of our DNA with our direct ape ancestor and around 70% of our human genome is identical with its genome or very close to it. Chimpanzees live in multi-male, multi-female communities of one to over ten dozen. They form violent, male-dominated hierarchies. Male-male competition for leadership and mating is fierce and can be lethal. They are promiscuous and the males are also aggressive toward the females, they use force to mate with them. Due to the promiscuity, paternity confusion rules. The males are never husbands and, as fathers, only rarely recognize their offspring. In every case, they leave mother and child to fend for themselves. At least, the single mother is protected by the group.

This is broadly where we are coming from. We have to live with the fact that our immediate ape ancestors gave us patriarchy, promiscuity, and sexual violence to take along on the way of our evolution. And millions of years later, all three are still around with humans. But compared to the order of the chimpanzees, Homo erectus – no, this does not refer to his sexual state but to his upright gait – introduced some improvements. I have great admiration for Homo erectus. He brought us the upright gait; he grew our brains to allow us to become the super predator amongst the animals. And he is also the one who took us out of the raw sexual order of the chimpanzees.

Walking upright expanded the range of humans’ hunting and gathering away from the camp and group. On the other hand, the growth of the brain demanded more investment of parental care in their offspring. To cope with this situation, Homo erectus introduced to human childcare sexual division of labour and cooperation between the mates: As with the apes, the dependency of the human infant on the mother had always been long. But the brain growing and building through the senses of touch, talk, sight, and sound in the first three years of childhood, the mother had to attend more to the child. She became more stationary. The male remained the hunter but also became a father and husband. He was now the provider and protector of the mother and child. Homo erectus had invented the nuclear family. – And thanks to their primal instinct of sexuality and the reward of pleasure when they have sex, humans have reproduced very successfully, ever since.

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