King Kong Meets Tarzan

The film ‘King Kong’ was shot in 1933, sixty years before ‘Jurassic Park’, but has a much more refined plot. It plays between the Great Depression in New York and a mysterious island with the life of 200 million years ago, a Jurassic park. Adventurers travel to this island to film and capture an oversized ape named Kong. Kong falls in love with a woman amongst the adventurers, Ann, and abducts her. The group searches the jungle for her and is attacked and decimated by vicious dinosaurs. They find Ann and rescue her. On their way back, Kong pursues them and kills some more of them but, for the sake of Ann, also protects them from the dinosaurs. Ultimately, Kong is trapped and shipped to New York for public display as ‘King Kong’. When there he sees Ann again, he breaks loose, goes on rampage, and abducts her again. He takes her to the top of the Empire State Building. There, he is attacked by airplanes and shot, and, before falling to his death, King Kong deposits Ann in safety. – Yet another version of ‘The Beauty and the Beast’: Humanity in the beast, mutual affection, impossible love. King Kong became an icon in pop culture and was re-filmed again and again, a total of nineteen times since 1933.

In terms of evolution, posing an ape between the dinosaurs and us humans is correct. And the first creatures of which mammals like the apes and us humans became, were indeed already around in the Jurassic park. They were rather small and had the same problem as the crocodiles – they had to share their habitat with the vicious predator dinosaurs. And, as the crocodiles took to the water to avoid them, the mammals took to niches between rocks and holes in the ground. In addition, they became night active. Long after the Great Depression, from 1986 to 1990, I was in New York as a proud First Secretary of Embassy, at the Swiss Mission to the United Nations. Yes, I thought of King Kong when I was on the Empire State Building, and yes, I saw the flop of the 1986 movie ‘King Kong Lives’, which assumes that he survived the fall. But more importantly, I had the full advantage of our mammal ancestors having developed the nocturnal lifestyle. My niches in the ‘City That Never Sleeps’ were the jazz clubs and blues bars. To allow the proto-mammals in the Jurassic park to become night-active, they had to be able to maintain their body temperature at daytime levels. For this they developed warm-bloodedness and grew hair on their skin to keep the heat in their bodies. Being small nocturnal carnivores – imagine a bushbaby – also improved their senses. The functions of their eyes, ears and nose improved. Increased sensitivity called for more brain capacity for computing all the information gathered from the environment. Overall, mammals optimized and integrated their cerebral and physical properties and took giant steps in ensuring their survival and reproduction.

The change from a cold-blooded reptile to a warm-blooded mammal is enormous. It took millions of years. But when, 65 million years ago, an asteroid hit our planet and temperatures fell and the vegetation changed, the mammals had evolved their physiology, their senses and the software of their brain to a point that allowed them to adapt. The dinosaurs with their primitive reptilian brain were stuck in their oversized and cold-blooded hardware. They went the way of the dodo bird. Around that same time, the continental plates moved and changed the global geography. Africa moved slightly north and thereby wrinkled its own and Europe’s margins. This movement created the Atlas and the Alps. These tectonic movements gave way to climatic changes and new habitats for new plants and new animals. Some mammals left the forests into the open grasslands and savannahs that had grown and became terrestrial grazers. Others followed them and became their terrestrial predators. Many others remained in the forests. And of these, some took to a life in the trees.

Living in forest trees further sharpened the senses of this group of mammals. In a relatively short period, only three million years later, primates evolved. The dry-nosed primates have features that are very similar to ours: Toes and fingers with nails instead of claws; a big toe and a thumb that is independent of the other toes and fingers, allowing feet and hands to grasp; a rotating shoulder joint; a flattened face with eyes on the same plane, allowing stereoscopic vision; thirty-two teeth of different use; and females with a single pair of breasts. Forty million years ago, in Africa, this were the monkeys and twenty-five million years ago, the apes split off them. Around seven million years ago in the lineage of the apes, the gorillas branched off.

The oversized ape of ‘King Kong’ is, of course, a gorilla. I have seen gorillas in the wild twice in my life. The first time, it was in Zaïre by design. The second time was also in Zaïre, but by a little bit of adventure and good luck. I continue to say Zaïre because the first time was 1982 and the second 1993, and Zaïre only became the Congo in 1997. The first time, I flew from Kinshasa to Bukavu at the southern end of Lake Kivu with my first wife and in the forest of the park there, we saw the Lowland Gorillas feeding in the trees. The second time, I wanted to see the Mountain Gorillas. So, together with my second wife Bilha and a married couple of friends from Switzerland, we drove with my Land Cruiser from Nairobi to the then new Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, in Uganda. But there, the gorillas of the park had been given a timeout from tourists and there was a long waiting list for when the visits would resume. And this was only in three days. A warden suggested we drive on to the Virunga Park in neighboring Zaïre. That was a good idea, only we didn’t have visas. Oh, we should talk to the customs officers there, he encouraged us.

They speak Kiswahili in the eastern Congo and, at the border, my wife who is of Kenyan origin, gave it a try. She is a fan – and a little bit envious – of the pure and courteous Kiswahili of the Tanzanians. But with the Zairean customs officer her lesser Kenyan Kiswahili failed. I ended up negotiating our situation with him, in French. It helped that I could refer to my stay in the far away capital of Kinshasa, ten years earlier. And what really impressed him was my reminiscence of Kasavubu, the red-light and entertainment district of Kinshasa, and that I had attended concerts of Franco with his famous band, ‘le T.P. OK Jazz’. T.P. stands for ‘tout puissant’, almighty. And so, we found an informal arrangement: He would issue a laissez-passer for us, keep our passports locked in the drawer of his desk and, on our return, we would buy back our passports from him, for 100 Dollars each.

Driving on a little bit nervous about this informal visa-deal, suddenly an approaching army truck hooted and flashed its lights, the soldiers on it gesticulated and, with jamboree, directed me to the other side of the road. In East and Southern Africa, you drive on the left, in West and Central Africa on the right side of the road. We had entered Central Africa and had crossed with the army truck on the wrong side of the road. As a rule of thumb in Africa, you can also assume that the official language in the countries where you drive left, is English, and where you drive right, French. The exception being Portuguese and in one case Spanish. But this has to do with colonialism and not gorillas. The following three days we spent in the Virunga Park, twice visiting a group of Mountain Gorillas. – Overwhelming. Awesome. Magnificent.

At the Border Control crossing back into Uganda, they had to pull our customs officer out of his siesta. He came with a smile on his face, opened his drawer and we exchanged the laissez-passer and the agreed amount of Dollars against our passports. The laissez-passer he threw into his already over-full waste basket and with a complimentary, ‘Vous voyez, en Afrique tout s’arrange’, he bade us ‘bonne route’. Our passports had no stamps, officially we had never been in Zaïre. As much as you can still get done informally in Africa, you can’t do this kind of thing anymore.

Along the roads in Zaïre and Uganda, we had seen groups of people on the move and refugee camps. We were aware of the tensions between the Tutsi and the Hutu in neighboring Rwanda but could not have known that we were visiting the region only months before the genocide.

When the gorillas branched in the lineage of the apes, the chimpanzees remained. They are an evolutionary step closer to us humans than the gorillas and have evolved to a point where they can adopt and raise modern humans. This, at least, is the original story of Tarzan: In 1888, an orphaned infant is marooned in the coastal jungle of Equatorial Africa and a chimpanzee becomes a mother to him. As Tarzan grows up amongst the apes, he becomes an outstanding hunter and is challenged by the ape leader. Tarzan wins the duel, kills the leader and takes on the responsibilities of being ‘The King of the Apes’. Years later, the ‘ape man’ is discovered and from the scientific expedition, the daughter of the leading Professor, Jane, is captured by natives. Tarzan rescues her, they romance and love blossoms. Jane decides to share her life with Tarzan in the jungles of Africa. The apes of Tarzan are chimpanzees and Tarzan’s films by far outnumber those of King Kong, the oversized gorilla. Since the first, ‘Tarzan of the Apes’ of 1918, sixty-six Tarzan-stories have been filmed. He has adventures and new adventures, he fights for life, he takes revenge, he finds a son, he goes to New York and later to India, and apart from Jane, he meets the Amazons, a leopard woman, a huntress, a slave girl and even mermaids and the She-Devil.

Films like Jurassic Park, King Kong and Tarzan all bear witness to modern humans’ fascination with their past in the wild, mysterious and threatening nature of the forest. From the small urban apartments with their cut flowers and their potted plants, they allow modern humans an escape into the imaginary big wild. King Kong and Tarzan, in addition, advert to our fascination with our mammal ancestors. These films tell modern humans with their small pet hamsters, cats or dogs, tales of feelings and attraction between them and their immediate animal ancestors, the apes. And again, in terms of evolution, all this is correct. Humans share the second layer of the brain, which wraps around the cerebral reptilian brain, with their mammal ancestors. It is called the limbic system or, fitting with this chapter where apes meet humans, the ‘mammalian brain’. We have it from our mammal ancestors. It controls our feelings and lets us love and hate. It allows us to remember and to learn, and to adjust our social behavior accordingly. Emotion and memory. Being. But be aware, the warm-blooded mammalian brain still has a large unconscious sphere and remains tightly wired with the cold-blooded reptilian one. When in one of his films Tarzan is reminded that having returned to England, he had become Lord Greystoke and needed to behave accordingly, he answers that this was true for half of him and adds, “the other half is wild”.

Studies of the human brain suggest that we also share with our mammal ancestors a system that links up our emotions for mating and parenting with the reptilian reward center. It was designed to orchestrate our behavior for selection of partners for reproduction, in three phases: Lust or the ‘sex drive’ motivates us to seek a range of mating partners. ‘Attraction’ has us prefer and pursue specific partners. – Please note the plurals. And ‘attachment’ has individuals stay together to share responsibilities in parental care. Modern humans call this whole process romantic love. When I was thirteen, we were in Bangkok, where my father was Counselor at the Swiss Embassy. With the whole family, we had been to the cinema to see a Tarzan film. I was skinny then and shooting like a sprout from the seed. During the film, I decided that I wanted to have a body like Tarzan. My mother told me that the actor was Johnny Weissmuller, that originally, he was from Austria and that he had become an Olympic swimmer for the United States. In spite of being water shy, I started swimming. At the international school I went to, there was an Italian boy who was older, bigger and stronger than I. He would sometimes bully others, me included. One day when he attacked again, the crocodile in my head told me to fight and not to flee. I struck back and, in rage, beat him up to the point that a teacher had to get me off him. I had to go to the principal who gave me a warning – but I had found the favorable attention of Elisabeth, a Swedish girl all the boys were after and I was secretly in love with. At a school party sometime later, we danced together to the Elvis Presley song ‘Love Me Tender’. I had become a teenager and the attraction system between my mammalian and my reptilian brain was running red hot. We never made it to the attachment phase because my father was transferred back to Berne and I had to follow him.

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  • I don’t know what brain section is responsible for being meticulous or even more, finicky (I got that word from the online translator), but the phrasing “to go the dodos’ way” is in my opinion inappropriate for the dinosaurs’ extinction. For the extinction of the dodos some ruthless and careless humans are a necessary ingredient.
    And this: the name Congo, as you know best, was already there when an over-ambitious Belgian royal decided to appropriate a territory vast as Western Europe including the inhabitants and used it with the addition Belgian. And became Congo again after 32 years of dictatorial reign with the West’s blessing and support of a former Belgian catholic-mission boarding school pupil with a particular inclination to the name Zaïre. And of course we hesitate to use its nowadays’ official name Democratic Republic of the …

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