Reflection 278: Great Apes

June 15, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

I am a creature of the territory I inhabit that provides me with what I need to be me—that is, to be familiar to myself as a particular character walking the world stage. The furnishings of my apartment include three computers, 170 notebooks containing the remnants of projects I have worked on, five books I have written, the food I eat three times a day, a bed to sleep on, clothes to wear, and so on. Without the territory I truck around with me everywhere I go, I would not be me. I am master of all I survey; without that survey—without my special props—I would cease to exist as myself.

When I think of the options I have for becoming someone other than my current self, I am overwhelmed by the possible identities I could take on if I wore different clothes, worked on different projects, had different files on my computers, spoke a different language, listened to different music, read different books than those I have read in the past thirty years. I could make myself anew by stepping outside my conventional, habit-driven life so ruled by the possessions I have accrued over those years of living precisely as I have lived for so long.

I am a self-made man because I have built up this specific collection of stuff I carry on my back. Because I have done what I’ve done and dreamed what I’ve dreamed. Do dreams make the man, or does man make the dreams? Looking in the mirror, I find that I resemble a sort of great ape. How do great apes get to be great apes and live the lives that they do?

My thoughts about great apes stem from a film I saw years back among those shown at the Banff Film Festival when it circulated to the Grand Theater in Ellsworth, Maine. Clever photographers and ethologists had gained access to a band of mountain gorillas in Eastern Congo by acting submissively so not to threaten the alpha male who dominated one particular harem with its females, children, and fringe of restless adolescents. I still count that film as one of the most telling documentaries I have seen in my life because it told not only about one band of gorillas, but because it spoke to me in a language I could recognize as being about humans as great apes.

The silverback ruled his band through domination and threat of violent retribution for wayward behavior. As the alpha male, he surrounded himself with lesser (weaker) beings—females and children. His job was to make sure that those children were his children. Domestic bliss lasted as long as the band was subservient to his wishes.

When adolescent males were old enough to be potential rivals to the old silverback, he drove them into the surrounding bush, where they hung around, torn between a yen for freedom and the prospect of immediate comfort and sexual gratification within the home band. Growing up within the band, they knew the rules. So they grew cagey, figuring how they might beat the old man at his game through playful deception and submission. Their tricks seldom worked, so in the end they wandered deeper into the forest on the chance they might affiliate with a band ruled by a weaker patriarch where they might have a chance at alphadom themselves.

The alpha male gorilla ruled not only by sexual domination but by leading his harem to food. A well-fed harem is a happy harem, and a happy harem is a complacent harem. I can’t recall what happened to adolescent female gorillas, but I believe they were absorbed into the existing social structure maintained by their male parent and tolerated by their respective female parents in exchange for domestic tranquility.

In practical terms, old alpha saw his wives as his “possessions” in that he could engage with them and not with females in other bands of gorillas. The food he provided was also “his” in that he found it and did what he wanted to with it—that is, keep his band groomed, well-fed, and happy. Which made him happy. Shooing his own male children away also made him happy because he no longer had to deal with them as potential rivals to his comfortable alphadom.

The mountain gorilla film made clear that alpha had his place, his wives had their places, his children theirs, and his male descendents theirs—which was to go away. Everything was clear and aboveboard, even the shenanigans of the youthful males, which were essential to their making the transition from sexual immaturity to learning how to take responsibility for supporting a band of their own. Owner-ship is the essence of a well-run social order, that is, being clear on who engages with whom, and how they are to manage their interactions.

Our nation was founded by young innovators who were kept down in their homelands because theirs was not the tradition of their elders. Like so many adolescent apes, they escaped into the hinterlands with hopes of becoming themselves by joining bands of like-minded individuals where they could find peace in a new brand of conformity. That is what my Huguenot ancestors sought in moving from France, to Holland, to England, then to colonies on this side of the Atlantic.

The Banff Festival film provided a glimpse into the history of our own culture where that same dynamic is still evident. Who were Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos but young males feeling the bite of competition with their elders entrenched in the status quo? Instead of going off into the woods in search of their fortune, they went into their garages where they built systems that would leapfrog over the existing order, giving them a shot at an alphadom never dreamt of. What is Facebook but a non-threatening way of hooking up with desirable mates and companions? Bezos single-handedly destroyed the august publishing industry that held budding authors at bay. What is the Occupy Movement but unwelcome youth becoming a force in the world by confronting those who have locked down the positions they want to occupy on their own?

Alphadom, not cash, is the issue. Money merely stands for whatever possessions and territory we desire. It is a wherewithal, not the end in itself. Money is a new home, a trip abroad, a girlfriend, eating out, having a bed to sleep in. Money is influence, position, and security. Money is the power to survive in today’s world as who you want to be within your chosen mythology.

From an adolescent’s point of view, what is growing up but a figment from mythology? It is something you dream and scheme about, but nothing you can own. It is always beyond reach, in the clutches of others who are older than you. As you grow older, they grow older, always maintaining their lead. So adolescence is the time to develop new ideas where you can be alpha on your own terms, and force your elders to approach you for favors or grant grudging praise. That tremendously forceful realization is the impetus behind revolution, innovation, and social change. Beware the power of those you render helpless because they need dignity and self-respect as much as you do to survive and get ahead. That is, to become alphas in their own right.

Which is as true for alpha females as it is for alpha males. Alphadom means you can make it on your own terms, taking your family and friends along with you. Every political, industrial, corporate, or religious leader is an alpha amid his or her alpha cohort whom he or she serves. Alphadom is a way of life based on being king or queen of the mountain. The dignity of being a judge on the Supreme Court or a single mom stems from being on top, whether you want to be there or not, and facing into that challenge where everything depends on you.

Alphadom is the hidden flaw in democracy, because we all strive to become our own boss, putting down others in the process of creating a system based on inequality—as gorilla wives and children are not the equal of alpha. To achieve alphadom, Jeff Bezos eliminates bookstores, publishers, agents, and anyone who might rival or impede his personal mythology of being the alpha of all alphas. Not just in publishing but in selling any goods the public desires.

As long as there are sellers and buyers, owners and workers, inequality will rule. Democracy is a mass myth clung to by underlings as they work their way into positions of power. Our “representatives” in Congress are Exhibit A of what happens when they attain positions of absolute power, discover what those positions actually cost, and switch their allegiance from the power of the people to the power of me and those who fund and support me.

The formula was worked out by great apes long ago. If they didn’t discover it, they put their energy into perfecting it. We have evolved to believe that survival depends on being selected by our environments, but there is no doubt that we use the system to make sure we have a good chance of surviving in light of our personal mythology. Alphadom and democracy go together as complementary strategies of survival. Yes, we are born equal, but I’m going to make sure I’m more equal than the next guy. Look around and tell me that’s not what you see.

Great ape power is not the power of the people. It is a balance between individual lusts for power and security against a tolerance for not fulfilling that lust as of yet. Hence our talk about growth, of being in the pipeline, as adolescents are engaged in the process of becoming grand silverbacks in their own right. We forget that society is a process at our peril. Everything is up for grabs all the time. What you count on today will be gone tomorrow. All you can do is heed your personal values at each moment, and do your best to achieve them, in the process seeing yourself getting worn down.

At least that way you stand for something, even though you know you’ll never achieve it in this or any other life. Or if you do bring your myth into being, you know it will be only temporary, and others’ myths will succeed yours.

So it goes, this life of us great apes. We make ourselves happen as best we can, as everyone around us is doing in their own way. The resulting amalgam is what we call civilization, to which there exists no solution. The wise among us work hard and enjoy the fray.

That’s it for today. I remain y’r fellow great ape, –Steve

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