By CHARLES McGRATH
Now that we’ve emerged the winners in the Darwinian struggle, we’re fascinated by our fellow primates, the ones who didn’t quite make it to the top of the class, and we even tend to sentimentalize them. We love the sexy bonobos, for example. We make tragic movies about giant apes. And there is a surprisingly large body of fiction about the Neanderthals, of all creatures — the human-like species that was driven to extinction 30,000 years ago, probably by our more warlike ancestors.
In the best of the Neanderthal novels, William Golding’s “The Inheritors,” they turn out to be a good deal more innocent and benign than we are. In John Darnton’s “Neanderthal,” their openness and inability to be deceptive is precisely what does them in. In Mark Canter’s “Ember From the Sun,” in which a Neanderthal embryo is transplanted into a human womb, the resulting creature has magical healing powers. And in Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” series, Neanderthals can even read minds.
The way to really find out about Neanderthals, of course, is to bring one back to life, and far from being a sci-fi notion, that is now theoretically possible. Scientists are already talking about using the Neanderthal genome, reconstructed recently in Germany, to reprogram a chimpanzee embryo and give birth to a sort of neo-Neanderthal. Presumably you could also do this with a human embryo, but as is so often the case, the chimp idea dodges a lot of ethical issues.
Or does it?
The case of poor Travis, the 14-year-old chimpanzee who was shot to death last week by the police in Stamford, Conn., raises a number of vexing questions about human-chimpanzee interaction in general, and about the consequences of our studying, or even living with, other primates.
What do you do with your brand-new Neanderthal? Do you crank up the air-conditioning and keep him in an artificial Pleistocene, subsisting on leaves and berries? Or does he live in the lab, eating take-out from the cafeteria? Does he get to watch TV and use a computer? Do you make friends with him?
Travis was not, strictly speaking, an experimental animal except in the sense that he was raised almost as if he were human. He “couldn’t have been more my son than if I gave birth to him,” his owner, Sandra Herold, said. Travis used to do commercial work for Old Navy and Coca-Cola, and made occasional television appearances, but mostly he lived at home with Mrs. Herold, a widow whose husband had run their towing company. He fed, bathed and dressed himself, and was said to be toilet trained (though photographs in The New York Post showed him wearing what appeared to be extra-large Depends). He brushed his own teeth with a Waterpik. He loved to ride around in the family tow trucks and to pretend to drive Mrs. Herold’s pink Cadillac.
Travis enjoyed a nice steak dinner, washed down with a glass of wine. He knew how to log on to a computer and to channel-surf with a television remote control. He followed baseball, if you can believe Mrs. Herold, and briefly rooted for the Mets while Bobby Valentine, a Stamford native, was manager, and then switched to the Yankees. He liked to watch “anything with action,” Mrs. Herold said.
Travis, in short, enjoyed the life and displayed most of the essential character traits of a typical American male between the ages of, say, 18 and 35. If he had only had a disposable income, advertisers would have happily paid to attract his attention.
On Monday afternoon, though, Travis went berserk and severely mauled a friend whom Mrs. Herold called after he became overly rambunctious. The police arrived, along with paramedics, and when Travis began attacking them, they shot him. He died, heartbreakingly, after making his way back into his room.
No one knows for sure what set Travis off. He might have been suffering from Lyme disease, and one theory is that the illness could have caused him to become psychotic. At one point, apparently, Mrs. Herold gave him a cup of tea laced with Xanax, and in retrospect that may not have been such a great idea. Xanax sometimes makes even humans act aggressively.
But a prevailing theory, at least among primatologists, is that chimpanzees simply do not belong in a human environment. Chimpanzees “are not human and you can’t always predict their behavior and how they or any other wild animal will respond when they feel threatened,” said Colleen McCann, a primatologist at the Bronx Zoo.
But would Travis’s life have been happier, fuller had he never known the joys of TV-watching, the taste of a nice merlot? Humans are such anthropomorphizers that all we can say for sure is that, speaking for ourselves, we can’t imagine living in the trees without electricity and hot water and what’s so bad about offering a fellow primate a drink, a warm bed, a cooked meal?
We are also flattered — we think it adorable and charming — when a chimpanzee or any other animal chooses to act like us. And we tend to see in the roughly 4 percent genetic difference that separates us from chimps not an unknowable gap but merely a good reason to perform on them — or perhaps Neanderthals — experiments that we’d just as soon not perform upon ourselves.