Planet of the Apes
Life in the Evolutionary Fast Lane
“I can figure out the point of anything.”
- Motion City Soundtrack
In his book Talking to My Daughter about the Economy, the controversial Greek finance minister and former UT-Austin economics professor Yanis Varoufakis addresses the question of “Why so much inequality?” by instead asking a different question.
Why didn’t the Aborigines of Australia invade England?
As Varoufakis points out:
“If we don't answer [this] carefully, we risk thoughtlessly accepting either that the Europeans were ultimately smarter and more capable (which was certainly the view of the colonizers at the time) or that the Aboriginal Australians were better and nicer people, which is why they themselves didn't become brutal colonizers. Even if it were true, this second argument boils down to much the same thing as the first: it says there is just something intrinsically different between white Europeans and Aboriginal Australians …
These arguments must be silenced if only because they can emerge from within your own mind, tempting you to accept that history's victims deserved what they got because they were not smart enough.”
While a full rundown of the economic and military history of the the World is outside the scope of this essay, I’ll address this in my conclusion. In the meantime, however, here’s the meta-takeaway.
Sometimes, if you want a better answer, you have to ask a different question.
If there’s ever a clichéd maxim I live by, and there are many, it’s probably the Socrates quote scrawled on the blackboard of Philosophy 101
The unexamined life is not worth living
I think a lot about the meaning of life and about my purpose here on Earth. This is either defect or a virtue, depending on whom you ask. Basically, pondering the meaning and purpose of existence is either a) a complete waste of time or b) the most important thing we can do. Maybe it’s both.
But as we saw earlier, sometimes if you want a better answer, you have to ask a different question. In this case:
What is the purpose of being a chimpanzee?
Humanity is complicated. It’s hard to understand human life from the point of view of a human being living a life. But chimpanzees, our closest living primate relatives, are much less complicated. My very unscientific hunch is that chimps tend to achieve their individual purpose, on average. If I’m right, how do they do it?
Here’s Herman Pontzer writing about the vicissitudes of chimpanzee life in Scientific American:
“A typical day’s agenda for a chimpanzee in the wild reads like the daily schedule for lethargic retirees on a Caribbean cruise, though with fewer organized activities. Wake up early, crack of dawn, then off to breakfast (fruit). Eat until you are stuffed, and next find a nice place for a nap, maybe some light grooming. After an hour or so (no rush!), go find a sunny tree with figs and gorge yourself. Maybe go meet some friends, a bit more grooming, another nap. Around five o’clock have an early dinner (more fruit, maybe some leaves), then it is time to find a nice sleeping tree, build a nest and call it a night.”
It turns out that not just chimps, but all great apes (gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, etc.) lead pretty chill lives and do… basically nothing! In fact, great ape levels of physical activity are so low that they would cause diabetes and heart disease in humans.
Here’s a fun fact though: gorillas and orangutans average only 14 to 23 percent body fat and chimpanzees less than 10 percent, on par with human Olympic athletes! So why don’t apes get fat from lack of exercise? The short answer is that it’s not diet, they just have a different physiology. (More on this later).
So it appears the way that apes fulfill their purpose in life is by lying around eating fruit, taking naps, and grooming each other. That’s the bulk of ape life, augmented by the occasional turf war with a neighboring troop, the mild drama of intra-troop battles for dominance, and the occasional wild orgy (if you’re lucky enough to be a bonobo!)
We share 97% of our DNA with apes
(Side note: We also share 44% of our DNA with a banana; I think about this constantly)
The way I process this is that if we just do what apes do, which is to say that if we lay around, eat lunch, take a nap, hang out with our friends, sneak off to have sex, go to war from time to time with neighboring tribes, vie for social status, and participate in the occasional wild orgy, we are already basically getting a 97% on the test as to whether we are fulfilling our life’s purpose.
Where I come from, that’s an ‘A’ even before grade-inflation, but it may not be an ‘A+’ which okay, how might we get to ‘A+’?
To get to A+ we need to solve the other 3%
To fully round out our human experience we must first accept that we are basically apes and that our lives will consist primarily of the relatively banal activity outlined above, call it the vast majority of our time. But there’s a lot of magic in the 3% of DNA that defines our fork of the evolutionary tree. To our elevate our ape existence, we add to it that which apes cannot do. Here’s what comes to mind:
Use abstract systems of representation
Play rock music
Ferment grains into booze
Do yoga and pilates
Invent drugs to cure disease
Invent drugs to expand consciousness
Refuse to engage in pointless and counterproductive wars with other tribes of humans
Domesticate plants and animals
Organize into a global human tribe
Launch satellites into the atmosphere
Make and consume visual art
Write stuff for future generations
And so on and so forth. I’m sure there are more but filling in the 3% is sort of a choose-your-own-adventure. And to some extent, we *do* have to choose an adventure, lest we accept a technical forfeit via ‘analysis paralysis.’ IMO, the analysis paralysis technical forfeiture risk is why some very smart people think sitting around pondering existence is a fool’s errand. At some point, any armchair philosopher worth his salt is going to realize that time stops for no one. Although perhaps Bob Dylan said it more eloquently in his 1965 track ‘It’s Alright Ma’ from Bringing It All Back Home:
“He not busy being born is busy dying.”
If you’re like me, you may be left wondering how the hell do chimps laze around all day eating sugar while still maintaining 10% body fat??? Well. Science doesn’t really know. But I hope some enterprising young bioengineering major at UCSD figures it out so that through the magic of gene splicing we can all look smoking hot despite spending our days watching Netflix and washing down Chipotle burritos with 64oz Mountain Dew Big Gulps.
The milquetoast reality bite of Pontzer’s article in Scientific American is that human beings evolved to require significant amounts of exercise to keep our bodies and minds functioning properly. Similarly to how sharks have lost the ability to pump water over their gills while stationary and are thus now forced to ‘swim-or-die,’ human beings, post-forking from our ape ancestors, have apparently lost the ability to appropriately regulate metabolism while sedentary, resulting in our present day workout-or-get-diabetes-and-cardiovascular-disease Sophie’s choice. This adaptation allegedly helped us run prey to exhaustion on the Savannah. It seems to have outlived its useful life. Well. Evolution is a bitch. 🤷🏻♂️
And why didn’t the Aborigines invade England? Well. Long story short because they didn’t have to. Geographically, Australia is fertile and plentiful while England sucks and has bland food. According to Varoufakis, the English had the upper hand because living in the crappiest place meant they had to invent the best technology, including agricultural technology and weaponry, which, once invented, the English almost immediately used to take over neighboring tribes because they were running out of food and well… probably also because we are apes.