Thursday, April 12, 2007

Spear-Wielding Chimps Seen Hunting Bush Babies

Well, well. That headline in Science caught my eye. Our nearest neighbors on the family tree of life. Ninety-six percent of our DNA the same. Researchers in Senegal observed wild chimpanzees sharpening the tips of sticks with their teeth, then using the sticks to jab small primates called bush babies. It seems chimps are smart enough to arm themselves with weapons. And humans are dumb enough to behave like chimps.

If I remember rightly, I was about 12 years old when I first came across Francisco Goya's collection of etchings called The Disasters of War. I knew nothing of Goya, nor of the subject of the etchings, the Spanish insurrection of 1808 and the resulting war with Napoleonic France. I looked upon those terrible pictures with a child's innocent eyes. Anyone who has seen them will not have forgotten them. Bodies without heads or limbs impaled on trees. Soldiers splitting naked bodies lengthwise with swords. Unmitigated scenes of rapine and slaughter. It probably did not cross my young mind to wonder how humans could do such things to each other. I had been taught in school about original sin and the power of Satan in the world. The horrors depicted by Goya were surely the work of the Dark Angel.

I no longer believe in Satan. Nevertheless, the intervening years have provided ample evidence of the human potential for violence. In Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Iraq and dozens of other places around the globe, we go on butchering those who are not of our own clan.

The story of the chimps and the bush babies reminds us that the savageries depicted by Goya came with us into the world from our mothers' wombs. The myth of original sin may embody more truth than many of us care to admit. Our hope lies in the wondrously adaptable human brain, which confers upon us the practical equivalent of free will. Violence may loom large in human history, but an ever-increasing number of us choose to live our lives on the non-Luciferan side of the line.