Gorillas, chimpanzees, humans

Received wisdom holds that chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than gorillas; the only species perhaps more closely related is the bonobo, but there aren’t many of those. I believe the received wisdom merits amendment.


Chimpanzees might be engaging when we see them on film or in the zoo but in many ways they’re pretty horrible. They form gangs, beat up other chimps, hunt monkeys and kill and eat them, fight each other and form dominance hierarchies, and are generally not to be trusted. Gorillas, in contrast, are gentle, peaceful creatures, devoted to their families. The only way to make a gorilla turn violent is to threaten its mate and children.


On that basis I suspect that while the chimpanzee is the closest relative of man, the gorilla is the closest relative of woman. (The bonobo is probably the closest relative of hippies.) This evolutionary hypothesis is readily testable in these days of rapid DNA sequencing, but alas, my scientific colleagues have to date ignored it. I continue to bombard them with e-mails and ignore restraining orders.


More seriously, a friend who recently visited Rwanda told me of a memorable and impressive experience among the local mountain gorillas – which remain targets for poachers, despite the assiduous efforts of the rangers and guides. Katy and her companions were following a troop of gorillas, at a respectful distance, when the silverback (the dominant male) stopped, motioned the rest of his family onwards, and sat down beside the track. The humans hesitated to pass him, but the guide said “It’s okay, he won’t hurt you”. And indeed they passed the silverback with no alarms. Once they were past them he rose from his seat and overtook them, catching up with his family.


Katy had a glorious afternoon in close proximity to these wonderful animals but remained puzzled by the silverback’s behaviour on the track. The truth only became apparent on the return journey. The guide hunted among the undergrowth near the place where the old male had seated himself – and there, hidden from view, was a trap left by the poachers. The silverback had known it was there and was intent on protecting his human visitors as well as his own family.


You’d never catch a chimpanzee behaving like that. Or, I suspect, most humans.


  • Mishka Zakharin 22.01.2014 - 07:14am

    Uh! Primates are so cool! And a very nice gorilla story. It’s amazing–or, I suppose, just not so at all?–how human our ape cousins can be. (And how “ape” our human cousins remain!)

    My thought, evolutionarily speaking, was that perhaps the Neanderthals were from the gorillas–and those nasty buggers (us!) descended from the chimp/bonobo branch are why there are no more Neanderthals. And it’s nice to hear someone else mention the bonobo at all–as I have one in my novel… and he is always greatly disturbed to be mistaken for a chimp…

    • Mark Henderson

      Great story, isn’t it, Mishka? I doubt whether I’d have believed it if I didn’t know Katy.

      Bonobos don’t get a great press, when they get any press at all, and I understand your bonobo’s antipathy to the label ‘chimp’ (much as the orang-utan librarian in the Terry Pratchett Discworld novels objects to the label ‘monkey’). In which of your novels does the maligned bonobo appear? I’d like to make his acquaintance.

      Not sure about the Neanderthal-gorilla connection, though. There’s evidence that neanderthalensis bred with sapiens, and not (as far as the exiguous data allow us to infer) vice versa, so I’m not persuaded about their moral qualities.

  • Mishka Zakharin 28.01.2014 - 23:53pm

    With regard to evolution, yes, I tend to look for the obvious connections–and they rarely seem to be the ones the scientists agree with. For example I recall seeing some show about prehistoric predecessors, and what I would have taken for a precursor for an alligator or crocodile was an ancestor for sheep. But I’m fascinated by the other, now extinct, cousins of our species… probably the fantasy-fan in me–it’s the closest we come to having giants, hobbits, elves, and dwarves!

    As for the novel with the bonobo, it’s entitled ‘Natalya’s Tale’–and it is unpublished. Just yesterday I was informed that New York Indie Review will have my review & critique finished the end of next week–then I give it one more good going over, and I’m going to try submitting to a couple of traditional fantasy publishers first. But if you’re interested, I’ll definitely email you the pdf version when it’s completely completed.

    • Mark Henderson

      I’d like to read it, Mishka, provided it wouldn’t be considered a security risk to send me the pdf! I’ll be glad to add my own lightweight review comments to the professional stuff if it would be of any value.

  • Mishka Zakharin 29.01.2014 - 05:35am

    That would be awesome! I would indeed welcome any commentary on it you would care to offer… You can expect it (hopefully!) sometime in February.

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