Were I feeling starstruck, Kanzi [now living at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa] would be the obvious choice for the ape chapter’s lead actor. Here’s a bonobo with class, style, and linguistic skills. In his life with other apes and with humans, Kanzi has shown empathy and imagination in specific ways documented by scientists. These are key behaviors related to belongingness, the emotional mattering to others at the heart of my book Evolving God. Belongingness has deep evolutionary roots — and helps to explain, I believe, the origins of religious behavior in humans.Kanzi "is regarded as the first ape to demonstrate real comprehension of spoken speech." Learn more about him and his interests, and judge for yourself if he has a lead actor's looks and bearing.
I think I’d cast, right alongside Kanzi the celebrity, a more “typical” ape or ape family. A theme of the book is that chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas express belongingness in fascinating ways under many conditions (both in captivity and the wild). What camera wouldn’t love the gorillas my students and I have studied for six years at the National Zoo in Washington DC, or the chimpanzees of a community studied by primatologists in Tanzania or the Ivory Coast?
For the human-evolution chapters, the same principle would be at work. Our australopithecine ancestors and our cousins the Neandertals would be portrayed not just as dramatic bipedal striders (in the former case) or spear-wielding cave-bear hunters (in the latter), but also as proto-people who felt deep attachments to their family members and social partners. Over time, as in a dynamic feedback relationship their child-rearing, nurturing tendencies became more complex and their brains expanded and changed, these prehistoric hominids began to wonder about life’s mysteries (and death’s mysteries too). The circle of belongingness gradually expanded. In Neandertals and early Homo sapiens, it almost certainly included the otherworldly and the sacred, expressed through incipient spiritual practices such as burial rituals and (in our species) art ceremonies.
Photogenic, empathetic apes … artistic prehistoric cavedwellers … take note, PBS documentary-makers, ‘Evolving God the Movie’ could become a reality after all!
Read more about Barbara J. King's Evolving God at the Page 69 Test site.