The Inside Story on the Space Station Commander on the Planet of Gorillas

Wikipedia has a very interesting entry on gorillas, which will help you learn quite a bit about them. Even though it was a shock for many people when it was discovered just how closely humanity was related to the other species of great ape on this planet, the unmissable similarity between the species was often marked in the names we gave them.

The word ‘gorilla’ originates “from an alleged African word for a wild or hairy person. It was first found in the ancient Greek account of the voyage of an explorer from Carthage named Hanno in the fifth or 6th century BCE. He apparently used the plural form of the word in Greek to mean “tribe of hairy women”.

The Malay term “orang-utan” means ‘forest person’.

The word chimpanzee is a French form of a word from the Kikongo language (spoken in the Congo) ci-mpenzi. I believe “mpenzi” means ‘lover’ in that language, but I haven’t yet been able to find out what the prefix “ci-” means. If you know what the elements of the word ci-mpenzi mean in its original language, please contact me and tell me. I’m keen to know.

The term “bonobo” is thought to have meant ‘ancestor’ in a Bantu language now extinct. Bonobos are great apes (a species of chimpanzee) also found in the Congo, and with the common chimpanzees are our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom.

“Speciation” (the formation of new and distinct species in the course of evolution) occurs over long periods of time whenever pockets of a particular gene pool become separated by some geographical barrier that the genes’ survival machines (bodies) cannot cross.

Over millions of years during which sea-levels rose and fell, pockets of land became isolated one from another and a continuum of small changes during the replication of those genes within their separate pools through countless generations led to diversifications which – given enough time – became great enough to warrant classification into different species.

On page 30 of his very interesting book The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee (ISBN 0 09 177770 4; first published in 1991 by Hutchinson Radius; winner of the Rhone-Poulenc Science Book prize in 1992), Jared Diamond displays the following helpful chart covering the last six million years of our evolution from those creatures we now refer to as “apes” to the creature we now refer to as “human”.

evolution of primates

Humans, of course, have their physical differences. Change may be slow, but it is unceasing. See how much taller we are on average from people only five hundred years ago. Do “pygmy people” give us some indication of how small all human beings were once? Consider the differences that have arisen in the colour of skin and eyes and hair, the shapes of eyes and noses and lips…

Such changes are observable in many species. Think about cats: their size and markings and characteristics. A lion and a tiger are easily told apart, and yet when brought together are still similar enough to be able to produce tigons and ligers.

The mapping of “genomes” and continuing advances in the understanding of gene replication and transfer are enabling scientists to establish the closeness of the relationships between the surviving great apes in Africa and the various species of “hominids” that pre-dated – or coexisted on the planet with – our ancestors (the most well-known, I suppose, being the Neanderthals) before they were (presumably) wiped out in the competition for resources that our ancestors eventually won.

Ethnic “cleansing” is not a new idea.

The genetic differences between Neanderthals and our ancestors did not prevent the mingling of their genes (there are Neanderthal genes in all people to the north of sub-Saharan Africa). One estimate is that our genes were around 99.7% identical (compared to around 98% with chimpanzees and around 95% for gorillas).

The “anatomically modern Africans” on the chart above perhaps shared 99.9% of their genes with the “Cro-Magnons” (our direct ancestors). They were making Neanderthal-like tools and covered the remaining distance between the upright hominids that diverged from the great ape line about six million years ago and ourselves.

So what significant change could have been effected by just 0.1% of our genes? It enabled our ancestors to make a massive leap forward. The most likely answer to that question is: language.

Just look carefully at the shape of the two faces below:

Neanderthal and homo sapiensJared Diamond says: “As recently as 40,000 years ago, Western Europe was still occupied by Neanderthals, primitive beings for whom art and progress scarcely existed. Then there was an abrupt change, as anatomically modern people appeared in Europe, bringing with them art, musical instruments, lamps, trade and progress. Within a short time the Neanderthals were gone.”

The principal difference is in the structure of the larynx, jaw, tongue, teeth, palate, vocal chords and associated muscles. The changes made it possible for modern man to produce and sequence a much wider range of precise sounds which came to have an increasingly complex range of meanings. In a word, LANGUAGE.

With language you can pass on information. You can plan and organise and achieve levels of cooperation and coordination combined with a circumstance-led degree of flexibility that would otherwise be impossible. With increasingly complex language comes increasingly complex thought.

Thought is most accurately defined as language arrested at the muscular level.

“What a piece of work is a man!” Shakespeare had Hamlet declare, and we have to agree. What wonders human beings have been able to achieve, and at the same time what appalling atrocities have they been periodically guilty of committing?

So I found myself supposing that instead of us one of the other primates had discovered language. It would have been primarily a sign-language with some sounds – a kind of reversal of our mostly sound-language with some signs. And suppose that ape had been a peaceful, grazing and gathering herbivore instead of a voracious omnivore with a predilection for murder and mayhem. What would the world have been like then?

And that is why Gordon found himself in his eleventh year travelling to a Planet of the Apes in an alien-supplied starship named Velociraptor.

six million years of evolution

Six Million Years of Evolution