Collecting with a conscience

As soon as you have anything to do with the gorilla the fascination of studying him begins to grow on you and you instinctively begin to speak of the gorilla as "he" in a human sense, for he is obviously as well as scientifically akin to man. - Carl Akeley


There are few places that I find as stimulating at the American Museum of Natural History, but the great halls of stuffed animals always put me in a somber mood. The organic parts of the reconstituted creatures were collected long ago, and large metal letters on the wooden frames telling the viewer who had donated the skins to the museum. The stuffed apes are particularly disturbing, as they stare out through their artificial boxes with lifeless eyes.

Every diorama tells a story, of a hunt or expedition undertaken when natural history still involved gathering specimens to ship back to museums. In many cases the reflections of the hunters on their collecting trips have been lost, but Carl Akeley, for whom the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at the AMNH is named, described his thoughts on gorillas in a June 1922 article "Is the Gorilla Almost a Man?"


Casts of the hands and a foot of a gorilla shot by Akeley.

In 1921, Akeley traveled to what is now Uganda to collect gorillas for the AMNH, and he returned from the trip with the remains of five individuals (four adults and a baby). Yet this expedition was not the heroic journey to slay a powerful beast that had been popularized in fiction like The Gorilla Hunters; Akeley took care to observe the natural history of the apes. These animals were not the "hellish dream creatures" of Paul du Chaillu, who introduced the gorilla to Victorian England decades before, but more peaceful animals.

Even though science had largely dispensed with legendary monsters, a popular mythology still surrounded the gorilla. Few had seen it in the wild, and those who had (like du Chaillu) were sometimes prone to exaggeration and hyperbole. Even books that wanted to provide an accurate treatment to gorillas had failed, one common error being the belief that gorillas were primarily arboreal. Akeley saw for himself that this was not the case, and he even suggested that the terrestrial knuckle-walking of the gorillas was an indication that "They seem to be evolving toward a two-legged animal."


Death masks of gorillas shot by Akeley.

More than being curiosities in and of themselves, Akeley saw the gorillas as our nearest living relatives. They and other apes had diverged from a distant common ancestor (in-keeping with H.F. Osborn's desire to not have humans evolved from apes), but they were still startlingly like us. While incapable of human speech, Akeley underlined the proposal that gorillas were mentally akin to two-year-old human children and had all the proper mechanisms to allow them to speak. If they could do so, he reasoned, they would be living "missing links." Even though such a suggestion seemed fantastic, Akeley maintained that gorillas seemed to be an approximation of an early stage of our own evolution.


A Western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla), photographed at the Bronx Zoo.

It might make sense to assume that this similarity might lead humans to protect gorillas, but as Darwin had predicted, the contrary was the case. Humans were extirpating gorillas at a rate that made Akeley worry about their continued survival. There was much to learn from the gorilla, both about its life and about ourselves, and Akeley feared that;

...unless some measures are quickly taken to get this information it will never be gotten. The gorilla is on his way to extinction. He is not particularly numerous. He is neither wary nor dangerous. He is an easy and highly prized prey to the "sporting" instinct.

What could be done to save them? A gorilla sanctuary delimited by natural boundaries seemed like the best solution;

As I traveled down from Mikeno toward the White Friar's Mission the fascinating possibilities of the study of the gorilla and its immense scientific importance filled my mind along with the fear that his extinction would come before adequate study was made. These considerations materially led my mind to the idea of a gorilla sanctuary; and I realized that a better place for such a thing than the one I had just left could hardly be hoped for. The three mountains, Mikeno, Karasimbi, and Visoke stand up in a triangle by themselves. Their peaks are about four miles apart. On the slopes of these mountains, in the bamboos and in the dense forest, there are several bands of gorillas. I judge that there are between fifty and one hundred animals altogether. In all probability the animals in this region stay on these three mountains.

In Akeley's view, gorillas were certainly approaching a low grade of humanity. Perhaps they were even re-playing some bit of our own evolution. (Indeed, there is a sense of evolution towards a goal in the piece.) It seems paradoxical that he cared so much for the animals while posing next to the severed head of one of the animals, but we should be careful not to let our distaste for the death of our relatives obscure Akeley's aims. In order for people to want to save the gorillas, they had to see them and understand them. For that to happen naturalists needed specimens, and perhaps the deaths of a few could provide the impetus to save the many.

Almost 90 years after Akeley collected the gorillas from Africa, the apes are still in trouble. Perhaps they would have been lost entirely if not for the conservation efforts undertaken since Akeley's time, but they are fortunately still here. There is no longer a need to ship them across oceans to academic institutions, dead or alive, but Akeley did not live at such a time. The gorilla diorama at the AMNH is still a macabre spectacle, but it speaks of a different time in science & conservation, and of collecting with a conscience.

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Interesting... I feel, and have always felt, akin to gorillas. You can see the intelligence in their eyes; their ability to think about things that have happened or are going to happen is apparent in their behaviors. But, I am also a bit out of the box; in that, I feel akin to most living entities and often think in them, he or she terms~ as opposed to that or it.

I truly feel that we are much closer to our cousins in the animal kingdom than people can even rationalize or comprehend as our own intelligence/consciousness is available to understand first hand~ another mind, is not. I also feel that all minds are not created equal, but also and more importantly, that all minds are not in the same category and as such must be evaluated through applicable comparables. It may be uneventful and imprecise to compare and contrast the human mind with that of a bird or a bat to an octopus. I just don't believe that it is wise to presume that the human mind should be number one with every single species ranked below it in a hierarchy of perceived worth.

But anyway, I do know this; it is not humans, or even gorillas, that are special; it's Life.

This is what we share with other species; this is what we take brutally and selfishly from the world, stripping it with fierce requisition through falsely perceived ownership and superiority based right. If we stop killing off the competition, we may just get to a point in which the atrocity that is the human self righteousness will cease to be, through understanding.

I imagine that language will be the key that would stamp out our superiority. I also presume that if anyone of our shared animal kingdom species will progress to speech, that it will be our cousin the gorilla or the chimpanzee. Who knows, if we learn such a key is programmable through genetic manipulation; gorillas may be speaking in a matter of a few hundred years from now. Otherwise, I would deduce that gorilla's would need a couple of million. Yes, I feel a particular pull towards our fellow primates, but I simply wanted to express that our value system is awry. Though they may be closer to our level of comprehension or the closest to language, gorillas are no more or less worthy than ant eaters or turkeys of survival. That goes for humans as well, which are invariably the destroyers of life, though maybe not inhibitors of progression (as our direct competition may speed up the process for a few species.)

I just hope that we don't destroy the earth before then; snubbing out the chances of all other life to do what we have done~ with evolution.

Loved the feet and hand casts... very telling & yes, I also find 'stuffed' animals quite adverse. I think Palin's bear skin rug (I absolutely love bears and find that they are very, very intelligent) disgusting & equate that disgust to the person~ Palin. Moose is o.k. if the animal is being eaten and not wasted or portrayed as a moose head on the wall...


As soon as you have anything to do with the gorilla the fascination of studying him begins to grow on you and you instinctively begin to speak of the gorilla as "he" in a human sense, for he is obviously as well as scientifically akin to man. - Carl Akeley

"Obviously?" IMHO, Douglas Adams (yes, that Douglas Adams) nailed the problem with this POV perfectly, in his book Last Chance to See. From the section on the mountain gorilla:

"It was instantly clear what he was doing. [note: 'he' refers to a big silverback gorilla.] He was contemplating life. He was hanging out. It was quite obvious. Or rather, the temptation to find it quite obvious was absolutely overwhelming.

"They look like humans, they move like humans, they hold things in their fingers like humans, the expressions which play across their faces and in their intensely human-looking eyes are expressions that we instinctively feel we recognise as human expressions. We look them in the face and we think, 'We know what they're like,' but we don't. Or rather, we actually block off any possible glimmering of understanding of what they may be like by making easy and tempting assumptions."

From a page or so later comes this:

"I began to feel how patronising it was of us to presume to judge their intelligence, as if ours was any kind of standard by which to measure. I tried to imagine instead how he saw us, but of course that's almost impossible to do, because the assumptions you end up making as you try to bridge the gap are, of course, your own, and the most misleading assumptions are the ones you don't even know you're making."

By wolfwalker (not verified) on 21 Oct 2008 #permalink