Saturday, July 24, 2010

Play Ball

Do chimps ever play ball? Do little chimps ever play catch? How about bonobos? Orangoutangs?

We start to play ball with babies as soon as they can sit up. We don’t wait until they can crawl; we start right off rolling the ball to them, and pretty quickly they try rolling it back. Sure, there’s a lot of social interacting going on, but at the same time they’re learning the most important motor skill that separates us from the other apes: how to hit something with a rock. (Why is it important for the quarterback to be able to hit the running receiver? Because the gazelle won’t stand still.)

Chimps, of course, certainly do throw things, and some, I imagine, get fairly good at it; but nobody’s worried over at MLB or the Dominican Republic that apes are going to take over the pitcher’s mound. Hang in there, Johan Santana, your job is safe.

But when chimps load up for a war party, they don’t load up with anything. They don’t carry along a cache of rocks, and they don’t fashion any spears, as they do when they’re singly hunting bush babies. And anyway, they never throw their spears, they only poke things with them. When a troop of chimpanzees sets off to invade a neighboring territory, they do it bare-handed; portable weapons are not part of their mind set. Needless-to-say, they don’t go marching off standing up; no need.

But us slow pokes. We were willing to forgo speed, just to stand up. We were willing to abandon our ability to scamper like hell, up trees, if necessary, just to stand up. Had to be something pretty important. Had to be something that was a constant, not just an occasional pressure. See over the tall grass? Oh, come on, 24-7? Cart food to the old lady? How come she learned to stand up too? Other animals seem able to cart food to families without growing hands.

But once an ape caught on to the idea that, if you were always armed with a spear and a few rocks, a bunch of you could go almost anywhere and have a lot less fear of being eaten on the way (providing, of course, you had sufficient water, if you were human-to-be). If you were always armed and always on the ready, you’d probably eat a lot better and so would your kids. Of which you’d have more with a higher survival rate, etc. Standing up to thrust a spear doesn’t require a large advance in skills for any ape, but accurately throwing rocks required mastering a set of skills heretofore little used in any of the animal kingdom. There just aren’t a lot of stone or nut tossing carnivores out there. No one has to worry that they will be attacked by boulder-wielding gorillas. Learning that skill put us in a class by ourselves. But if you’re going to be successful, you’re going to have to cart those weapons around the whole day and be at the ready.

But it worked and consequently we were suddenly dining a whole lot better than our weaponless cousins. We began to separate ourselves from the other apes by eating larger and larger quantities of meat. Standing up to hunt made all the difference (thank God we didn’t have vegetarians back then, the debate would have snuffed us out).


Let it be noted that randomly selected, unaltered throwing stones would have been employed by apes for millions of years before anyone hit upon shaping the stones and putting on a cutting edge; and that sharpened wooden spears would never have survived the eons between then and now. In other words, when we first see stone cutting tools, we are well into the middle of weapon/tool technology, not at the beginning.


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