Monday, January 4, 2016

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's "A Foot in the River"

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is the William P. Reynolds Professor of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame. He has published numerous best-selling history books, including Civilizations, Millennium, 1492: The Year Our World Began, and Pathfinders: A Global History of Exploration,  which was awarded the World History Association Prize.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, A Foot in the River: Why Our Lives Change - and the Limits of Evolution, and reported the following:
From page 99:

The Chimpanzees’ Tea Party

The Discovery of Non-human Cultures

Most readers are probably not old enough to remember it. But it is one of my most vivid childhood memories. When I was little, I lived with grandparents near the London Zoo, where, every afternoon, the chimpanzees’ keepers laid out a tea party for them. Trestle tables, spread with white or gingham cloths, bore pots of tea, jugs of milk, plates of sandwiches and cakes. The result was chaos. The chimps spilt the tea, smeared the jam, clambered over the table, and used the cakes as inefficiently wielded missiles, while we children and most of the adults present stood around laughing.

I am penitent at the recollection of my politically incorrect conduct – a rank offence against the chimps’ dignity. Now, however, I suspect the joke was on us and that, if the chimps had sleeves, they would be laughing down them. Desmond Morris, the charismatic zookeeper, suspected that they deliberately hammed up their performance to please the crowd. But the reason for my present discomfort runs deeper than that. Why did we humans find the chimps’ antics entertaining? Most of us onlookers were children, and glimpsed, perhaps, some affinity between the apes and our own former, undomesticated, infant selves, who had not yet learned to observe table manners. Perhaps we admired or envied their freedom to be babyish. But the chimps were ridiculous chiefly, as I recall, because they were victims of a deeper dilemma: to us children they were like us, but without the opportunity, without the necessary nature, to grow up in the same way. Like clowns imitating the lion-tamer or a clod-hopper aspiring to balletics and tripping over his feet, they were attempting something beyond them. Though I should not have put it this way when I was five years old, I think the reason we humans found them amusing was that we assumed that our species was uniquely cultural, and that other animals were simply incapable of understanding that a meal could be for more than eating. A human tea party is an opportunity for practising decorum, respecting order, subscribing to cultural norms. Ideas of that sort – according to the assumptions of my childhood – were simply inaccessible to any other creatures.
Ford Madox Ford must have read A Foot in the River in a time-warp. Page 99 is a perfect match for his theory.
Learn more about A Foot in the River at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue