Letters at 3AM

The law of less than one percent

Letters at 3AM
Illustration By Jason Stout

At the habitat of the chimpanzees, a stupendous cacophony! Chimps screaming and careening, running helter-skelter this way and that, bumping into each other, yowling in each other's faces, hopping up and down in little circles as they cackled, a great disconcerting din – almost scary, just this side of scary. Their crazy chimp cries endowed them with a power far beyond their size, and nothing could calm them, the zookeepers were helpless. Who knew what chimp event of special significance they were celebrating or protesting? The Sunday zoo crowd caught it, kids got giddy, made like chimps, screeched, hopped up and down, ran circles, quick crazy running, and their parents couldn't stop them, couldn't be heard above the kid-and-chimp din, an impenetrable noise. The racket of the first ritual? For you couldn't help but think this has happened before, many times, long ago, before human beings knew they were human beings, when the difference between a chimp-person and a human-person didn't seem obvious.

One tiny child screeched above the rest. She alone pierced the din, pointing to one chimp and yelling, "He's looking straight at us! He's looking straight at us!"

He had good reason. A plaque at their habitat taught that 99% of our genes are the same as theirs. More, actually. Ninety-nine point something. This staggers me. There are only a few tenths of a percent of difference between their DNA and ours, yours, mine.

I can't get over it. The difference between their fate and ours is less than one percent. One percent of something, even less, makes that much difference.

What meaning could be more clear? A change of one percent, even less, of any being, any situation, can change everything. That must be so, if one percent of change, less, could make as much difference as the difference between a human being and a chimpanzee, between the destiny of human beings and of chimpanzees. If that can happen, anything can happen. Anything at all. Anything is possible, if less than one percent of change can alter so much.

A fact that offers a tantalizing possibility:

To change so much as one percent, or less, of yourself, your family, your city, your country, your world, might – just might – change everything. Eventually.

To depend upon hope is passive. But to recognize the tremendous expanse of possibility – call it, the Law of Less Than One Percent – is realistic. It is, in fact, what appears to have made evolution possible.

I think of Kierkegaard, who wrote: "With God, All things are possible. God is All things are possible. All things are possible is God." We are human beings, not chimps, by virtue of tenths of a percent, so God needs not even one percent to make All things are possible. Let the word "God" stand for whatever you please – say, the creative principle and force of the Universe. God works in fractals, in increments of less than one percent. Creationists as well as many Science-ists want things to be straight-up-and-down, my way or the highway, evolution or the Bible. But with reality really so fluid that less than one percent of change is all that is needed to make chimp-persons into human-persons, then life is an ever-transforming caldron in which little can be ultimately known and nothing can be predicted. All the known facts may point one way, but then less than one percent of something changes and everything goes another way. And something is always changing, so – you never know.

Or as my brother Vinnie said some years ago: "This is life, and you really can't think about life, life looks at your thought and says, 'This is life, asshole! This is totally beyond your or anyone's capacity to think.'" Adding, "Apart from all that there's something free, that's not named – and that's what I'm interested in exploring, what is not named. Truth is alive and flowing and belongs to no one."

Something free that's not named. Belonging to no one. The creative principle of life.

In the early Nineties I went to every zoo in every city I traveled. I was writing a (now out of print) novel titled The Zoo Where You're Fed to God. I figured that, as a human being, I may fictionalize, make up, create, human action. But I'm not a chimp or tiger or gerenuk or cheetah – I can't make up what they do. So I spent many hours in almost every zoo in the West, observing animals and zoo crowds. I read books, watched documentaries. Everything about animals and zoo crowds in my novel is as I saw it. And what I saw often didn't jibe with either Science-ists or fundamentalists. Like this, on a peaceful day in the Los Angeles Zoo:

Chimpanzees again. Quiet this time. Two chimps kissing. On the lips. A he and a she. (By the way, homosexuality is common among many mammals. Which is to say: It's natural. Like it or not.) A he and a she, kissing. Very fondly. Just like anybody. And then they smiled at each other – unmistakable, their smiles: the gentle, private smiles of intimates. And then ... she bent her head and kissed his shoulder.

What gesture could be more human? And, because it was so human, it was also deeply shocking. These two chimpanzees shined with love for each other. Anybody could see that. The less-than-one-percent difference between their DNA and ours – whatever else it effected, it had nothing to do with love. Those two beings were in love. Which means: Love is not a strictly human quality. I was about to say, "It's a mammal quality," but no, there are birds and amphibians that mate for life – maybe fish too, for all I know. To claim they do not love is mere presumption. We have no idea what they feel, but chimps are close enough to us that we can read their expressions and we have no reason to disbelieve what we see.

All creatures have such profound effects upon one another, sometimes in mysterious ways. I think of those beings who sit in camouflage suits and offer food to deer and then, in a profound act of betrayal, shoot the deer. These cowards call that "hunting." But what comes around goes around. On the East Coast, now that the wolves have been killed off, deer are everywhere, cars crash into them all the time, and the back yards of the affluent are dangerous because deer ticks carry Lyme disease. Isn't there a certain justice in the gentle deer becoming dangerous to us with no loss of its gentleness? Dangerous just by being deer? (And it also means: The wolves were protecting us. Who knew?)

We are a community, we and the creatures. In the Bible, Noah doesn't save only his family; he saves all the animals, those he can eat or herd and those he can't. Jehovah commands it, telling Noah to save "every living thing, of all flesh ... two of every kind ... to keep them alive." The Bible teaches that by following this command humanity is saved. We forget this at our peril.

We are a community with them all. The chimps prove it. A human being can receive a successful blood transfusion from a chimpanzee. That says it all. Chimps can and do catch all our diseases. HIV probably began in monkeys. Chimps can learn the sign language of the deaf, and they make up their own words and teach their vocabularies to one another. That says it all.

It is hard not to love zoos, I've loved them all my life, but as one matures one learns there's nothing sadder than a zoo. Not far from the chimps, in the Los Angeles Zoo, are Gelada baboons. In their element, the sign says, they travel in groups of as many as 400. In this habitat, there are five. They probably barely think and do not remember, yet they look so desolate because their DNA, their bodies, their dreams, must wonder where the others are. There should be hundreds. There are five. What loneliness. Zoos teach that loneliness, too, is not a strictly human affair.

Long ago, my mother and little me walked hand in hand in zoos. In the kiddie zoo we'd pet the elephant's trunk; I'd ride upon the camel. My child-hand on elephant hide, on camel's hump. I didn't know then that molecules transfer back and forth between one's hand and whatever one touches. Molecules – mine, hers, elephant's, camel's. We become each other. Are each other. And who can know how the tiny change of that exchange may change us?

And the children dance the chimp-dance that they have always known by heart. end story

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monkeys, chimpanzees, The Zoo Where You're Fed to God

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