A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Ebola, Chimpanzees and Fear of the ‘Other’


What does this August 29th Newsweek cover say to you, with its rather menacing-looking chimpanzee and a caption suggesting that these animals and the people from Africa who are like them are about to set off a major epidemic in the United States?

The story is about how “bushmeat”, smuggled from faraway jungles into African immigrant neighborhoods and to their food markets in the Bronx, poses a threat to the health of the rest of us.

I say “bushmeat” in quotes because the word signals meat from dark, dangerous, foreign lands. When American sportsmen kill and eat deer and rabbits and quail and other animals in this country, they don’t call it bushmeat; it’s “wild game”. (And nobody mentions the fact that deer can harbor chronic wasting disease, or that you can catch tularemia from rabbits.)

But could chimpanzees bring about a potential Ebola epidemic among humans? Certainly, chimps and gorillas have been victims of Ebola, too, but the latest outbreak began with one woman touching the body of a dead man who had probably had contact with an infected fruit bat. The virus then mutated rapidly as she passed it along to other people, where it mutated some more, and so on. The real danger, then, is the rapid mutation of a virus that’s being passed from human to human.

In the tropical rainforest, the Ebola virus has been living quietly for probably thousands of years among animals who have natural immunity to it. What’s causing all the trouble now is entirely of our own making – the direct result of oil and mineral mining companies cutting down more and more of the forests. An exploding population of humans then ranges deeper into the homes of other animals, where we don’t belong and where we cause massive death and destruction. And then we complain when we pick up a virus to which we have no immunity. Something dark and evil coming out of Africa and being brought here by people from over there who aren’t like “us”.

(Even those unfortunate Westerners who have come down with Ebola and have been flown back to the U.S. to be treated are part of the problem. Sure, they’re good people with the best of intentions to help their fellow humans. But that doesn’t change the fact that they’re there as part of a Christian ministry whose primary objective is to “save” people’s souls by converting them to the One True Religion. All part of the same old human exceptionalist world view.)

Various blogs and opinion pieces have taken Newsweek to task for suggesting that something dark and evil is being brought here from Africa by people who aren’t like “us” and who are going to infect us with their horrible, deadly diseases.

A Washington Post blog describes the article as being in “the long and ugly tradition of treating Africa as a dirty, diseased place”:

“The authors of the piece and the editorial decision to use chimpanzee imagery on the cover have placed Newsweek squarely in the center of a long and ugly tradition of treating Africans as savage animals and the African continent as a dirty, diseased place to be feared.”

And a commentary in FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) condemns the article as “a story about how African immigrants might spread a deadly virus in the United States, thanks to the peculiar and unsanitary food they eat.”

As if the beef and pork and chicken you buy at the supermarket isn’t riddled with disease and laced with antibiotics to try to ward off yet more disease.Completely ignored in this panic is the fact that the beef and pork and chicken you buy at the supermarket is riddled with disease and laced with antibiotics to try to ward off yet more disease. And even then thousands of tons of infected meat have to be recalled from stores. (The latest Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus is currently killing 100,000 pigs and piglets each week.)

Essentially, then, it’s the old story of placing the blame for our human ills on the “other” – those people “over there”, be they Blacks, Wogs, Kikes, Gypsies, Irish . . . or the animals they’re most like: chimpanzees.

Only a hundred years ago, in 1906, an African man was brought to New York City and put on display at the Bronx Zoo.

Ota-Benga had been captured in the Congo by slave traders who had killed his wife and children. A missionary secured his release but then persuaded him to accept a new life as an exhibit at the zoo’s monkey house, where he became a popular attraction as he played with his only companion, a baby orangutan.

Most people thought this was entirely OK. They told themselves that Ota-Benga was not as human as they were. This sentiment of human (especially American) exceptionalism, is captured in an editorial in The New York Times that same year:

“We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter . . . It is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation Benga is suffering. The pygmies . . . are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place . . . from which he could draw no advantage whatever.

“The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.”

Ota-Benga was later released from the zoo, but he was never able to adapt to the world in which he now found himself, and he eventually committed suicide with a stolen shotgun.

Meanwhile, even though there was no getting around the growing evidence from biology that we humans are not situated at the top of a creationist ladder that places us above the “animals” and just below the angels, a new version of human exceptionalism, known as eugenics, was taking shape with the idea that you could bring about an even less animal-like human society by promoting higher reproduction of people with desired traits, and less reproduction of people with undesirable traits.

Eugenics reached its logical extension in Nazi Germany, which promoted a master race of “Aryans” and ended up on a mission to send all those who didn’t fit their preferred genetic profile to the gas chambers.

Another recent scare coming out of Africa was the HIV panic of the 1980s. Once again we had a disease coming out of darkest Africa and being brought into the American population by another feared underclass: homosexuals.

And now here we are again, with a dark, somewhat scary photo on the cover of Newsweek conveying the message that “we” are being threatened by “them”, and that “they” belong, like Ota Benga, somewhere between ourselves and the chimpanzees.

In other words, we tell ourselves that “we” are human, that “they” are animals, and, most important, that “I am not an animal.” We project the aspects of ourselves that we’re afraid of onto people of other races and cultures, so that we can label them as being animals.

Psychologists see this denial of our animal nature as being responsible for much of the neuroses that afflict human society today. They explain that the more we try to separate ourselves from the rest of nature and to see ourselves as superior and “exceptional”, the more psychologically distressed we become. 

Nonetheless, we still try to keep up the pretense. When we don’t like other people’s behavior, we call them “animals” – regardless of whether any nonhuman animal would ever even behave that way. And we project all those aspects of ourselves that we’re afraid of onto people of other races and cultures, so that we can label them as the “other” – less human, more animal. And, in this case, more like chimpanzees.

And so to the Ebola panic, which comes from the dark world of Africa, from where those “other” people are smuggling their dangerous bushmeat into our country and threatening us with their diseases. (As if our own culture isn’t drowning in our own diseases of modern civilization that we’re exporting all over the world.)

But there’s light at the end of this dark tunnel. After all, we’ve destroyed so much of Africa – its rainforests, its wildlife, its culture, its very nature – that soon there won’t be any chimpanzees left. And when they’re all finally gone from the wild, even while we continue to plunder and destroy the Earth and all its creatures, at least we’ll have one less reminder that we, too, are members of the great ape family.