One small step for Ape

av Kristoffer Robin Haug.

"En ape", av George Stubbs.

Robertson was cutting away at yet another piece of wood for his installation. He did his best to limit his sense of self-satisfaction with creating what would probably be heralded as a significant milestone in all of history – and not just human history at that. His hands had more success than his head, however, but at least he found a sense of humility in thinking of his project as a small step in the much larger history of life on earth.

His funders were, of course, blissfully unaware of Robertson’s grand scheme. The university had sent him to the nature reserve on the coast of Gabon to teach sign-language to chimpanzees in their natural habitat; a noble goal in and of itself. It was not that Robertson was uninterested in replicating results found in apes living in enclosures or seeing whether sign language could spread between simians in the wild. His ambitions were simply on a different level than those of his colleagues back home.

He was just getting started on drilling a hole in the side of a grapefruit-sized, wooden ball, when his two top students, Honir and Mimir, came swinging by him with the hope of picking up a complimentary banana or two. Every time he spelled their names to greet them he cursed himself for letting Lasse, the Scandinavian PhD-student, name all the apes rather than sticking to his original plan of just labelling them with the letters of the alphabet. At least Jormungandir was nowhere to be seen.

"Banana, please?" Honir did the signs while Mimir strategically positioned himself next to the rucksack where Robertson kept the golden rewards. Robertson had spent two whole weeks of extra time to teach the apes to add "please" at the end of a request. Humility was, after all, a virtue worth teaching. "You must complete a lesson first," Robertson insisted. "Banana first, lesson after," Honir suggested, as he always did. Robertson tried his best not to think too much about the fact that these two fanged creatures could tear out his jugular vein at any point in time and happily help themselves to whatever fruits he was guarding. He turned to Mimir. "Will you complete a lesson?" "I'm too old," Mimir replied, as if that was a valid argument. Robertson walked over to his teaching table. Often the most successful approach was to go ahead and assume the outcome he wanted, and the chimps would follow his lead. Sure enough, they would obediently repeat his description of the shapes he had laid out on his table until they each had earned their rightful banana.

As the apes swung their way through the trees again, Robertson felt his pants vibrating. The call was from Lasse and, seeing as how he usually only called when something had been postponed for so long that it had to be dealt with right now, he found it best to answer.

"Hi, Lasse, what do you need?"

"Hi, Doctor Moreau!" Lasse was his usual insubordinate self. "You can't tell over the phone of course, but I'm currently rolling on the jungle floor laughing."

Robertson tried again. "What do you need, Lasse?"

"Well," Lasse said, "I'm delivering my thesis in two days, and I need both my supervisors to give me some feedback on the final draft."

"And you figured I only needed a day to review an entire thesis, seeing as how I'm not busy with fieldwork or anything?"

Robertson let his breath linger for a moment before drawing it again, "I presume Goodall has given her feedback already?"

"I'll send it to her right after you've looked at it!" Lasses chipper mood possessed an unusual tinge of desperation.

"Fine, I'll help you out. Like always."

Robertson was ready to hang up.

“Also," Lasse continued, "The faculty told me to remind you that the project has spent its budget, so they expect you to wrap things up down there and come back by the end of the month. I guess you better hurry up if you want to usher in the next stage of apevolution. Are you still sure it is going to work? I was barely able to teach them how to spell the names of simple fruits, remember? I don't think they will even understand what you want them to do."

"I can assure you," Robertson replied somewhat impatiently, "that my communication with these apes is sufficiently developed for the transfer of knowledge to occur."

He hung up. Lasse had a point of course, even though his impertinence was no way to reward Robertson’s kindness and leniency. But that's what you get for getting drunk with your students and sharing your own private hopes for how you can change the world.

He was running out of time — but at least he was well stocked with bananas, a fact that was not lost on Mimir, who had returned alone to make sure that any surplus would be well spent.

"Come," Robertson beckoned Mimir over to his installation and placed himself between Mimir and the series of wooden orbs he had made, with the vast ocean looming in the background. "This sphere," he touched the closest wooden orb, which was about the size of a grapefruit, and propped up to the level of a chimp's eye-height by a steel rod, "is round." He motioned for Mimir to repeat. "That sphere is round." Mimir dutifully replied. Robertson moved on to the next sphere, directly behind the first but more than twice the size. "This is also round." Mimir confirmed each sphere to be round as Robertson moved further and further away, touching each sphere as he went. He also gave signs of understanding how Robertson had represented ever larger spheres with mere parts of the sphere showing in the actual sculpture, and how the rest was merely implied. Even when more than half of the sphere had to be imagined.

The last figure was almost a disk, but still curved, almost perfectly tracing the horizon beyond. "This sphere…" Robertson traced the curve with his hands even further to the side of the figure, "is round." "That sphere is round" Mimir replied. "This sphere…" Robertson now traced the horizon with his hands, "is round." Mimir stared at him. Robertson retraced the horizon once again. "The earth," he said "is round."

"The earth…" Mimir patted the ground "is round?" Robertson nodded. "We. You. I. The jungle. The water. Are all on a sphere?" He patted the smallest of the wooden orbs. Robertson smiled and nodded again. Mimir walked closer to the beach and gazed towards the horizon. His hand trembled slightly as he looked down to touch the sand. He stared at Robertson "The earth is round?" "The earth is round," Robertson replied. Mimir started making loud grunts and jumping up and down. "The earth is round!"

Mimir kept running back and forth between the sculpture and the beach while hitting the ground repeatedly as if to make sure it was still solid.

"Congratulations," Robertson said, "I welcome you to the distinguished group of species that know the earth to be round. Man is no longer alone."

"Do birds know?" Mimir looked up at Robertson, who looked back at him. In his eagerness to improve the knowledge of another species, Robertson had completely neglected to investigate what other animals actually knew about this. He had simply assumed that only humans knew.

"I don't know," he said.

"This is like …" Mimir said, but Robertson did not understand the last sign Mimir had made.

"This is like what?"

"Like …" Mimir did the sign again. Robertson was certain that this was not any of the proper signs he had taught his simian companion.

"Come," Mimir gestured for them to venture into the jungle.

He led the way, confident that his communication with Robertson was sufficiently developed for the transfer of new knowledge to occur.