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Gorilla Denial

The Victorians didn’t believe in Gorillas. This is a fact and it’s just one of the many amusing facts about a group of people whose hubris apparently knew few bounds.  At one point they also famously decided that there was nothing left to invent, so closed the patent office (although it soon needed re-opening when someone invented yet another device for covering the sexually provocative legs of pianos.)

Anyway, back to Gorillas because ridiculous as it seems to us now, it is of course a default position for most of us to at least question the existence of something that isn’t there for us to see.  Put another way, there’s a chance we only find what we look for.

A story caught my eye this week on the BBC website showcasing a study conducted on Rock Hyraxes, the thrust of which was to question whether all the extensive snorting and whistling noises that they make add up to anything more than..well, snorts and whistles.  At first glance, the conclusion, like most scientific papers seemed to lie somewhere between “definitely’ and “probably not.” 

But one of the things that caught my eye was the suggestion that “The hyrax is one of only a few mammals which have syntax.” And this is where I’m reminded Victorians and Gorillas. Because I wonder which is more likely – that God singled out a few animals (people, dolphins, hyraxes and the odd parrot) to be able to talk, then got bored and left the rest out, saying “Let Them Make Only Meaningless Squeaks All the Days of Their Lives”?  Or that those are some of the few animals we’ve got round to paying attention to?  I think it’s also known as observer bias.

Most of the many mammals that I’ve spent time watching in Africa, whether elephant, lion, or the countless smaller species (including the hyrax) or the Gerbils, Hamster (RIP) or Guinea pigs that my sons now keep, seem to make pretty significant use of vocal communication (roughly on a par with that of my sons).  I wouldn’t mind betting that the overwhelming majority are pretty good conversationalists…if only someone will listen.

Of course none of this would really add up to a hill of beans if it didn’t illustrate quite so clearly the contrast between our collective position as custodians of the planet and our total lack of qualification for the job.  The Victorian refusal to believe in Gorillas is pure comedy, but today’s misunderstandings – from climate change to how to stop rhino poaching (another thought provoking article) - are far less funny.

Posted by: Alex

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