How I Evolved from Lizards, Apes and Thugs
by Loretta Breuning
Welcome to Family Day at the Pleasantville Zoo. I’m Loretta and I’ll be your tour guide. I can’t wait to introduce our animals to you, so let’s get started with one of our most popular mammals, the elephants.
Elephants are matriarchal. That means they kick their boys out at puberty, and girls stay with their mothers forever. Forever! Jeez, that would’ve killed me. In the wild, it makes sense because older elephants have longer memories of where the food is. My mother had a long memory.
“You’re still doing homework? When I was your age, I washed my dress when I got home from school so it would be dry to wear in the morning. Then I made dinner for my sisters and gave them baths. On weekends, I scrubbed the floors and the bathrooms….So you’re just gonna keep doing homework!”
When I hear the word “matriarchy,” I say, “Find your own food, ladies. It’s not worth it.”
But I digress. Let’s check out more charismatic megafauna, the giraffes.
Aren’t they elegant? Giraffes are herd animals, like all the artiodactyl ungulates. Herds protect the young from predators. But life in a herd is not all warm and fuzzy. Giraffes fight. They swing their huge heads on the end of that long neck, and smash it into the chest cavity of an adversary, and they can cause a lethal cardiac arrest with one blow. Thank God my mother didn’t have a long neck. Giraffes stick with the herd despite the conflict, and you never know when it will break out, so let’s get out of here.
This is Ophelia, our spiny monitor lizard. Reptiles are cold-blooded, as you know. I don’t mean cold-blooded in the sense of a mother who says “I hate you kids. I hate your father. I hope you all suffer the way you make me suffer.” I mean cold-blooded in the sense that they freeze to death if they don’t go out in the sun every few hours. Look, Ophelia’s basking in the sun right now.
“Don’t think I enjoy this. I risk being eaten alive by a predator every second. I rush back into hiding the instant my temperature rises.”
I know just what you mean, Ophelia. I spent most of my childhood in hiding. But my predator was so big, and my house was so small, that I could hear my mother screaming wherever I was. But I ignored it.”
“You can’t do that. You have a reptile brain under your cortex. It scans for danger all the time. Danger danger danger.”
“Speak for yourself, Ophelia. I’m really good at reading with someone screaming in the background.”
Meerkats are cooperative social animals. That’s what I’ve been trained to tell you. Wanna know what really goes on down in those burrows? No sex, except between the alpha male and the alpha female. If any other female gets knocked up, the alpha bitch kills the baby. Alpha bitch is a science term, but kids, don’t use it in the car on the way home.
When I had a baby I moved 3,000 miles away from my alpha bitch. Smart, huh?
Speaking of infanticide, let’s go see the chimps.
Female chimpanzees only have sex every five years. That’s because male chimps are not interested unless a female is ovulating, and that’s delayed by lactation for four years per child. During the long wait, male chimps fight with each other to be first in line when the fertile moment arrives. Who’s ever the big kahuna will guard the estrus female to make sure his DNA is the one that gets passed on. But he will share her with buddies – the guys who fought on his side in past battles.
“She’s a looker, huh? Yuwanna have a go? Be my guest.”
“No, Godfather. She’s yours.”
“I do you a favor, you do me a favor.”
Chimps are always fighting and making up. One minute they’re patting each other on the back and the next minute they’re biting each other’s fingers off. They remind me of the Mafia, where they whack a guy and then bring flowers to the funeral. My grandparents were from a Mafioso part of Italy, and my parents were from a Mafioso part of Brooklyn. In our family, we knew how to submit to dominant apes to avoid getting our fingers bitten off.
So I was telling you about infanticide. Sometimes the alpha chimp kills all the babies. That stops lactation so all the Moms become sexually available immediately. If he just sat on his hands instead, he could be deposed from this throne before he planted his seed, and he didn’t fight his way to the top for that! Apes don’t understand conception conceptually, of course. They just respond to the brain chemicals they inherit from their ancestors, and pass their brains on to the next generation. Those same brain chemicals are in you and you and you.
A mother chimpanzee knows how to protect her child from infanticide. She tries to mate with every male she can find, because a male chimp won’t kill the child of any female he’s had contact with. This is not easy because the alpha takes revenge if he catches a female with a lower status male. But “sneaky copulations” happen somehow- that’s what field biologists call it. We know what’s going on because of paternity tests in the wild. Now you’re probably thinking, who the heck does paternity tests in the wild? And how can I get a great job like that? Well, it’s one of the exciting career opportunities that could be yours if you get a PhD in primatology. I’d love to tell you more about chimp pimps, but we have more animals to see.
Lions have a unique family drama. Well, maybe not so unique. Female lions do most of the hunting. When they finally snag a meal after slaving over a hot savannah, the alpha male swoops in and steals it.
“I’m stuffed. Thank you, ladies. Deeelish. I left a little for you. Make sure to share it with the kids.”
That is what my grandfather did. My grandparents were always separating and getting back together, over and over. Once, they didn’t have money for my grandfather to move out, so he went to the refrigerator and drew a line down the middle.
“This is mine. This is for all yooz guys. Keep your hands off my food.” Italians call this a divorce settlement because food is all that matters.
When my mother was 12, it was her job to buy the food and cook it while her mother was working at a garment factory. She also did the budgeting to make sure the money didn’t run out before payday. She couldn’t afford meat a lot of the time. One day she came home and saw her father eating a thick ham sandwich.
“Papa, Can I have some?”
“Go ask your mother. She got money for your food. This is mine.”
My mother was always angry at her father. She was always angry at me.
Why me? What did I do?
Why me? What did I do?
I’m feeling a little verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic.
Cognitive neuroscience is neither cognitive nor a science. Discuss.
There, I’m better, and we still have time to see the tamarin monkeys.
I’ve spent a lot of time here watching these critters. See that one, she’s the daughter. Last week, she found a bit of banana and I saw her run to that corner before she put it in her mouth. Then her mother, that one there, ran after her and tried to snatch it from her mouth.
Was I seeing things? Would a mother really try to steal food from her own daughter’s mouth? I often felt like my mother was snatching the good things from me, but I didn’t dare say it because she would yell, “How dare you accuse me. You torture me all the time!” This confused me. I was confused about reality when I was growing up.
But here at the zoo, reality is clear because blood was splattered all over this cage when those two went at each other last week. Veterinarians rushed in to treat the deep puncture wounds, and the instant they turned their backs these ladies went at each other again. And that’s why you see them here in separate cages for their own protection.
No one protected me when my mother attacked. No one even noticed. Except once. A guidance counselor. He called every family my junior year of high school. He handed my mother a list of the colleges I could get into. I was thrilled because they were all sleep-away colleges. My mother did not approve of young ladies going to sleep-away college, but she was afraid to say that to the guidance counselor. And that is how I escaped from the zoo!!!
Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is author of the books I, Mammal and Meet Your Happy Chemicals; and the blogs The Political Mammal at Independent Voter Network and Your Neurochemical Self on Psychology Today. She’s Professor Emerita of International Management at California State University, East Bay, and a Docent at the Oakland Zoo, where she leads tours on mammalian social behavior. She began focusing on the mammalian brain after lecturing worldwide on her book, Greaseless: How to Thrive without Bribes in Developing Countries, which draws on her year in Africa as a United Nations Volunteer.