How a smoking chimpanzee gave hope to a hopeless world

A lot of exceptional people have died in the last few weeks (Tony Curtis, Norman Wisdom, Joan Sutherland) but perhaps the most exceptional of all, not to mention the least known, is Charlie the Smoking Chimp, who died on 6th October at Mangaung Zoo, Bloemfontain, having lived ten years longer than chimpanzees are expected to live. This article is an elegy to a remarkable ape, remarkable not so much for any achievement as for his nicotine addiction. It is also about the fascinating and far-reaching implications of a smoking chimpanzee for discussing Darwin’s theory of evolution.

It is too easy to look at the smoking chimp (watch the video if you can, it’s amazing) and see it as some sort of indictment of the human condition, proof if proof was needed that Darwin was right: we’re no different from the animals, and we act no different to how an animal would act if given the developments of culture we take for granted, like cigarettes (I remember hearing a similar story about an orang-utan that developed a taste for pornography). To me, this view is the wrong way round. When I look at the smoking chimpanzee, what fascinates me most is not that we are like animals but that animals can become like us. This is an exciting, if potentially unnerving, idea.

Unnerving because we don’t want animals learning how to use automatic weapons, for example. Exciting because we do want monkey butlers, footballing elephants, and banjo playing toads. It is one of the highest pursuits mankind has had. I would suggest, now that we’ve discovered the wheel, split the atom and landed on the moon, we should next turn to training monkeys to serve wine and polish silver. Before too long I’m sure they would be able to do more abstract jobs like working in a bank or advertising.

People will argue that I haven’t properly thought this through, and they are right. The reason we have survived to dominate the planet so is our intelligence, our development of culture. To share that with the animals would be to lose the only advantage we have over them. It wouldn’t be long before the animals developed their own economy and took us completely out of the picture, fat, lazy slobs that we would have become. The implications of getting monkeys to do all our work for us are enormous and disastrous. Only a madman would consider such a thing. And yet, can you honestly say that if you were at a party and a well-combed, suited-and-booted chimpanzee was serving the drinks, you wouldn’t be impressed? Similarly, if you went to a performance by a banjo-playing toad, I think you would want to tell all of your friends. If you are bored with the Large Hadron Collider, I recommend that you type “karate chimpanzee” into YouTube and see some real scientific progress.

My point is this. The criticism is often aimed at humanity that, due to urban developments and modernity and the like, we have lost touch with nature, and need to get back to it. I am advocating that, instead of sitting around in trees sniffing flowers and singing folk music to squirrels (which I’ll bet they hate) why not give guitars to the squirrels? Maybe teach them a few simple chords, play them some Dylan and before you know it they’ll be up for a jam. Similarly, give a hippopotamus a paintbrush and I’m sure he’ll become more concerned with painting a masterpiece and forget all about trampling people to death. What is more, I’ll bet they could come up with something interesting than what wins Turner Prizes today.

If you think all this just a tad ridiculous, remember Charlie the Smoking Chimp and perhaps now you will start to see his significance for the world. Charlie showed us that, if you give an animal a cigarette, he will smoke it. In this way, we will be no longer developing away and apart from nature, but letting nature share in the things we’ve developed while we’ve been away; it would no longer be about “getting back to nature”, but about taking nature to us. And we couldn’t talk of losing our advantage over it, because we would be working in harmony with it. No self-respecting hippy could ask for more.

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