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Chimp Tales

Commencement speeches are rarely memorable. They're usually either pious, platitudinous, or political; some particularly deadly ones may be all three. But Wheaton's new president had prevailed on a former Cornell colleague to help launch her first Wheaton graduating class. Carl Sagan filled his remarks with wit and intelligence and kept them brief. Inspired by the graduating class, only the second to go through four years of coeducation at Wheaton, Sagan started by looking at gender and behavior. He focused on women and men and the world they make for themselves by first turning the spotlight onto chimpanzees. Chimps, of course, are our genetic brothers and sisters; 99.6% of the active genes are identical in chimps and humans. The behavior of chimps and humans is not all genetics, of course, but neither is it all simply learned. Just as looking at our own parents can tell us something about ourselves, we can learn something about homo sapiens sapiens by looking in the mirror of our primate relatives.

When stressed by crowded conditions, male chimps grow increasingly aggressive and competitive, gathering rocks to throw and keeping other males at a distance. Sagan described a male chimp, arms loaded with rocks, confronted by a quiet female blocking his way. Slowly, gently, she pries open the fingers of his clenched fists and deposits the rocks on the ground, then walks away. For some males, this is enough, and they turn to other chimpish interests, but a few just don't get it. Slower to learn, they have to be gently disarmed a number of times before they get the message. It reminded me of some of the men I know.


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