Is There Hope for These Great Apes?

Last year there was a bit of good news relating to the impending extinction and destruction of everything.

The mountain gorilla, a subspecies of the Eastern gorilla, was upgraded from critically endangered to endangered. There still are only about 1,000 of them, up from a low point of a few hundred, so it’s not like they were declared vulnerable (better than endangered), or just fine (not a real category). And the Eastern gorilla as a species overall is still critically endangered.

But the mountain gorillas are in fact doing better, according to the announcement from the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. It bases its decisions on information gathered from scientists and conservation experts.

The gorillas’ population has been increasing for about 30 years. And it has taken a tremendous amount of struggle and work to get this far..

That raises a question: If things have improved so much for an animal in such a dire situation as the mountain gorilla, should we then give in to hope?

I know this isn’t the accepted way of speaking about the planet and its creatures. In public discourse, hope is the one thing you should never give up. But in our minds (well, in my mind, anyway, and I can’t be the only one), the reasoning behind that often expressed sentiment is not so clear.

What if a rational look at the facts points in the other direction? What if, for instance, the planet were getting warmer every year, and there was a lack of political will to try to stop the trend? What if we were in the middle of a mass extinction caused by humans?

Imagine, just for a moment, that the planet had 7.7 billion people, who had already used up a lot of the space for bears and wolves and lions and — oh, I don’t know — gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans. Suppose that all of the great apes were either endangered or critically endangered.

And, just as a thought experiment, what if there were going to be 9.8 billion people in 2050 and 11.2 billion people in 2100? Imagine that the population of Africa, where all gorillas live, is one of the fastest growing, with 26 countries expected to double in size by 2050.

There are only about 1,000 mountain gorillas, but their numbers have risen from a low of just a few hundred.Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, via Associated Press

There are only about 1,000 mountain gorillas, but their numbers have risen from a low of just a few hundred.

Of course, all those things are actually true. Perhaps I am blinded by my own pessimism, but I do often wonder whether hope is a rational response to reality.

On the other hand, hope does seem to have played a role in the mountain gorillas’ rebound. After we reduced them to a point where it seemed they would go extinct by the year 2000, some humans worked incredibly hard to protect them. And the gorillas survived, even through the very dark period of the Rwandan genocide.

Their success so far, according to Tara Stoinski, a scientist who has studied gorillas for more than 20 years and is the head of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, is the result of intensive work, of the gorillas’ charismatic appeal, of the buy-in to conservation on the part of government, and finally the result of an extremely high commitment of resources that she calls “extreme conservation.”

The gorillas are watched over by lots of field staff — 20 times the global average per square kilometer in protected areas. What makes that possible is ecotourism, which is made possible by the great charisma of gorillas. If they were legless skinks, it might be hard to work up that kind of support.

But that is a quibble. What is clear is that irrational hope combined with dedication and decades of work culminated in pulling back mountain gorillas one step from the brink.

And a few we’d rather not discuss

So, should we give in to hope? I think that Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford professor, neuroscientist, author of many books and giver of many talks, has the answer.

He’s a public science star of sorts. He may not be as well-known as Neil deGrasse Tyson, but he’s doing pretty well for a (self-described) strident atheistwho points out in his recent book, “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst,” that free will, the way we usually imagine it, is an illusion.

He’s not a Pollyanna, is my point. No sugarcoating from Dr. Sapolsky.

But, surprisingly, he is an eloquent admirer of certain forms of irrationality. He gave a funny, rich and convincing talk in 2009 to Stanford seniors on what separates humans from animals. I know it’s not brand new, but I still turn to it occasionally because it’s so clear and persuasive. It has more than 400,000 views online.

After describing many differences between humans and animals, even our close relatives, like the mountain gorillas, Dr. Sapolsky presents what he sees as one of the most remarkable human qualities: the ability to hold on to two contradictory ideas at once and find a way forward.

His main example is Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote the book “Dead Man Walking,” based on her work ministering to death row inmates. She said that the more unforgivable the sin, the more it must be forgiven, and the more unlovable the person, the more important it is to love him or her.

That is not, Dr. Sapolsky argues, a conclusion any animal could come to. But a human can spend her life acting on that conviction. And that ability, he said, is the “most irrational, magnificent thing that we are capable of as a species.”

Ecotourism is largely responsible for the resources to protect the mountain gorilla.

In fact, he tells the Stanford graduates-to-be that this is precisely what they need to do.

He acknowledges that they have probably learned enough to realize that it’s impossible for any one person to make a difference in the world. But, “the more clearly, absolutely, utterly, irrevocably, unchangeably clear it is that it is impossible for you to make a difference and make the world better, the more you must.”

I’m sure this is completely obvious to people who actually do things, rather than write about them: that you don’t have to give in to hope, but that you shouldn’t always give in to reason, either. If you take the long view, the good news for gorillas may be a bit like a Mega Millions lottery ticket. But somebody won more than a billion dollars recently.

Dr. Sapolsky’s concluding challenge to the well educated, well connected, savvy Stanford seniors could be taken to heart by anyone burdened by the weight and apparent rationality of their own pessimism, which may be why I’ve listened to it more than once.

“There’s nobody out there who is in a better position to be able to sustain a contradiction like this for your entire life and use it as a moral imperative. So do it.”


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