As Unitarian Universalists, we rally around a certain religious vision. That vision is of people called into greater compassion and hope–you and me, experiencing no less than a fundamental change of perception so that our sense of self expands beyond the circle of our closest intimates and each of us knows finally, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there can be no true self-interest unless it encompasses the peace and justice interests of all. 

Religious vision is what we rally around–a vision of spiritual and ethical interdependency–and here at West Shore, we acknowledge that one of the essential ways of living into this vision and making it real is being healthy in our covenantal relationships together: being mindful of how we communicate with and about others; seeking a peaceful and constructive resolution process when conflicts arise; celebrating the diversity within our community; and everyone doing their part in building the common good though showing up, paying attention, being generous with their time and their giving. 

This is what we are rallying around.  

Yet I bring a sobering question to you this morning, about the religious vision I’ve just outlined: how deeply rooted is it in our human nature? Are the roots deep, or are they shallow? To teach a dog to fetch is no miracle; dogs are born with that instinct. But is this how it is with Unitarian Universalism, as it teaches us about the Seven Principles and about love and justice? Simply a matter of cultivating and bringing to fuller expression potentials which are already ours in some way? Or, are we more like cats, and teaching us to fetch is actually quite a stretch, for such a capacity is not really part of who we are—and yet our religion foolishly persists in trying to teach us anyhow?     

Scratch the surface of who we are, and what’s underneath?

It’s a question that has been asked with great intensity, especially since the savagery of World War II—the holocaust and six million Jews murdered, the atom bomb and its horrifying consequences, the willful destruction of a World War committed by people who were presumably civilized and scientifically enlightened. Out of this, a dominant answer that emerged firmly rejected the “onward and upward forever” naïve optimism about human nature that so characterized nineteenth century liberal religion. In the harsh light of Nazi atrocities–of all the murders, massacres, and missiles–this optimism appeared completely ridiculous. What seemed far more realistic was the grim idea that, deep down, humans are basically violent and amoral. 

And so, for example, a prominent scientist at the time, Konrad Lorenz, argued that aggression was a pressure within the human psyche that builds relentlessly, in a way that is completely unrelated to the frustration of specific desires and aims. The build-up of aggression within us, in other words, is purely irrational. No rhyme or reason. It just is. An inexplicable pressure to destroy. That is what is fundamentally within us, said Konrad Lorenz, and over time it just builds and builds until it bursts through the thin veneer of human decency which religions and ethical systems like ours have valiently tried to teach and reinforce, but always, ultimately, in vain.

Following this came the thought of science writer Robert Ardrey. His 1961 book African Genesis argued what has since become known as the “killer ape” theory, which is that the ancient ancestors of humans were distinguished from other primate species by their greater aggressiveness, and that’s what drove their evolution, that’s the prime mover behind human development. It’s that famous scene in the classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, where a fight breaks out among a group of our ape ancestors, in which one bludgeons another with a zebra femur, and then that ape ancestor flings the femur triumphantly up in the air, where, millennia later, it turns into an orbiting spacecraft. This is what the “killer ape” theory means: we’ve gotten to where we are today through genocide. Says Robert Ardrey, “We were born of killer apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments?” 

This is who we truly are, says Robert Ardrey. Liberal religion tried to throw away the idea of original sin, but secular science revalidated a version of it. Scratch the surface, rub off the thin veneer of religion and ethics and civilization, and we find something horrible which is nothing less than the secret of our success—which makes it even more horrible. 

And so where do we go from here, if this horrible vision is true? Another movie scene comes to mind, this time from the classic The African Queen. Surrounded by the jungle, Katherine Hepburn’s character says, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.” In others words, work even harder to shore up the thin veneer of civilization, so that the jungle within us—the inexplicable pressure to do violence—is kept bottled up, or pushed down. So sing hymns louder, Unitarian Universalists–that’s the best we can do. Meditate more often and harder; repeat the Seven Principles regularly and often; repeat as well our congregation’s CARE Covenant of healthy relationships. 

Rinse and repeat. 

Rinse and repeat. 

Just face your fate like a plucky and undaunted Katherine Hepburn, grit your teeth, and try rising above the irrational and explosive nature that seethes within you…

But if this is true, let’s be honest: we are lost without a chance of ever getting found. Putting on a brave face won’t take away the dread we’ll never be able to stop feeling about ourselves. The dread that comes from the sense that at bottom what moves us is a murderous force within, so alien to all that we hold sacred and holy, so untrue to the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha and all our greatest prophets. So alien to our hopes for peace and justice for all. So irreconcilable with the idea that people have inherent worth and dignity. 

That there’s no inner light within people, really, just inner seething. Therefore we could never truly relax and trust our instincts; there would have to be constant vigilance to make sure that the demon within was repressed and that the thin veneer of sanity was maintained. 

If this were true, fear, rather than freedom, would actually be the better way in religion; for fear of punishment would indeed keep our baser instincts in check. And if this is what we’re forced to conclude, well then–our religion of Unitarian Universalism as we know it would cease to make any sense whatsoever. 

Not freedom, but fear-based authoritarianism, would be the far better way in religion and in life. 

How horrible to have to go there. 

But do we? Is this vision true? Meaning, is Konrad Lorenz’ science sound? Or Robert Ardrey’s? Or Katherine Hepbern’s character from The African Queen sound, who intones, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above”? 

Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal begs to differ. He is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Primate Behavior in the Department of Psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and author of such books as Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, Peacemaking Among Primates, The Bonobo and the Atheist, and the book we will focus on here, Our Inner Ape. “If [apes] turn out to be better than brutes [says de Waal]—even if only occasionally—the notion of niceness as a human invention begins to wobble. And if true pillars of morality, such as sympathy and intentional altruism can be found in other animals, we will be forced to reject veneer theory altogether.” This is what Franz de Waal says. Take a look at our closest animal kin—great apes like chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas—and see what their lives are really like. Perhaps humans can fool themselves and pull the wool over their eyes, but not apes. Apes are what they are, without shame. 

So put all the theorizing to the side. Put “killer ape” theory to the side, and just look at the evidence from the lives of our closest biological kin, with whom we share more than 97% of our DNA.    

And what do we find?

Consider a gorilla with the name of Koko, who, just like many of you out there and me too, has her own pet cat. Koko has also been taught sign language, so she can tell you what she’s thinking. One time she said about her cat, whom she named All Ball, “Koko love Ball. Soft good cat cat.” And when the worst happened, and her sweet kitten All Ball was killed, she was stricken, as we are when our pets die. She was heard sounding out a long series of high-pitched hoots, and then she said via signing, “Cry, sad, frown.”

Now it is undeniable: when we look at our great ape brothers and sisters, some of the things we find are not nice warm fuzzies. Chimpanzees are notoriously brutal, and they are also incorrigibly tribal and xenophobic, fanatically patrolling group borders, viciously charging against strangers, fighting to the death to preserve the group’s territory if necessary. 

But, this said, the picture grows far more complex once you consider the larger picture: that there is amazing breadth and diversity within our biological family of great apes, and the behavior of chimpanzees alone cannot possibly represent the final word. 

Gorillas like Koko shed a very different kind of light on things. 

And then you have the bonobos. 

Have you ever heard of bonobos? Bonobos make love, not war. Listen to how Frans de Waal compares them to chimpanzees: “One is a gruff-looking, ambitious character with anger-management issues. [That’s the chimpanzee. But as for the bonobo: this one is] an egalitarian proponent of a free-spirited lifestyle. [The chimpanzee’s] hierarchical and murderous behavior has inspired the common view of humans as ‘killer apes.’ […] I have witnessed enough bloodshed among chimpanzees to agree that they have a violent streak. But we shouldn’t ignore our other close relative, the bonobo, discovered only last century. Bonobos are a happy-go-lucky bunch with healthy sexual appetites. Peaceful by nature, they belie the notion that ours is a purely bloodthirsty lineage.” That’s what Frans de Waal says. Our human heritage, exemplified in our closest animal relatives, is mixed. Chimpanzees may be tribal and xenophobic, but bonobos, in the best United Nations way, regularly establish peaceful relations with foreigners. 

Our inner ape is just not one narrow thing, as “killer ape” theory suggests. What’s deep down in human nature is broad: as much love and compassion as it is murder. And our job is to choose wisely, which impulses we draw on.

Consider this story about a bonobo called Kidogo, who suffered from a heart condition. “He was feeble, lacking the normal stamina and self-confidence of a grown male bonobo. When first introduced to the colony at the Milwaukee County Zoo, Kidogo was completely confused by the keepers’ shifting commands inside the unfamiliar building. He failed to understand where to go if people urged him to move from one part of the tunnel system to another. After a while, other bonobos stepped in. They approached Kidogo, took him by the hand, and led him to where the keepers wanted him, thus showing they understood both the keepers’ intentions and Kidogo’s problem. Soon Kidogo began to rely on their help. If he felt lost, he would utter distress calls, and others would quickly come over to calm him and act as a guide.” That’s the story. The strong helping the weak. Genuine sympathy, genuine altruism, found in the depths of nature. 

Hubert Humphrey once said that “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” Now if in bonobo society we have the strong helping the weak, why not in human society? 

Why not?

Biologists have documented in bonobos—in gorillas too, and even in the bloodthirsty chimpanzees—kindness and empathy, a capacity for peacemaking and reconciliation, creativity, even freedom. Think again of the gorilla Koko, who had a definite sense of humor and a definite capacity to tell a fib or two. Animals carrying out an exclusively pre-set genetic program just can’t do this sort of thing, aren’t capable of the kind of improvisation and imagination that humor and deception require. Story after story opens up our minds to the fact that, as de Waal writes, “our humaneness is grounded in the social instincts that we share with other animals.” Our inner ape is just not a killer ape. 

You can’t say to me, “scratch an altruist, and watch a hypocrite bleed.” 

That makes no sense, in light of the facts. We are more complicated than that.

Kindness and sympathy and altruism are not veneer-thin but deep. You can’t scratch them away. They are a gift we share with our great ape brothers and sisters. The murderous stuff is there as part of our great ape legacy, too, but we don’t have to be afraid that that’s all that’s there.

It’s just as the following story puts it:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life: “A fight is going on inside me,” he said. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Yes indeed. But because we are talking about great apes and not wolves today, let me rephrase things. One inner ape is chimpanzee-like with great potential for violence; the other inner ape is bonobo-like and gorilla-like with empathy and love. Which inner ape wins is the one you feed. 

This is what current science validates, and shows. 

Unitarian Univeralism exists and is not absurd because humans can choose which inner ape to feed.

Unitarian Universalism is needed–our Seven Principles and our history and our communities are needed–because the journey out of ignorance and towards greater awareness is in earnest, for us and all. 

The animals bring us back to our senses. They bring us back from the brink of delusion that Konrad Lorenz pushed us to, or Robert Ardrey, or Katherine Hepbern’s character from The African Queen, who intones, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.” No, that’s not what we are put on this earth to do. Not to “rise above” nature so much as to feel the feeling of belonging to it, intimately, and to our animal brothers and sisters and siblings. 

Whoever you are, [says poet Mary Oliver], no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

This world is home. We have a place in the family of things. 

Koko the gorilla felt a love so big that she wanted a pet of her own to dote on. She’s just like you and me. 

Koko the gorilla would sign herself as “fine animal gorilla,” 

and by this, 

may she teach us to say of ourselves, 

despite all: 

“fine animal human.”