BOOKS: The Pictorial Guide to the Living Primates & The Great Apes: Our Face in Nature’s Mirror

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1996:

The Pictorial Guide to the Living Primates
by Noel Rowe
Foreword by Jane Goodall. Introduction by Russell Mittermeier.
Pogonias Press (163 Town Lane, East Hampton, NY 11937-5000), 1996.
263 pages, paperback, $64.95 including postage from publisher.

The Great Apes: Our Face in Nature’s Mirror
by Michael Leach
Blandford, c/o Sterling Publishing Co. (387 Park Ave. South, New York, NY
10016-8810), 1996.
160 pages, paperback, $29.95.

Don’t judge these two books by
their covers. At a glance, The Pictorial
Guide to the Living Primates, with a lifesized
chimpanzee face on the cover, and The Great
A p e s, with a lifesized orangutan, would
appear to be head-to-head competitors in the
Christmas coffee-table book market––and
indeed they might be, but in each case the
physical format is misleading, their content
doesn’t even overlap to any noteworthy
degree, and if you’re trying to choose
between the two, choose both.

Not a sit-down-and-read-it book,
the Pictorial Guide is an authoritative, lavishly
illustrated shelf reference to every sort of
lemur, monkey, and ape, including some
long extinct species. The structure is much
like that of field guides, but the large page
format permits livelier layout and more photos
of most species. Often there are separate
shots of males, females, and juveniles. We
anticipate heavy use here to pick up the
specifics of the various species who pop up in
news stories.
Jane Goodall notes in her foreword
that while about 180 living primate species
were known when she began her field
research in 1959, there are now about 230
known primate species, partly due to more
precise taxonomy, and partly due to more
human exploration of rainforests. Thus the
primate order is in one sense the fastestexpanding
order of mammals, even though
the overwhelming majority of the known
species have also become threatened or
endangered over the same years, as result of
habitat destruction and poaching.
The Great Apes is a sit-down-andread-it
book, reviewing all the ecological,
behavioral, and ethical issues pertaining to
our closest primate kin, and you’ll want to
read it at a sitting: I did. Some of the material
Leach reviews is thoroughly familiar.
Much is not, except perhaps as popularized
by crackpots in adulterated form.
Leach investigates the sexual behavior
of each great ape species in detail, the
unique aspects of each species’ intelligence,
the carnivorous behavior of chimpanizees,
chimps’ greater lifelong interest in play,
orangutans’ apparent greater capacity for
complex thought, and the extent to which
gorilla intelligence is underrated because testing
methods have been stacked to favor manual
In a chapter evaluating the differences
between humans and other apes, Leach
takes very seriously the idea that pre-humans,
as distinct from other apes, “went through
some sort of aquatic phase in their evolution.
There is a major gap in fossil evidence that
spans the time between seven million and
three million years ago,” he explains. “This
is an unimaginably long period, and evolution
must have gone through many twists and turns
before ape-like man appeared. Some scientists
think that instead of leaving the forests
and taking to more open land, our ancestors
took to the water. This could have been a way
of avoiding competition with the ancestors of
the great apes.”
Leach points out many specific
human adaptations to a semi-aquatic life
somewhat like that of a seal or sea-lion,
including the shape of our noses, our lack of
body hair, our layer of subcutaneous fat
(resembling that of a whale, not found in any
other primate), our lack of ability to conserve
body moisture, our saline tears, our heart rate
adjustment to compensate for the effects of
immersion, our preference for living near
large bodies of water, our enjoyment of
swimming, and even the shape of our hands.
The fossil gap would coincide with
a period when shallow seas covered much of
the land where early terrestrial proto-humans
appeared––perhaps forced by receding waters
into again competing with the stronger apes
for survival, but now with the advantage of a
larger brain.
Leach also takes seriously the possibility––without
being a believer––that relic
populations of proto-humans and supposedly
long extinct great apes such as G i g a n t o p i t h i –
cus may still exist in remote parts of Asia and
even the Pacific Northwest. He dismisses the
Yeti, however, as “a romantic but purely fanciful
mirage,” since “from what we know
about ape ecology, it would be impossible for
any ape-like creature to survive in the snowy
wastes of the Himalayas.”
His most extensive discussion,
however, concerns the prospects for survival
of wild chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans,
whose habitats are all presently
engulfed by either aggressive logging or warfare.
He concludes that “extinction” is not the
right word for the threats to their species. “If
the apes should die out,” Leach finishes, “it
will be because we have killed them. And the
correct word to use then would be genocide.”

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