The Lie about King Kong, and Us

Spoiler alert: the primacy of primates lies not in tool-making and violence, but physical affection, By Bill Softky

As you might guess, the blockbuster King Kong ends with an epic battle. The Greatest Ape of Skull Island, last of his species, vanquishes an even bigger and more lethal lizard by inventing a spear to skewer him, a chain-knot to choke him, and a mace to slam him, before finally yanking his guts out through the throat, by hand. Hooray for primate cunning!

It’s already easy enough to make fun of such things without being a nerdy biophysicist. In real life, Kong couldn’t stand up at all (there’s a mechanical reason ants have skinny legs, and elephants have fat ones, so that Kong’s legs would have to be even wider than he is). And like elephants, Kong would need ears the size of football fields to keep his body from overheating. He would never find enough to vegetable matter to eat among all the tiny, tree-sized trees on the island, and so on, yada, yada. There will be plenty more scientific fun to make when Kong takes on the next-gen Godzilla, Mothra, and other big and silly creatures in the upcoming sequels.

But the reason Kong appeals to us human beings is that he is like us. He walks perfectly upright, not gorilla-hunched. He protects pretty blonde humans, like Brie Larson. He clenches his fists, stares people down, defends his own, and swears revenge, like a hairy Samuel Jackson or Vin Diesel. He’s a biological role model, but by mis-represting biology in that role he might do real damage to real people.

We already have enough violence among humans without needing Hollywood (by way of pseudo-science) to say its our ancient heritage. The actual scientific fact — well-known but buried by social convention and zoos— is that humans and our kin are the most physically affectionate animals on earth, spending as much time as possible playing and cuddling. That’s not visible nowadays only because society has hidden it and trained it out of us.

It’s possible using mathematical laws of information flow alone to make a scientific case for intense, ubiquitous human physical affection. Humans’ ancient homonid ancestors aren’t around to verify that claim, but clues are everywhere. Chimpanzees, our second-nearest primate relative, are always “grooming,” in other words touching affectionately and helpfully. Our very closest relatives, bonobos, spend so much time in genital contact we seldom get to see them, either in zoos or on TV (“Oh my! What if the children saw natural behavior?”). For bonobos, humping all day long isn’t reproduction, it’s social calibration. All the great apes are in each other’s faces all day long, no distance and no privacy. Their nervous systems need touch, as do ours.

Think about it: our ancestors a million years ago couldn’t talk, but only hoot and grab. Their skin was bare and sensitive, their hands aloft and delicate, evolved for caressing even before tool-making. Because they lived in tiny kin-groups on the savannah, they depended on each other every minute for hunting, foraging, and protection. They had to cooperate far more than fight, which means they needed to get along. What better way to practice mission-critical interaction than playing all day and making out? (For more titillating facts, read Sex at Dawn).

Why does this matter? Children all over the world are locking themselves in rooms, even killing themselves, as they do all too frequently down the street in my hometown Menlo Park. Childhood mental illness is a global epidemic. Misery is rising even faster than global warming. Many people everywhere, especially the alienated shut-ins, believe the problem is that people suck. But people didn’t suck before technology. Bonobos didn’t ever suck, and still don’t.

This uniquely human misery is due to social isolation, lack of face-to-face interaction, and lack of touch. As social creatures, our brains need real-life social contact as much as vitamins. That’s the evolutionary contract: our nervous systems evolved long before words, tools, agriculture, and all that, so what our biological relatives need, we need too. Those social needs took millions of years to evolve; they won’t reverse for millions more, at least.

So movies like King Kong are showing us an entertaining but insidious lie. Of course it’s exciting to watch a lone and powerful homonid be angry, tormented, and violent, and that excitement resonates with lonely kids who think themselves at war. That’s why the movie sells.

Of course, this reasoning applies as well to fictional human dads (like Liam Neeson in Taken) who go on murderous rampages to help their daughers out. But both scenarios are miles from biological truth, in fact exactly the opposite. They show us hyper-realistic images of things which never were and wouldn’t be, and which encourage us to be more violent and not more sweet. At least with human dads, we have real life and other movies to remind us that the sweet parts far, far outweigh the ugly ones. But for state-of-Nature apes, Kong-as-badass-loner is all we’ll ever get.

If Kong in fact were real, he’d be more playful, and more cuddly. And so would we, if we were real about our primate heritage.