Excerpt: 'Evolved Morality' by Zoe Holman

He is not a chimp. No, the man on the other side of the glass is distinctly a man. But the chimp gestures to him as it might to a fellow creature: knocking on the pane, pointing to the fastened bolt and demonstrating in three-easy-steps how it might be unfastened and opened, and the chimp thereby freed. The man, however, sees that he is a man and that the chimp is a chimp. And so he laughs at the chimp’s gestures, knocks back on the glass and picks up a phone to film. “He wants us to lift the window up!” he chuckles, crouching to meet the chimp’s sober gaze. “He is trying to escape!” And because the chimp does not see that it is just a chimp, and not a man, it responds in turn, nodding and gesticulating more precisely. Yet after some time, with the window remaining bolted and his interlocutors having departed the enclosure (sojourning, it may be, back for a half-pint or Sunday dinner in the Welsh valleys) the chimp is left alone, still captive, to speculate on why this is the case. It has expected, not unreasonably perhaps, from its fellow primates some degree of empathy or co-operation or engagement—some recognition of his plight. What it has not anticipated, it seems, is voyeurism or ridicule or ultimately, disinterest.

A more seasoned worker at the Wales Mountain Zoo, however, has witnessed many such communicative efforts by chimps—chimps who are not entitled to country lunches or opened bolts, or minimal recognition—to engage with their visitors. And so I phone the worker to ask why this is the case and how he felt watching his chimp’s failed jailbreak. “I have previously watched our animals sign to visitors, asking them to carry out certain behaviours,” he says. What is more, he tells me, the visitors often react and do exactly what they are told. “If a visitor is reproached by a member of staff, the excuse is always ‘but the chimp asked me to do it!’” he notes. Yet this visitor did not do exactly what he was told. And so the chimp remained imprisoned in the Welsh Mountain Zoo, where it would, as the worker explains, continue to receive lessons in sign language as part of the centre’s program of chimpanzee Environmental Enrichment.

Such enrichment, the worker adds, is one of the most important duties that carers can provide to their charges—it is NOT an optional extra. So, too, a carer should aspire to enrich all the senses where possible, with other recommended enrichment activities for captive chimps including aromatherapy, sandpits, Bach, herb gardens and party-poppers. The worker does not make any further mention bolts or their unfastening.

Mitsein, or ‘being-with’, is for Martin Heidegger the fundamental structure of the human condition, whereby a person only takes shape in the world in relation to a universal phantasmal ‘Other’. This character of openness toward being is unique to humans: we emerge into the world ‘always already’ with, for and embedded in a social context that determines the structure of our personhood. For the world is not made up only of objects—tools or useful, meaningful things. It is also full of people, of others, with whom we experience a common world and whose experiences also constitute our individual worlds. Yet these ‘Others’, according to Heidegger, are not constituted by everyone and anyone outside of ourselves—all those against whom the ‘I’ stands out. Rather, it is only those “from whom, for the most part, one does not distinguish oneself—those among whom one is too.” For the caring engagement of being-with is made possible by an array of constitutive existential structures—a thrownness into a world, a projection of possibilities, conventional norms and the first-person ‘mineness’ of lived experience. Each participant in the worlds’ modes of mutual recognition are therefore governed by their unique origins, temporality and everyday interpretations. Intersubjectivity is not for all.

Critics of mitsein have argued, however, that Heidegger misconceives the fundamental character of our social existence by overlooking its grounding in a form of direct interpersonal interaction that is facilitated foremost by material objects, processes and projects—a socially shared equipmental meaning that enables humans to realise the phenomenon of being-with. This equipmentally-mediated discovery of others, some have argued, may be at best a secondary process that reveals other people only to the extent that they are relevant to the practical projects of our material worlds. Nonetheless, for the individual to deny or turn away from being-with (as is the circumstance of contemporary humans) is for Heidegger to forget one’s true self, to deprive oneself of humanity. The fabric of our openedness to the world is one piece and should not be unravelled. Mitsein is thus also the precondition for loneliness.

I am standing outside a gate. On the other side, on the asphalt expanse of a disused port, families and individuals live in 314 shipping containers. Additional containers serve as classrooms and centres for community education and recreational activities: dance lessons, health seminars, women’s knitting circles. There are no trees, but some residents and other people who do not live in containers are building a small vegetable patch, planting sunflowers, peppers, oregano—durable species. It is dusk and a few children are circling the tarmac on too-big and too-small bicycles, while a music concert is starting up on a makeshift stage. The gate is open, but guarded by a man in navy blue and people are coming and going, in and out, with the man’s endorsement. Outside, next to the fence, on gravel and some sleeping bags, a family of five is sitting—a teenage girl, a younger boy, a man, a woman and a toddler. They slept there after arriving in the early hours of this morning and because it is now dusk, they are thinking about where they will sleep again shortly. And because it is threatening rain, they are thinking about whether they will sleep there—outside, on gravel and sleeping bags in the rain—or inside, behind the gate, in a shipping container. But the man in navy blue informs them that they are not entitled to be inside the gate or to a container. The family look much like the people coming in and out (and almost perhaps, with a change of clothing, like the man in navy blue) and since the gate is open and some shipping containers are empty, the teenage girl approaches him to ask again if they can go inside. She does not speak his language, but she is able to communicate that they have come a long way to this place (for this place seems to be a long way from most places) and that they would like to sleep inside, not on gravel and in rain. “You cannot enter,” he repeats. “You do not have permission. You must come back tomorrow.” But the family has nowhere to go and come back from and so they will stay here on gravel and sleeping bags, in the threatening rain.

As the man in navy blue walks away, I go up to him and ask why this is the case and how he feels about it. “It is not allowed,” he says. “This is a shame for them, but there is nothing I can do.” And then the man turns toward a jeep passing through the boom and leans on the window to shake hands and laugh with the driver, slapping the dusty bonnet as he speaks.

This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #35. Get your copy here.

Zoe Holeman is an Australian-British journalist, writer and academic, specialising in conflict in the Middle-East. She is (more or less) based in Athens.