Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 14, 2015
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Monkeys, Donkeys, Burger Warfare
Somehow, in a lifetime of studying warfare (though never engaging in it), I
never once came to link it with hamburgers. But Burger Warfare, a new
hamburger joint in Greensboro, has done just that -- and, in the process, it
makes the best hamburgers I've had in this town.
Till now, the two best burger places were Cookout -- where you can't sit down
to eat your burger, and besides, it's hard to buy a burger there when they also
have the best barbecue sandwich -- and Green Valley Grill, where the very
good burger comes with rosemary fries.
Well, a couple of buildings down from the Red (formerly Carousel) Cinema, at
1209 Battleground, the Daryl's people have created a quirky burger restaurant.
The "warfare" is futuristic robot sci-fi; you can view it all ironically, so you don't
have to commit to an attitude toward any actual war in order to eat there.
What matters is that the burgers are excellent. First, Burger Warfare doesn't
subscribe to the illusion that to be good, a burger has to smack you in the face
with a wad of beef. The patties are large enough to taste and to satisfy, but
the idea is that you combine flavors until you find a perfect balance ... for you.
Because even though they have some wonderful burgers on the menu, you can
construct your own exactly to suit your taste. Including some spicy-hot
The bun is good, the ingredients are all good, and the beef is not greasy. To
me, that's huge. When friends told me a couple of years ago that I had to try
the burgers at a big name chain, I couldn't eat halfway into the burger before
the bottom slice of the bun had completely dissolved in grease. I was holding
nothing but a slab o' ground beef. That's when it stops being a hamburger at
all. I never went back to that place.
But I've already been back to Burger Warfare -- with my wife. She doesn't eat
hamburgers at all -- but the other sandwiches you can order there are very
good, and she's happy.
The service is great -- the staff are enthusiastic about the food they serve, and
when we told them we had to be in and out in 20 minutes in order to catch
our movie at the Red Cinema, they made it -- without any diminution of
The sides are unusual. Of course they have regular fries. But who knew that
tater tots would be great with burgers? Not to mention the sweet potato fries. I
can leave the "Green Beret Beans" alone without regret, but those who like
green beans tell me they're also terrific -- and completely surprising with a
And did I mention an absolutely brilliant chocolate/banana milkshake?
As far as I'm concerned, this is now the sit-down hamburger restaurant in
I think one of the best ways to understand human behavior is to study all the
other primates. Because,regardless of how you might feel about evolution, the
fact remains that genetically as well as physically, apes and monkeys are the
creatures most similar to us. From their behavior, we can learn a lot about our
The more you study primate behavior, the more you realize that the vast
majority of human actions are completely explicable as baboon behavior.
The only real difference is that we do a better job of making excuses for our
I think this is what Paul was getting at in the Epistle to the Romans, 8:7-8:
"Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law
of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please
The "mind" of the human body (when we act by instinct rather than
reason) is pretty much the baboon or chimpanzee mind. That set of instincts,
reflexes, and responses to animal desires is precisely what Paul is encouraging
Christians to overcome, in order to serve God.
For years, my speeches and lessons have been laced with references to
"primate behavior," or statements like, "That's the chimp talking," or, "That was
baboon behavior." Anybody who tries to write fictional characters without
understanding the baboon impulses prompting most human actions is going
to do a pretty thin job of it.
So on the Friday afternoon when my wife and I wanted to see a movie, but did
not want to see a comic book movie attended by the entire population of
Guilford County at once, we watched Monkey Kingdom, a new Disney
It is not an animated sequel to Lion King. Instead, documentary film crews
spent a long time in the jungle of Sri Lanka (that teardrop shaped island off the
southern tip of India), documenting the lives of a particular troop of monkeys.
The footage is wonderful, and since these are not trained monkeys, they
really did all the things they're shown doing.
However, some of the events were clearly staged. I mean, you can't do an
interior shot of a monkey chowing down on some schoolchild's birthday cake
unless you have already put a camera (and, presumably, a crew) inside the
And I was bothered a little by how, when the monkeys were raiding an open-air
market, none of the humans seemed to notice or complain. You can't stay in
business long if you let monkeys carry off your wares. No way was this
My assumption is that the film crew saw what the monkeys wanted to do, and
then arranged to help them. "We'll pay for all your merchandise," they
doubtless said, along with, "We'll replace the birthday cake." Then the people
stayed out of the way while the monkeys literally went to town.
In the real world, the monkeys would not have had a chance to do quite so
much damage -- or score quite so many calories -- without the film crew,
paying humans to refrain from putting the monkeys in their place.
But the monkeys' behavior was not faked. Anyone who has seen what a few
raccoons or squirrels can do in a kitchen overnight won't find even a
moment of this film unbelievable!
Because it's a Disney film, aimed at families with young children, the narration
is sometimes anthropomorphized to a silly degree. A new character is
introduced, and we're told in Tina Fey's slightly-talking-down voice, "This
newcomer's name is Paco [or whatever]."
My instant response was, "No it's not. He doesn't have a name. Monkeys
have no language."
But we filmwatchers need names to sort out the monkeys, so ... why not?
Primatologists name their subjects all the time. And various monkey
characters continue throughout the story, and we need to be able to tell them
The characters who are accurately (if preciously) depicted start with the three
dominant females who make life miserable for our low-status heroine and her
baby boy; and we need a name for the baby's father, so after he fails to make it
into the monkey troop on his first try, we remember who he is when he comes
back to become a major player.
We get to see the troop we're following get driven from their home in a war,
then come back and fight to regain it. We see how the whole troop copes with
completely new circumstances, and how our heroine and her baby-daddy help
them adapt and thrive. The result is a rise in prestige; from the bottom, our
heroine moves, not to the top, but at least into the tree.
Literally: She is excluded from the communal fig tree at first, but at the end
she is allowed to climb up for good, ripe fruit, even if she doesn't get to be at
It's a strong story with great film footage, and Tina Fey is an excellent choice
for the narration, because, as written, it could have been completely sappy,
whereas she is able to give it an ironic edge that keeps it within limits.
We attended without children in tow; in fact, we were the only people in the
audience for that showing. So it's entertaining for grownups. But I think it
will also be great for children.
For one thing, Disney is careful about which monkey behaviors to keep off
camera. (If you want that monkey behavior, you have to watch a recent episode
of Silicon Valley, where an armless monkey, given a robot arm, immediately
uses it for the activity it missed or envied the most. And then the second-most-missed behavior.)
More important than avoiding unpleasant sights, though, is the sheer realism
of it. The film footage shows monkeys doing things I never knew they could
do. Swimming, for instance, and not just to cross water. Recreational
And when they show the monkeys feasting during a couple of days when
termites spawn and take to slow and clumsy flight, it made me hungry. When
termites start looking delicious to humans, you know there's some good
filmmaking going on.
Watching penguins go through their life cycle in Antarctica was vastly
entertaining with 2005's March of the Penguins, but it did not teach us much
about ourselves. Monkey Kingdom, however, can lead to powerful discussions
with children of various ages. War, mating, child-rearing.
What do humans gain from marriage, compared to the alpha-male system of
the monkeys? When is war justified? How different are monkey babies from
human babies? Would a human mother take her infant swimming with her
the way the monkey mother does? Why do you think the leader of the invading
monkeys was so torn up in the face?
This will not go down in history as one of the great movies, but Monkey
Kingdom is a good movie, well worth seeing.
I've long been curious about the co-evolution of humans and dogs. At what
point did our ancestors become friendly with wolves? The near
uselessness of our sense of smell might easily be the result of long association
with keen-nosed dogs, who smelled for us, allowing us to use the smell-sense
brainspace for other purposes ... like writing review columns and playing little
Brian Fagan takes on the dog question -- along with a lot of other
domesticated animals -- in his book The Intimate Bond: How Animals
Shaped Human History.
He immediately clarified a lot of my questions about the co-evolution of
humans and dogs by pointing out that our idea of wolves is quite wrong. In all
likelihood, wild wolves were not "big bad wolves" during our years at champion
hunters. They would lurk near human encampments, not to carry off a stray
toddler now and then, but because humans were good, useful hunting
When humans were on a chase, it was actually helpful to have wolves running
along with us. The prey had to avoid a wider net. And because humans often
took only part of the kill with them -- often an absurdly small part -- there
was plenty for the wolves to feed on.
So through long association with wolf packs, humans may simply have come to
bond with individual wolves, and vice versa. And in evolutionary terms, it
didn't need to take place all that long ago.
Wolves only became our rivals, and then our enemies, after some groups of
humans shifted from hunting for prey animals to raising and caring for
our prey -- as with sheep. Wolves (and dogs) are great hunting companions;
but wolves are not actually good with sheep, the quintessential prey animal.
Dogs, on the other hand, were the "wolves" that understood how to live
alongside prey without going in for the kill -- helping us herd and even protect
sheep ... often from wolves.
The whole book is fascinating, taking on all kinds of animals whose
domestication made our civilizations possible. Besides sheep -- which are
smarter than we often give them credit for -- there are cattle, descended from
the huge and terrifying aurochs.
Using clues like genetic diversity (there tends to be the most diversity near a
species' place of origin), the first taurine (humpless) cattle were probably
domesticated near the Taurus Mountains in Turkey.
Mitochondrial DNA suggests that there were only about eighty female ancestors
of domestic cattle, so that while domestication may have taken several
thousand years to become what it is today, the number of individual cows
contributing to Bos taurus wasn't all that large.
And the herds were developed long enough ago that there were already
domestic cattle throughout the Nile valley before Egyptian civilization emerged.
Fagan's speculation is usually labeled quite clearly. He takes into account the
way that wild animals were depicted in cave art, and combines that with what
we know about the rituals and beliefs of "primitive" communities that still live
by hunting, without permanent settlements or large populations.
His view is that domestication was not a huge leap. We live today almost
completely cut off from the lives of animals. We have to take our children to
petting zoos to see animals that once would have lived all around us -- or right
in the house with us.
But pre-civilization communities were surrounded by animals, and there
was a sense of sacred responsibility to them. Hunters regard the taking of
animals' lives, not as a "sport" (though there can be pleasure in the hunt), but
as a ritual in which the animal gives itself to the hunters, and the hunters take
only what they need.
Thus a troop of humans might have lived right alongside wild sheep or cattle,
walking among the herds in a non-threatening way. Herding animals even
today often pay no attention to predators that are not showing signs of active
predation. You can walk among the herd as long as you're moving
obviously and slowly and predictably. But if, moments later, you suddenly
leap out of cover, you can send the same herd into panicked flight.
So humans might have lived alongside herds of prey beasts, coming to know
their habits -- even to know them as individuals. The herds might then have
served humans as intruder alerts. Whatever might spook a herd would
probably be bad news for the humans, too.
What developed would then be mutual protection -- herds would give the
alarm, and humans would drive off or kill the predators.
But my favorite part of the book dealt with transportation animals, especially
the donkey. We use the word "ass" pejoratively -- and, in America, sometimes
obscenely. But the donkey was the first and most important beast of burden.
We give camels all the credit now for making desert crossings possible,
opening up the world-spanning trade routes of salt and gold across the Sahara
and silk across the steppes of Asia.
But those routes already existed, because long before anyone could figure out a
way to ride on, or attach burdens to, those humpy camels, our ancestors
learned that a donkey can be trained to carry astonishingly heavy burdens,
hour after hour, mile after mile -- not demanding water for up to two days at
Before the donkey, humans could only cover long distances by boat --
something we discovered early on, much aiding the spread of our species. But
land travel was gradual, since we couldn't carry enough supplies with us to go
very far at a time. The pattern was to settle in a place for a season, and then
Eventually, humans end up in every feasible niche -- but it takes time, and
each human lifetime only covers a relatively small area.
Then comes the donkey, and suddenly we can carry a lot more stuff with us --
food and water, tools and other artifacts -- and a person can go everywhere in
one lifetime, with trade goods to make it pay financially.
Donkeys are still the animal of choice in places where the terrain -- and lack of
fuel -- makes automobiles unreliable or even ridiculous. In World War II, it
was the donkey, not the jeep, that carried ammunition to many frontline units
in the mountains of Italy. And in Afghanistan, plenty of American soldiers had
to relearn how to work with donkeys in order to thrive there.
We only despise donkeys now because when the horse was domesticated, and
Indo-European riders came a-conquering, spreading their horse-centered
culture from India to Ireland and all points in between, so much prestige
attached to the Man On Horseback that donkeys became beasts for people of
lower status to work with.
Horses are so spirited and sometimes skittish that mules were actually more
useful for many purposes at first. Larger and faster than donkeys, mules were
often the mounts for royal personages in early days. But eventually, as more
docile horses were bred -- and as we improved saddles by adding stirrups,
and invented the horse collar so horses could pull carts and plows -- horses
came into far wider use, supplanting donkeys and mules.
And yet horses eat like -- well, like horses. So that people in areas with less
forage still relied on donkeys for everything -- riding, pulling, carrying.
But let's not forget that the original human association with donkeys and with
horses was as hunter and prey. Early on, every domestic animal looked like
food to us. And as we keep rediscovering when cities are under siege, or when
famine puts our survival at risk, every animal starts to look delicious to us.
Fagan has a definite point of view about the responsibility we owe to animals --
a view that I largely share. He tracks the evolution of human attitudes toward
the beasts that make our lives possible, and it's sad to see how quickly our
alliance with animals turned into mastery, and mastery into cruelty.
Fagan has a tendency to blame Judeo-Christian scripture for our tendencies
toward cruelty -- that passage in Genesis where Adam is given dominion over
all the animals. But in this case, his view is absurd. Does he really think that
donkey-beating never happened until after Genesis was commonly read aloud,
and that mistreatment of animals only began when missionaries carried the
Bible into unfamiliar territory?
The same Bible also says not to muzzle the ox that treads the corn, and
allows you to break the Sabbath in order to save an ox that's trapped in a
mire. So it's not all cruelty to animals.
But it's fashionable to beat Christianity these days, and Fagan is not immune
to the temptation to blame one religion for things that certainly did not
begin with any religion at all.
However, this one very unscientific (and anti-historical) blind spot of his does
not seriously mar a book that I found fascinating and greatly informative.
So I recommend this book highly -- both in print and as an audio download.
Brian Fagan himself is a bit of an oddity as an author. As a writer, he's
clear and engaging, but as an author he's confusing. That's because there
seem to be two Brian Fagans out there: Brian Fagan, and Brian M. Fagan.
Both of them are amazingly prolific. Brian M. Fagan seems to be the serious
anthropologist; Brian Fagan tends to write the more pop-oriented books.
Brian M. wrote Ancient North America, Fourth Edition. Brian wrote Fish on
Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World.
But they seem to be the same guy, or at least both of their biographies include
"former anthropology professor at University of California at Santa Barbara."
Except when they call him Professor Emeritus of Archaeology -- at the same
One imagines the hopeless confusion at having two professors named Brian
Fagan in the same department, both of them prolific and valuable writers.
But no. Same guy. And even if he does tend to fall in with the academic biases
of the day, he never ignores evidence for the sake of conformity. I've learned to
rely on him over years of reading many of his books and taking his excellent
offering from The Great Courses: Human Prehistory and the First
Civilizations. (He has an M. in his name with Great Courses.)
Here's a thought. Just buy or borrow every book by Brian Fagan and Brian M.
Fagan. Whether it's e-book or audiobook or paperback or hardcover makes no
difference. Just get them, and read them all, and you know what? You'll have
a really solid grounding in the scientific vision of the roots of the human race.