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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 options.

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 quality.

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 burger.

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 Greensboro.

*

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 own.

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 choices.

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 God."

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 wildlife film.

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 room.

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 "candid" photography.

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 apart.

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 the top.

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 diving.

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 phone-app games.

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 companions.

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 a time.

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 move on.

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 school.

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.


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