Suppose, I argue, that men once reigned as masters on this planet. Suppose that a human civilization similar to ours flourished on Soror more than ten thousand years ago.
This is no longer a senseless hypothesis—quite the contrary. No sooner do I formulate it than I feel the excitement produced by picking up the right scent among so many false ones. It is on this track, I know, that the solution to the irritating simian mystery is to be found, I realize my subconscious has always been dreaming of some explanation of this sort.
I am in the aircraft taking me back to the capital, accompanied by Cornelius' secretary, a rather talkative chimpanzee. I don't feel like chatting with him. I always tend to meditate when I'm hi an airplane. I shall find no better opportunity than this voyage to put my thoughts in order.
Suppose, then, the existence in the distant past of a civilization on the planet Soror similar to our own. Is it possible that creatures devoid of intelligence could have perpetuated it by a simple process of imitation? The answer to this question seems risky, but after thinking it over, a host of arguments occur to me that gradually lessen its aspect of unreasonableness. That perfected machines may one day succeed us is, I remember, an extremely commonplace notion on Earth. It prevails not only among poets and romantics but in all classes of society. Perhaps it is because it is so widespread, born spontaneously in popular imagination, that it irritates scientific minds. Perhaps it is also for this very reason that it contains a germ of truth. Only a germ: Machines will always be machines; the most perfected robot, always a robot. But what of living creatures possessing a certain degree of intelligence, like apes? And apes, precisely, are endowed with a keen sense of imitation. . . .
I close my eyes. I let myself be lulled by the drone of the engines. I feel the need to commune with myself in order to justify my position.
What is it that characterizes a civilization? Is it the exceptional genius? No, it is everyday life. . . . Hmm! Let us give intelligence its due. Let us concede that it is principally the arts, and first and foremost, literature. Is the latter really beyond the reach of our higher apes, if it is admitted-that they are capable of stringing words together? Of what is our literature made? Masterpieces? Again, no. But once an original book has been written—and no more than one or two appear in a century—men of letters imitate it, in other words, they copy it so that hundreds of thousands of books are published on exactly the same theme, with slightly different titles and modified phraseology. This should be able to be achieved by apes, who are essentially imitators, provided, of course, that they are able to make use of language.
In fact, language represents the only valid objection. But wait a moment! It is not essential that apes should understand what they are copying hi order to produce a hundred thousand volumes from a single original. It is clearly no more necessary for them than it is for us. Like us, they merely need to be able to repeat sentences after having heard them. All the rest of the literary process is purely mechanical. It is at this point that the opinion of certain learned biologists assumes its full value: There is nothing in the anatomy of the ape, they maintain, that precludes the use of speech—nothing, that is, except the necessary urge. It is not difficult to conceive that this urge came to him one day as a result of some sudden mutation.
The perpetuation of a literature like ours by talking apes does not, therefore, conflict with common sense in any way. Subsequently, perhaps, some apes of letters raised themselves a step or two higher on the intellectual ladder. As my learned friend Cornelius said, mind embodies itself in gesture—in this case, in the mechanism of speech—and a few original ideas were able to appear in the new simian world at the rate of one every century—as in our own case.
Cheerfully pursuing this train of thought, I soon succeeded in convincing myself that well-trained animals might well have been able to produce the paintings and sculptures I had admired in the museums of the capital and, in general, become expert in all the human arts, including the art of cinematography.
Having first considered the highest manifestations of intelligence, it was only too easy to extend my thesis to other areas. That of industry quickly succumbed to my analysis. It seemed absolutely clear that industry did not require the presence of a rational being to maintain itself. Basically, industry consisted of manual laborers, always performing the selfsame tasks, who could easily be replaced by apes; and, at a higher level, of executives whose function was to draft certain reports and pronounce certain words under given circumstances. All this was a question of conditioned reflexes. At the still higher level of administration, it seemed even easier to concede the quality of aping. To continue our system, the gorillas would merely have to imitate certain attitudes and deliver a few harangues, all based on the same model.
I thus came to view the most diverse activities of our Earth with a new eye and to imagine them performed by apes. I indulged with a certain satisfaction in this game, which demanded no intellectual effort. I called to mind a number of political meetings I had attended as a journalist. I remembered the stock remarks made by the personalities I had had to interview. I recalled with particular intensity a celebrated trial I had followed several years before.
The defense counsel was one of the masters of his profession. Why did he appear to me now in the guise of a proud gorilla, as did also the advocate general, another celebrity? Why did I compare then- gestures and actions to conditioned reflexes resulting from intensive training? Why did the president of the tribunal remind me of a solemn orangutan reciting sentences learned by heart, the utterance of which was automatic and likewise inspired by some statement from a witness or some murmur in the crowd?
I thus spent the last part of the journey obsessed by comparisons that seemed to me significant. When I came to the world of finance and business, my final mental picture was a thoroughly simian vision, a recent recollection of the planet Soror. It was during a visit to the stock exchange, where my friend Cornelius had insisted on bringing me, for it was one of the curiosities of the capital. This is what I saw—a picture I recalled with extraordinary vividness during the last minutes of my flight.
The stock exchange was a large building, outwardly imbued with a strange atmosphere created by a vague buzz of voices that grew progressively louder as one approached, until it was a deafening roar. We went inside and were forthwith caught up in the turmoil. I wedged myself against a pillar. I was accustomed to individual apes but was always somewhat stupefied when surrounded by a compact mob, as now. I found the sight even more incongruous than that of the learned assembly during the famous congress. Imagine a hall of vast proportions crammed full of apes, screaming, gesticulating, and running hither and thither in a completely disorganized manner, apes in hysteria, apes who not only rushed about and bumped into one another on the floor but who formed a swarming mass right up to the ceiling, which was at a giddy height from the ground. The place was equipped with ladders, trapezes, and ropes that they used constantly hi order to move from one spot to another. They thus filled the entire volume of the building, which assumed the aspect of a cage specially designed for a grotesque exhibition of four-handed creatures.
The apes literally flew to and fro across this space, always catching hold of some piece of equipment just when I thought they were about to fall; all this in a hubbub of infernal exclamations, shouts, cries, and even sounds that recalled no civilized language. There were monkeys there who were barking—yes, barking for no apparent reason— swinging themselves from one end of the room to the other on long ropes.
"Have you ever seen anything like it?" my friend Cornelius asked me proudly.
I readily admitted I had not. It needed all my previous acquaintance with the apes to convince me that these were rational creatures. No one in his right mind who watched this circus could escape the conclusion that he was witnessing the frolics of madmen or animals gone wild. Not a glimmer of intelligence could be seen in their eyes, and they ali looked alike. I could not tell one from another. All of them were dressed in the same way and wore the same mask, which was the mask of madness.
The most disturbing part of my present image was that contrary to the phenomenon that shortly before had made me assign the form of gorillas or orangutans to the figure? in the earthly scene, I now saw the members of this insane-crowd in the guise of human beings. It was men I thus saw shrieking, barking, and swinging about on ropes to reach their destination as fast as possible. In excitement I recalled other aspects of this scene. I remembered tha* after looking on for some time, I had begun to notice certain details suggesting vaguely that this hubbub did nevertheless form part of a civilized system. An articulate word could occasionally be heard above the bestial shrieks. Perched on a scaffolding at a giddy height above us, a gorilla, without interrupting the hysterical gestures of his hands, would pick up a piece of chalk in his foot and write some probably significant figure on a blackboard. To this gorilla, too, I assigned human features.
I managed to rid myself of this hallucination only by coming back to my rough outline of a theory on the origins of the simian civilization, and in this remembrance of the world of finance I found fresh arguments to support it.
The aircraft touched down. I was back in the capital. Zira had come to meet me at the airport. From far off I saw her scarf pulled down over her ears, and the sight of it filled me with joy. When I eventually joined her after the customs formalities I had to restrain myself from flinging my arms around her.