The Architecture of Life: Designing Dream Homes for Apes

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Friday, November 16, 2007

Designing Dream Homes for Apes

By Frank Lloyd Doolittle, A.I.A

Termite architect, Frank Lloyd Doolittle is one of the world’s leading designers of up-scale homes for animals. His projects include award winning designs as diverse as Serengeti Macrotermes termite mounds, nests for Macgregor's bower birds, and coral formations in the Great Barrier reef. In this article he suggests that young design professionals consider entering the primate home design market.

If you are employed to design a habitat for any group of animals - and you wish (as any good home designer does) - to design a structure that will serve their needs - it becomes necessary to understand the behavior of that particular species.

As they say, "form follows function." You cannot do a good job of designing a container if you do not understand the nature and dimensions of the contents it will hold. A wren's nest would ill-suit a mole's taste in architecture, and a mole hill would be a considered a less-than-cozy mountain by a group of bacteria.

Every organism has a natural home, and a designer who works with animals must keep each species’ unique criteria in mind.

If the animals who have paid your retainer happen to be a family of quick-witted, highly social apes who use symbolic language to express their design expectations, then observation of their actions becomes critical.

Apes are well known to be less than forthcoming when they describe their priorities and social behavior.

Working for an organism that portrays itself as one kind of animal, and is in fact another, puts the designer at risk of creating a design not for who the client truly is, but who it claims to be. This could lead to the design and construction of a habitat that fails to meet the needs of the animal involved.

And when this happens with apes, as any design professional who works with primates knows, a great deal of hooting and flailing of tree limbs can result.

Just as a tailor must measure your body in order to produce a suit that fits, and a carpenter must use his tape measure when he builds a house, a designer requires accurate criteria in order to create a good design.

A home is viable only to the degree that it serves, shelters, empowers, and functions appropriately for the animals who inhabit it. When dealing with roving bands of apes, it has been my experience that each family clan has its own unique culture, and therefore the detection of valid design criteria for each individual troupe is a must.

As noted above - and for reasons that we will consider later - when certain species of apes describe their behavior, they are often less than accurate in their descriptions. They embellish, deny, avoid, deflect, misdirect and flat-out lie in order to accomplish what appears to them as critical social goals.

These goals include such ambitions as improving their status in the social hierarchy; gaining advantage in terms of access to sex, food or other resources; asserting dominance and/or territoriality; gaining approval from other members of the band; or occasionally, just for the heck of it.

Apes are so driven to utilize such social devices, and their culture is so rife with such mechanisms, that they are often completely unaware their communication is full of fabrications.

These facts are problematic for the design professional who works with apes, but there are ways around the problems.

Despite the complexities of ape society, in many ways their behavior is predictable. Primates have been studied extensively by bright and inquisitive minds, and though much is still in doubt about their nature and motivations, emergent science is beginning to discover much about what makes these extraordinary apes act the way they do.

Perhaps the most lucrative market for the professional who specializes in designing homes for animals is the species of ape known as “homo sapiens.”

These unique primates are what is known as a "weed" species. They are ubiquitous and can survive in a greater variety of habitats and conditions than any other advanced organism on the planet. Invasive and very numerous, the complexity of their social organization is orders of magnitude greater than that of any other higher animal.

They form elaborate social habitats, which can contain millions of individual animals. These groups construct complex artifacts much like those of social insects, which they call "cities" and from within these highly complex hives they issue forth each day to gather the food necessary for their survival.

Like my own species - termites - and similar species like bees and ants, specialized individuals within ape society perform various functions such as food gathering, hive maintenance, defense, and waste management.

Also like social insects, their societies are emergent in nature. That is, no single individual or group within the society actually runs the system.

Human ape cities seem to find stasis without any real leadership. The overall social structure is much too complex to be managed by the limited skills of any individual ape.

Despite the existence of a tacit hierarchy within human ape society - and a somewhat diffuse specialized class structure - the overall management of the society appears to be built into the system.

It seems to happen, much like in social insect super-organisms, without anyone running the show.

Despite this fact, ape societies are highly structured and regimented. Predictability is a central concern to each individual simian in its every day life.

These apes get up each morning and go through a "predictable" routine. They awaken at a regular time, eat on a predictable schedule, and go about their work each day in a routine manner. They seek to maintain steady, predictable social relationships.

Individual apes - particularly homo sapiens - tend to see themselves as superior and independent animals.

Despite their obvious deference to the requirements of their overall social systems, and the degree to which their behavior is dominated by their family and work groups, they cling to the idea that they are "free" individuals - no matter how often they are proven wrong - and persistently claim that they can predict and control their environment.

Though the delusion inherent in this position will be obvious to any design professional who works with a variety of animal clients in the complex and interdependent web of the global econ-system, it is not a good idea to confront apes with this information.

“Human” apes don't like surprises. A designer who makes a habit of pointing out to his clients that their behavior is dominated by genetic and social imperatives is asking for trouble.

The fact that life is not really foreseeable, that the universe is complex beyond their comprehension and filled with all sorts of threats and capriciousness, seems to make little difference to their acute insistence on predictability.

Despite the evidence provided by their own primate scientists - and even their individual personal experiences - they remain committed to versions of “reality” that provide a comforting sense of order and regularity.

The wise designer should know that most apes have little interest in being told their “reality” is largely ficticious. Though apes may muse about the workings of their world, and even notice that events do not always turn out as they plan, their rational understanding is almost always overwhelmed by the demands of their fear of the unknown.

If these unique primates experience a loss of predictability, they suffer a great deal of anxiety, and this anxiety can lead to a variety of negative survival outcomes including sickness, domestic violence, depression, social upheaval, and even mass group disorders such as war.

Nature and nurture has made these interesting animals the way they are. The basic instinct to seek order in their surroundings, and predictable relationships in their lives, is a deep and ancestral concern they share with all higher animals.

It pre-dates the evolution of homo sapiens.

All living things with the ability to perceive the world around them innately understand that they are vulnerable to the slings and arrows of a dangerous environment, and seek to minimize their exposure to those risks.

All biological organisms who are capable of it, seek shelter. This explains why animal home design is a growth industry with good long-term potential, despite many species' fondness for "do-it-yourself" construction.

A prudent design professional who is considering entering the ape home design market must be cognizant of certain aspects of their behavior. When a designer is retained by a homo sapiens, or for that matter by any mammal, it is important to realize how important social bonding is to your clients.

Not only primates - but all mammals - begin life with a passionate desire to "attach" to their mothers. Since the infants of homo sapiens apes remain helpless and vulnerable longer than the offspring of any other species on the planet, this need is particularly profound for them.

At birth, every ape newborn desperately seeks this profound connection. When it first enters the world, this requirement preoccupies the infant's entire being. The newborn ape experiences the need to attach as a "life and death" concern.

This fear is not a typical ape fabrication. It is a real circumstance. In their early lives, if baby apes do not form predictable nurturing relationships with their mothers or other reliable care-givers…they die.

Deep within their muddled primate minds, every ape innately understands this fact from the moment of its birth. Forming and maintaining these connections are their first passion - and as they grow older - serve as the "glue" that holds together their complex social organization. The need for acceptance within the nurturing group, and its tie to their individual survival, remain active in the back of their unconscious minds throughout their lives, driving a powerful desire for acceptance and approval.

Apes employ a variety of strategies to fulfill these needs. When working with a family of primates, these techniques often surface in their interpersonal relationships, and their relationship with the designer.

One successful strategy for making life more predictable - is dominance. Organisms use it throughout the animal kingdom to increase their control over their environments and to enhance their chances of survival.

It could be said that the creation of a home is an attempt to achieve dominance over a small personal territory.

In a world filled with ferocious predators with big teeth and sharp claws, it is very useful to have dominion, and apes have gone to quite a lot of trouble over the last million years or so to put themselves in the top spot in the global pecking order.

Male apes especially enjoy their domination over the rest of the animal kingdom and continually engage in dominance struggles within their own troupe.

A home designer must take great care to respect all territorial boundaries with an ape client who is male, or be subject to considerable baring of teeth, faux charges, and breaking of bamboo.

Such things can make client meetings very uncomfortable, and should be avoided.

When territorial issues arise between a male ape and his mate during such a meeting, the male can become particularly belligerent, but female apes have become quite adept at managing these aggressive displays.

By feigning subservience - or in extreme situations, by threatening to withhold sex - they typically gain the upper hand in such contests without great effort.

Statistically, female apes tend to be dominant in discussions that relate to ape home design.

Not surprisingly, human apes see the supreme being as one of their own species.

Like most animals, their culture and folklore serves to justify their behavior, and grants them authority to dominate the eco-system.

According to their sacred documents, the human ape god made them in his image, gave them dominion over the "fish of the sea…the fowl of the air…" and over "…every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth."

Since they dominate the eco-systems that they inhabit, no other organism on the planet has the power to reject their claim.

The fact that their own science tells them that this anthropocentric point of view is most likely flawed makes no difference.

In the natural world, might makes right, and they are intuitively aware of this fact.

According to one of their greatest ape scientists, Charles Darwin, dominant organisms can claim anything they want - no matter how bogus - until evolutionary circumstances arise that prove them wrong and they go extinct.

Apes have a clever saying. "…a 900 pound gorilla can sit anywhere it wants."

Historically, human apes have justified this self-serving position by pointing to a continuing series of characteristics "unique" to their species - the opposable thumb, the use of language, the use of tools - but one by one, these claims to their special position in the universe have fallen to the field work of their own primatologists, and others within ape society who study animal behavior.

Under assault from the inconvenience of empirical fact, the human ape now finds itself defending one lone remaining minaret on the Tower of Babel of ape exclusivity. They rally their rationalizations around the flag of "self-consciousness."

Most human apes believe the experience of "self-awareness," which they claim to share with others of their own kind, is unique to their species. They see themselves as exclusively capable of this coveted awareness and justify their actions, both private and public, by touting this elite form of perception.

But in recent times, many of their own kind have begun to question the validity of the claim that human primate "consciousness" is unique. They point to studies of social behavior in other species - especially other primates - that suggest the existence of skills and behaviors that appear to be passed down by example from one generation to the next.

They suggest that these well-documented behaviors imply the existence of a form of language and culture in many higher animals. These nay-sayers point to the existence of organized societies in other species which have evolved through a form of "social evolution."

Others suggest that the fact that human apes appear to be the only animal on the planet to have created a word for "self" does not mean they are the only animals that see themselves as having one.

Some ape naysayers have even gone so far as to question the value of "self-consciousness" and point out that any evolutionary trait which appears in only one species is unlikely to have a long-term impact on the biosphere as a whole.

They even dare to suggest the heretical opinion (at least among homo sapiens apes) that other animals might also experience self-awareness.

Whatever the designer's personal opinions, it is generally considered poor form to question your client's capacity for self-consciousness.

Even in the case of apes - when such a lack might appear patently obvious - I recommend skirting the issue. No animal likes to be accused of being dominated by instinct, no matter how true it might be.

A safer tact would be to attribute self-consciousness to as many life forms as possible. Most apes are much more willing to attribute self-awareness to other animals than to accept the possibility that they lack it themselves.

Down through the ages, many within ape society have felt a profound empathy with other animal species. Many share a sense that the human ape and other animals share more in common than many primates realize. This basic intuition has long been a central theme within their religious and aesthetic expression.

Artifacts that merge the experience of ape and animal appear in the mythology, art and architecture of every society in ape history. Half-ape/half-animal icons have been found by ape archeologists at sites associated with the earliest ape societies.

Today, such representations remain dominant in the animation of the latest digital video games played by ape children in their urban habitats.

Immature apes sleep with ape/animal hybrid dolls, and are entertained by animals that speak primate languages on ape television.

Though their profound connection to a shared "animal" experience continues to bubble up from the collective ape unconscious each day, almost all human apes still believe that they consciously choose their actions, and that only their species is capable of conscious self awareness.

Whatever their individual moral, political and social views about the role ape kind currently plays - and "should" play in relation to the other organisms on the planet - in their day to day lives apes act as though they stand alone.

Apes experience their lives as "individuals." They see themselves as distinct not only from other species, but also as profoundly independent from each other.

The problem for those who seek a credible view of ape behavior, including the design professional who is working with an ape client, is that these basic assumptions are highly suspect and yet underlie almost all of human ape experience.

Any experienced designer who works with animals knows that the social lives of many other animals on the planet are incredibly complex and diverse, and that the relationships they share with various other organisms in the planet's myriad eco-systems are equally complex.

At the same time, the various disciplines that study the functioning of the ape brain, and ape social systems, are discovering that the degree to which apes consciously "choose" their individual behavior as they live day to day is very limited.

Even primate scientists, who have been known to slant their findings towards conclusions that favor their ape-centric point of view, point to the long period of time in their ancestral past when all apes lived in small hunter-gatherer bands and suggest that genetic traits forged during that period of ape development still have a profound impact on ape behavior.

Others assert that the profound drive within each ape individual to "fit in" to the group also explains much about ape social conduct.

For all these reasons, the gap between the actual and the "self-described," behavior of individual and collective apes is quite wide.

The process of residential design is further complicated by the fact that it is a highly personal endeavor and tends to bring these discrepancies to the forefront.

Apes always experience strong emotional reactions to the process of remodeling or designing a home. The process incites the female's nesting behaviors and the male's territorial imperatives.

Apes going through the process often exhibit highly irrational behaviors. They often appear driven by deep-seated psychological imperatives over which they have little control. The experienced home designer who works with primates will often see little difference between ape behavior and that of other animal clients.

Whether or not the ape's claim of a special place in creation is valid, a designer is wise to remember the old axiom, "the customer is always right." Human ape "self-consciousness" may not be all it is cracked up to be. Their vaunted sense of individuality may appear a bit suspect, but it is still important to be respectful.

Apes are the most common species on the planet with disposable income, and therefore will always be a big part of any professional animal home designer's marketplace.

Even if their claim to being the top dog amongst the recently evolved higher animals is no big deal in the long run, there is no need to point it out. Despite the fact that every thoughtful animal knows the planet is now, and has always been, dominated by microbes, there is no need to rub the fact in their funny ape faces.

The successful design professional will keep his eye on the ball.

Apes may be prone to putting on airs, but many of them pay with cash, something that can't be said about much of the animal kingdom.