The law of the jungle book

August 2, 1996

Sanjida O'Connell explains how she used her PhD thesis on chimps to write a novel, an extract of which is opposite.

She felt like Jesus. All around her the field of flowers shimmered, slick with dew, the hallucinatory blue of an ethereal lake. She felt that if she trusted in faith the path would appear, summoned by her feet. As she walked, the linseed petals tipped their tiny offerings on to her legs; her trousers were heavy and black with water by the time she reached the zoo."

So begins my first novel. Sandra, the main character, is a young PhD student who wants to find out whether chimpanzees have empathy - whether they know what another animal thinks, whether they truly care about one another. Knowing what another person is thinking and feeling is the hallmark of what it is to be human. Without this "Theory of Mind" - without understanding what other people want and believe, we could not lie, cheat, communicate or show compassion. And if we have descended from apes, do they too share this ability? By examining how an animal thinks and feels, I wanted to explore our own image of ourselves.

The inspiration for the novel really began during my undergraduate years. My degree was in zoology with philosophy and psychology; it was fascinating being given lectures on animal behaviour and the Machiavellian manipulations of apes, before going to a seminar on what is it like to be a bat, or whether you could tell if you were a brain in a vat. And if we built a robot with a consciousness, should it have moral rights? I became interested in the way the mind works, how we interact with one another, yet still remain locked within our own self-awareness, capable only of glimpsing what it is like to be another species, or how a blind person sees the world. During my first year as a PhD student, I plotted out a novel that would deal with these themes by exploring the mind of another species, but which would, I hoped, ultimately tell us more about the way the human mind can work. My ambition was to try to create a novel that was a cross between Iain Bank's The Wasp Factory and William Boyd's Brazzaville Beach.

The whole theme of the novel is empathy: do animals have empathy? If you built a robot using principles taken from animal behaviour, would it eventually become empathic? The main characters in the novel, apart from Sandra and a young man called Ryan, lack empathy - her fiance and her best friend are highly intelligent, but there is a dark, hedonistic side to them, they do not think about how other people feel. Sandra meets a strange boy with a kind of autism whose disorder of the mind renders him incapable of showing compassion or knowing that others can think. Typically people with this disorder - Asperger's syndrome - wonder how on earth everyone communicates - they do not understand the meaning underlying a typical conversation and think normal people are telepathic. They are also extraordinarily literal and hate change; often they have bizarre rituals they must carry out. Paul's ritual is connected to the human heart and is particularly unpleasant. Despite his barbaric acts of cruelty, Paul is a terribly sad child. He is trapped in the cage of his own mind, but is able to see through the bars to a friendlier, more sympathetic world where people interact with ease and a minimum of pain.

Theory of Mind is not autobiographical, but it does draw heavily on many of my own experiences. I too spent a year at a zoo studying chimps for my thesis. I waited until my experiments were finished before I started writing - I wanted to get across what real, live chimpanzees are like to deal with. In addition, I wanted to show what it is like to be a scientist. Obviously there are more types of scientist than there are brands of tea, but the process - the theory, the practice, the endless data collection, statistics, ups, downs, tedium, joy, the break-throughs, and the academic jealousies and rivalries - are the same the world over, as well as that old chestnut: scientists are people too, not nerds in white coats beamed down from the X Files.

I have not just turned my PhD into a novel - that would be a little too boring even for me - I have tried to create a dramatic story which incorporates the process of science and the ideas that infuse the practise of science. My experiments have been reduced, simplified, and on occasion, the results marginally changed - fiction is not allowed to be as messy as reality. My colleagues have so far expressed delight and pleasure that I have succeeded in publishing a novel - and a little trepidation in case they feature in it! However, I imagine that I might be accused of trivialising science. I hope not; there are few novels with a science content and even fewer that deal with science as it is, warts and all. If only a few people enjoy reading it and are stimulated, or realise that chimps do not make small talk over cups of PG Tips, then I will have achieved something.

CHIMPS BEHAVING BADLY

"She'd taped a programme about chimpanzees and decided to show it to the chimps at the zoo. She wondered whether the chimps would recognise their own kind. They had, after all, never been in the wild, and the only chimps they'd ever known were the ones they shared a cage with. When she turned the TV on Ferguson came and stood in front of it, pressing his freckled nose against the glass and leaning his elbows on the window sill like a school boy. Jessica sat cross-legged on a wooden beam behind him. Sandra switched on the tape.

The section she had chosen to show them was a hunt. Chimps will often hunt colobus monkeys and mangabeys. They don't run blindly after their prey; instead they have a beater who flushes the animal out whilst the others silently encircle the hapless victim, and then they rush out from their ambush, exploding into bloodthirsty cries, and rip the monkey limb from limb while it's still alive. They divide out the spoil, the females and infants begging for food, the males squabbling among themselves. Whoever gets the head scoops the brains out and wipes the inside of the skull with a leaf to soak up the last cranial juices. They also use leaves to wipe the blood from their faces.

She watched Ferguson through the glass. Superimposed upon his face was the reflection of the frozen world, a line of bare, dead elms like broken teeth in a mouth whose tongue had been cut out, and the brilliant green lushness of the rain forest. Fleeting images of the tense chimps gazing into the canopy were moonlighters from another world chasing through ghost images of winter. The shadow chimps stole across his face and the hairs on Ferguson's head and back slowly rose and he pouted his pink lips slightly and silently. The hunters tore after the colobus and when they caught the monkey, it struggled between his captors, black and white and alien to them, and they screamed and fought and dismembered it. Their faces were lathered with blood and its oil-paint-blue intestine coiled onto the forest floor. Ferguson could not take his eyes from the screen. It was as if he were mesmerised.

Finally he tore himself away and ran frantically round the cage, no longer able to contain his emotions. He came back and pressed himself up against the glass again. His hair bristled even more and he swayed from side to side. After another minute he let out a shriek and ran round the cage before returning to the hunt. Some ancestral memory had been resurrected in this chimp who had never seen anything other than the inside of his cage and English soil: his heart pounded at the sight of blood and his hands itched to kill.

It was only when she turned off the video that he looked up at her and stared directly and searchingly into her eyes. As his hair wilted, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickle. She shuddered. Perhaps showing a volatile young male chimp a hunting scene had not been such a good idea.

Sanjida O'Connell is a PhD student at the University of Liverpool. Theory of Mind is published by Black Swan, Pounds 6.99

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