The majestic gorilla
The gorilla is fun to watch and interesting to study. Surprisingly, they were not known to science until fairly recently. The first scientific description of these amazing animals came from a missionary and doctor named Thomas Savage, who wrote in 1847:
This animal is known to the natives under the name of Engēena, and is much larger and more ferocious than the Chimpanzée. Its height is above five feet; but it is remarkable for the disproportionate breadth of the shoulders, which is double that of the Chimpanzée. The hair is coarse, and black, except in old individuals, when it becomes gray. … They live in herds, the females exceeding the males in number. … They are exceedingly ferocious, and objects of terror to the natives, who seldom encounter them except on the defensive. The killing of a [sic] Engēena is considered an act of great skill and courage, and brings to the victor significant honor.1
Despite Savage’s accurate description, he never saw a live gorilla for himself.2 Rather, he gathered his information from local hunters who had observed them. Because he had grown familiar with their local language and ways of communicating, he was able to tell that these were not ‘tall tales’ but factual accounts. He sent skulls and other bones he acquired to the naturalist Jeffries Wyman in Boston, who helped describe them for the scientific world.3 The first European to see a living gorilla was Paul Du Chiallu, a zoologist who travelled through West Africa about a decade later. While Savage wanted the animal to be called the Enge-ena, Wyman chose the name gorilla.2 This was based on the writings of an ancient Carthaginian, Hanno the Navigator, who lived in the fifth or sixth century BC and explored the West African coast as far as modern Sierra Leone:
In its inmost recess was an island similar to that formerly described, which contained in like manner a lake with another island, inhabited by a rude description of people. The females were much more numerous than the males, and had rough skins: our interpreters called them Gorillae.4
Scholars are not sure what Hanno was describing, but the detail about a ‘human-like’ tribe with females being more numerous than males could fit several types of ape. Calling apes ‘people’ is obviously incorrect, but given that both Europeans and Africans believed subhuman creatures existed, it is not surprising that apes would be described as human-like.
The species of gorilla Savage discovered came to be known as the Western gorilla, but we divide them into two subspecies today: the Western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) and the Cross River gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehi). On average, adult males reach a size of 200 kg, and adult females around 100 kg.5 Captain Robert von Beringe first identified another species, the mountain gorilla, in 1902 while exploring in East Africa. These have also been divided into two subspecies: the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) and the eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri).5 While splitting things into so many subspecies is always scientifically controversial, there are genetic and morphological differences among them.
Gorillas live in family groups, led most often by a single mature male, called a silverback after the distinctive patch of gray hair on its back. He will most often be the father of all the infant gorillas in the group. Baby gorillas are entirely dependent on their mothers. Female gorillas do not reach maturity until 7 to 8 years old, and males take even longer. They can reach an age of 50 years in captivity.
Gorillas are very social animals. When a poacher steals an infant gorilla, he often must kill or maim several adults defending the infant in the attempt, and the group will often disband afterwards. When a gorilla dies, the others in the group exhibit a mourning-like behaviour.6 It is unclear what the gorilla actually feels, but they undergo similar hormonal changes to humans in similar circumstances. However, they lack the brain capacity to understand in the abstract what has happened, as a person would.
Mature gorillas develop fearsome-looking incisors that are used for self-defence and dominance displays. However, the gorilla’s diet is almost entirely vegetarian, sometimes supplemented with insects like ants and termites. Gorillas will eat fruit when available, as well as the more fibrous plant matter such as leaves, shoots and stems. Their extra-long intestines, which give them their classic pot-bellied look, help bacteria break down this tough plant material. Perhaps to get another chance at extracting precious nutrients, gorillas sometimes re-ingest matter that has passed through the digestive system. This is known as coprophagia, and, while we instinctively think it disgusting, similar things occur in rabbits and other herbivores.
Failure to understand the importance of the gorilla’s natural diet led zoos to feed them inappropriately for decades. Diets composed mostly of fruit and high-carbohydrate biscuits gave them heart problems. When zoos provided more natural diets, including much more leafy and fibrous material, they found that their gorillas were much healthier.7
It is impossible to miss the obvious similarities between humans and gorillas, and their discovery right on the heels of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, published in 1859, helped fuel the evolutionary engine. Seeing an animal so similar to humans made people wonder about whether we might be just another branch on the evolutionary tree.
Can gorillas learn language?
The most famous gorilla was Koko, who was taught the rudiments of American sign language and was reported to have known over 1,000 signs. But experts in sign language have pointed out that Koko, while she knew an impressive number of words, entirely lacked syntax—the grammatical rules which control aspects such as word order, tense, and recursion. True sign language is as complex as spoken language. Additionally, Koko’s signing required the interpretation of her trainer, Penny Patterson.8 Koko clearly possessed some ability to communicate (i.e. she could sign “hungry”), but this ability fell short of true language (i.e. she could not say, “Please order me a veggie-lovers pizza and have it delivered to my cage by lunchtime.”).
Cousin or distinct creation?
Gorillas are said to be our close evolutionary relatives, and claims that “we share 95% of our DNA with gorillas” are common. The only creatures evolutionists believe are closer to humans are chimpanzees, where one also hears claims of up to 98 to 99% DNA similarity. But recent studies have drastically reduced this claim. The number is hard to calculate, and it depends on what you are comparing, but we are not more than 80–90% identical to chimpanzees9 and evolutionists are now struggling to explain how such a huge number of differences happened in the limited amount of evolutionary time available for this. Since gorillas are even more different, they are thus even more difficult to explain in evolutionary terms.
However, monkeys and apes are more similar to humans than any other animal.10 But the genetic similarities between humans and gorillas can be explained by common design. They look like us, they behave a little bit like us, they eat the same foods, and they have the same temperature requirements (but we invented clothing and central heating, allowing us to live anywhere on Earth). Why would anyone expect us to be greatly different on the inside, on the level of our genes? A good designer would use similar good designs for similar creatures, and this is what we see in the natural world.
The created, not evolved, gorilla
Sadly, the obvious human-like features of the gorilla mean that the excellent design of this creature is often overshadowed by evolutionary propaganda. But how do we interpret them from a Christian perspective? Think about this: it is almost as if the great apes are made in our image, yet they are as spiritually alive as a box of rocks. They simply cannot comprehend the great majesty of God or the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Yet the book of Genesis tells us that man is made in God’s image. This is not a physical likeness, but a spiritual likeness. We are infinitely above the gorilla in our spiritual understanding, just like God is infinitely above us in wisdom and power. When we look at these amazing creatures, it should bring out a sense of awe. God could have made us as spiritually unaware as a great ape, but He did not. He gave us a spiritual side that allows us to wonder, to worship, and to communicate with Him, the creator of the universe.
References and notes
- Savage, T.S., Communication describing the external character and habits of a new species of Troglodytes (T. gorilla) Proc. Boston Soc. Nat. Hist. 2:245–247, 1847. Return to text.
- Conniff, R., The missionary and the gorilla, Yale Alumni Magazine, Sep/Oct 2008, yalealumnimagazine.com. Return to text.
- Savage, T.S. and Wyman, J., Notice of the external characters and habits of Troglodytes gorilla, a new species of orang from the Gaboon river, Boston J. Nat. Hist. 5(4):417–443, 1847. Return to text.
- Hanno, cited in Murray, H., Encyclopaedia of Geography, Book I, Part I, Section III, 1844. Return to text.
- Gorillas, World Wildlife Fund, wwf.panda.org. Return to text.
- Dvorsky, G., Heartbreaking new observations suggest gorillas may grieve for their dead, Gizmodo, 4 Apr 2019, gizmodo.com. Return to text.
- Langlois, K, Something mysterious is killing captive gorillas, The Atlantic, theatlantic.com, 5 Mar 2018. Return to text.
- What Koko the gorilla could and couldn’t do, The Economist, economist.com, 5 Jul 2018. Return to text.
- Line, P. The myth of ape-to-human evolution, Creation 41(1):44–46, 2019. Return to text.
- Doyle, S., Why did God make humans and chimps so similar?, 12 Dec 2015. Return to text.