Chapter 25

It was now almost 9:00 P.M. in California. The Silverback was resting his bulk in the one overstuffed easy chair in the bungalow’s main room. Shoshana Glick had propped her rump against the edge of the desk that held the big computer monitor. Dillon Fontana, clad all in black, was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, leaning against the jamb. Werner and Maria had gone home for the weekend.

“What’s noteworthy,” Dillon said, “is that Hobo began doing representational art after he started communicating with Virgil.”

Shoshana nodded. “I’d noticed that, too. But Virgil doesn’t paint — I asked Juan in Miami. He doesn’t do any sort of art. So it’s not like the orangutan gave Hobo a tip or encouragement.”

Marcuse was drinking Coke from a two-liter bottle that looked small in his hands. He took a swig, wiped his face, and said, “It’s the flat screen.”

Shoshana turned to look at him.

“Don’t you see?” Marcuse said. “Until we linked the two apes in a videoconference, all the ASL signs Hobo had ever seen were three dimensional — done by actual human beings in close physical proximity to him. But now he’s seeing someone sign on a flat two-dimensional screen, on a computer monitor.” He gestured at the Apple display behind Shoshana.

“But he’s watched TV for years,” she said.

“Yes, but he’s never seen signing — at least not for any significant amount of time — on TV. And signing is special: signs are exactly that — representations of things, symbols. By seeing Virgil use signs on the flat screen, somehow Hobo saw how three-dimensional objects could be reduced to two dimensions. Remember, he has to concentrate on the signs in a way he doesn’t concentrate on normal TV images. Doing so caused something to click in his brain, and he got it.”

Shoshana found herself nodding. For all that the Silverback could be a blustering blowhard and a pain in the ass as a boss, he was a brilliant scientist.

“There’s precedent, sort of,” he continued. “Some prosopagnosiacs — people with face-blindness — can recognize faces in photographs but can’t recognize them in the flesh; it’s doubtless a related phenomenon.”

“In the land of the blind,” said Dillon, “the one-eyed ape is painting.” He lifted his narrow shoulders. “I mean, he’s got two eyes, but there’s no depth perception when watching TV, right? Sure, stereoscopic vision adds a lot of valuable information, but there’s a simplicity — a huge ramping down of the mental processing required — when dealing with just two-dimensional images.”

“But why’d he draw me in profile?” Shoshana asked.

Marcuse put down his Coke bottle and spread his arms. “Why did cavemen always draw animals in profile? Why did the ancient Egyptians do it that way? There’s something hardwired in the primate brain to make profiles — even though we’re way better at recognizing faces when seen full on.”

That much was true, Shoshana knew. There were neurons in human brains — and ape brains, too — that responded to the specific layout of a face, two eyes above a mouth. She’d grown up with the smiley face used online:

🙂

But she remembered her father telling her it had been months after he’d first seen it in the 1980s before he realized what it was supposed to represent. Because it was sideways, it just didn’t trigger the right neurons in his brain. But one of the reasons that the yellow happy-face logo — which, her father had said, had been ubiquitous when he was a teenager — was so universally appealing was that it caused an immediate pattern-recognition response.

“Maybe the tendency for profiles has to do with brain lateralization,” Marcuse said. “Artistic talent is localized in one hemisphere; drawing profiles may be a subtle response to that, showing, in essence, that particular half of the subject.” He paused. “Whatever the reason, this makes our Hobo even more special.”

Shoshana looked at Dillon, who was doing his doctoral thesis on primate hybridization. It was a topic of real scientific interest. In 2006, a study revealed that there had continued to be a lot of hybridization between the ancestor of chimps and the ancestor of humans even after the two lines had split millions of years ago; they remained able to produce fertile offspring for a long time, and such crossbreeding had apparently given rise to the sophisticated human brain.

“Absolutely,” Dillon said. “I don’t dispute that seeing Virgil signing on the monitor was a catalyst, but I’d bet hybridization set the groundwork for him being so good at language and painting.”

Shoshana smiled at the subtle turf war that she’d just seen begin: each of them was staking out territory, and would doubtless defend their positions in journal papers over the coming years. But then she frowned; they didn’t have time to wait for papers to go through the peer-review process. “If we want to stave off the Georgia Zoo’s desire to sterilize Hobo, we can’t wait,” she said. “We have to go public with this, get Hobo’s special status generally known, and—”

“And what was your first thought when you saw that painting?” Marcuse demanded. “I’ll tell you what it was — it was my thought, too, as soon as I recognized that it was indeed a portrait. I thought it was a fake. Didn’t you?”

Shoshana looked at Dillon, and remembered her accusation of that very thing, and how Hobo had looked so hurt. “Yes,” she said sheepishly.

The Silverback shook his head. “No, that painting isn’t going to save Hobo — but the next one might. We need him to do it again, and with more cameras recording it all. If there’s only one representational painting, people will dismiss it as a fake — or, even if they accept it as being genuine, they’ll say it’s a fluke, something that happens to sort of, by chance, look like a person. Hell, we’ve been accused often enough as is of just projecting what we want to see onto ape behavior. No, unless he does it again, with the whole process filmed and documented — unless we can replicate this — we’ve got nothing, and our grinning genius is still in danger of being sterilized.”

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