The White Ape
This article concludes our discussion of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “Arthur Jermyn.” In this tale Arthur Jermyn discovers he is a decent from a prehistoric, Congolese population of white human-ape hybrids. In the tale there are legends of a gray city of white apes ruled by a white god and a white ape-princess. It turns out the mummified white ape-princess is discovered and is in fact a direct descendant of Arthur Jermyn. What could explain this strange idea of a population of white apes living in the jungle of the Congo?
First, in Lovecraft’s day the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is a country located in Central Africa, was known as the Belgian Congo. Second, during the economic boom of the 1920s the Belgian Congo was one of the leading producers of copper-ore on the planet. Thus, Lovecraft may have frequently seen this county mentioned in the newspapers of the day. The dominant ecosystems of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are swamp forest, lowland forest and secondary forest. In fact, there is a series of dense rain-forests in the central Congo River Basin called “the Green Abyss” (www.wwf-congobasin.org). In such a dense, highly vegetated ecosystem, native prey and predators would be adapted to their surroundings. Thus, adaptive strategies such as camouflage, mimicry of vegetation and excellent eyesight in low light environments, would be important to possess for both prey and predators.
The Congo jungle
A white ape would certainly stand out in a jungle ecosystem. However, most apes live on a mainly vegetarian diet supplemented with insects (particularly ants and termites). Thus, their feeding strategies do not warrant camouflage. While nothing really feeds on adult apes, young white apes would potentially be easy prey for carnivores such as the African leopard and the African golden cat. Thus, being white in a jungle environment would be a disadvantage relative to natural selection. Typically, animals pigmented white tend to be more common in tundra or arctic environments. For example, polar bears and arctic foxes are found in the arctic but not in more temperate environments. Thus, it is unlikely that a population of white apes would be established in the Congo jungles. However, is it possible that such a population could be established based on a genetic mutation such as albinism?
The red fox is found temperate regions while the arctic fox is found in arctic regions
One well-known albino ape was Snowflake, a Western lowland gorilla who was captured in 1966 and placed Barcelona Zoo in Spain. Like many organisms with albinism, Snowflake had several medical issues. He had poor vision and would eventually develop an unusual form of skin cancer, which was at least partially due to his lack of pigments. A genetic analysis revealed that Snowflake’s parents had 12% of their DNA in common, indicating that they were closely related – more than likely being uncle and niece. As is common with inbreeding with most plants and animals, Snowflake received the recessive genes for pigment from both parent, resulting in a mutation of a specific gene producing the albinism. While this concept recessive genes being realized in the phenotype of an organism due to inbreeding would not have been familiar to Lovecraft, he used what was known about the results of inbreeding in later tales such as “The Lurking Fear” and “The Shadow Out of Innsmouth.”
The albino “white ape” Snowflake
Relative to “Arthur Jermyn,” is it possible that the white ape civilization was based on a sub-population of apes that were albinos? Very unlikely. As mentioned albinism tends to produce weaker offspring that are typically selected against from an evolutionary point of view. Snowflake the albino gorilla lived until 2003 when he had to be euthanized due to being in constant pain as a result of the skin cancer. Snowflake was estimated to be between 38 and 40 years old at the time of his death; however, in the wild more than likely Snowflake would not have survived to adulthood. The only ecosystem where some type of albinism is more of a positive trait is in caves where traits such as pigmentation and eyesight are “traded” for traits such as acute hearing. In a jungle ecosystem albinism would not be a favorable trait to have and so it is very difficult to propose that the white ape civilization was built on a population of albinos.
The one hypothesis that may explain a population of white apes is a population of reproducing hybrids of apes (albino or otherwise) and humans (Europeans?). If such a population was established, they may have possibly survived in an isolated community. This would mean that the white apes were already hybrids when Arthur’s great-great-great-grandfather Sir Wade Jermyn visited the Congo. This would explain why a light-colored population would exist in the jungles of Congo.
The white ape-human hybrid by Michael Bukowski (www.yog-blogsoth.blogspot.com)
Thus, it may be possible that a highly intelligent population of ape-human hybrids existing in the Congo, largely keeping to themselves in the grey city. However, according to Mwanu, an old chief of the Kaliris tribe, a war-like tribe called the N’bangus destroyed the hybrid creatures (Lovecraft’s words) and their grey city. Thus, it was already recognized that the white apes were hybrids to begin with. This means that Arthur’s great-great-great-grandmother was not a true ape but instead a hybrid. If Arthur understood this, maybe he would not have killed himself due to his genetic heritage. It is interesting how the white ape-human hybrids of the Congo parallel the fish / frog-human hybrids of Innsmouth.
Next time we will begin a discussion of the role of scientists in Lovecraft’s tales. Thank you – Fred.