Kafka’s Ape, Adaptive Behavior, and Our Status as Humans

In “A Report to an Academy,” the marvelous transformation of the fictional ape Rotpeter offers striking insight into human adaptive behavior, and blurs and then elucidates the differences between man and ape. The short story, written as a letter by Rotpeter, tells of the transition of Rotpeter from his ape existence to that of a human. Rotpeter is regarded as a marvel of nature, his many-thousand year evolution occurring in a mere five. His existence and actions are unique in their own right, and mirror many of the behaviors demonstrated by man. Rotpeter’s process of transformation is reflected, for example, in the adaptation of children to societal norms, or in the assimilation of immigrants into new lands. However, it must be noted that all adaptation entails a corresponding loss of freedom and identity – a baby loses his/her innocence and gains inhibitions once societal acclimation begins, and an immigrant must to an extent give up old culture and customs to commit to adapting to a new one. In many respects, Kafka’s ape’s thoughts and behaviors mimic human psychological desires, intentions, and choices. But in drawing these pronounced parallels between Rotpeter and mankind, Kafka doesn’t bring apes and humans closer together. Rather, he decisively separates the two, based on these same concepts of behavioral adaptation and freedom.

The concept of behavioral adaptation at the expense of identity is one that has been explored vastly in both history and literature, and one Kafka employs front-and-center in “A Report.” Indeed, much of Freudian thought concerns the concept of “ego emergence,” which states that the narcissistic qualities the mind contains will overcome any sense of identity or essence a human possesses, to maintain the welfare of the self. Thus, if this thought is to be believed, the human is at the most base level a narcissist, and will do anything for his or her own well-being. Rotpeter, having been captured from his ape existence in the jungles of Africa, faces two choices; remain in his ape state and face the zoo, a cage, and the loss of physical freedoms, or become a vaudeville stage actor with human mentality and behavior. Of course, Rotpeter chooses to pursue the latter, preserving his comfort and showing a striking ability to adapt to human life, largely forsaking his identity as an ape in the process.

Rotpeter’s behavior, which is initially very base in nature, most resembles that of the children in William Heward’s work Exceptional Children, a work which relates the behavior of special education children to the behaviors of other individuals. Specifically, Heward states that though the children may not be able to speak coherent sentences, or even feed themselves properly, they often demonstrate a (relative) remarkable ability to adapt to unconventional situations, which one would expect to confuse them further (Heward). Heward interpreted this behavior as being a triggered stress adaptation, and this interpretation can similarly describe Rotpeter’s “finding a way out” of his post-capture situation, or as Kafka would call it, “Ausweg.” This theme of finding Ausweg, which literally translates as “way out,” is central to interpreting human adaptive behavior. Ausweg, which can be seen as the escape from and betterment of one’s situation, is what every human lives for. It is a universal motivator. Indeed, a psychologist possessing a Freudian viewpoint would have interpreted the human seeking of Ausweg as further confirmation of mankind’s narcissistic nature.

One of Rotpeter’s specific behaviors, his imitation of those around him, sheds light on the manner in which humans, as well as animals, psychologically adapt to their surroundings. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but it is also a form of learning necessary for adaptation and survival. Children in the sensorimotor stage of development attempt to match the sounds, gestures, and facial expressions of an adult model – such as while playing peek-a-boo. Toddlers, for example, will imitate their parents by pretending to get ready for work or school (Meltzoff 29). Meanwhile, these same imitation skills are noticeably deficient in children with autism, rendering them incapable of reaching the same social acclimation as their peers (Wehner 44). In these roles, imitation helps transmit social norms and promote cultural development in children. This is very telling of imitation’s role as an integral human adaptive skill. In “A Report,” imitation is central to Rotpeter’s escape and self-preservation. It is the way he makes himself acceptable and companionable to the humans around him. It is natural behavior for man to imitate, even in the event that the imitation is distasteful. Rotpeter’s incidents in smoking, drinking, and spitting were all distasteful. However, all were important mimicries which helped him along his “way out.”

Like imitation, the cognitive theory of recapitulation (as differentiated from Ernst Haeckel’s biological recapitulation theory, now largely discredited) also plays a strong role in “A Report.” While imitation is a kind of social adaptation theory, recapitulation explores adaptation from a more evolutionary and educational perspective. Cognitive recapitulation is nicely summed-up by philosopher Herbert Spencer, who stated “If there be an order in which the human race has mastered its various knowledge, there will arise in every child an aptitude to acquire these kinds of knowledge in same order” (Spencer 5). Recapitulation theory thus sought to rapidly improve cognition and learning through a curriculum based on the evolutionary order of knowledge acquisition, and through severe discipline. Rotpeter’s method of behavioral adaptation exemplifies this theory; the first actions he learns are spitting, smoking, and drinking, indeed very base behaviors in humans. Additionally, although Rotpeter at first finds alcohol disgusting, severe discipline reverses his initial reaction. After being subjected to repeated punishment at the hands of a sailor for not drinking, he learns to tolerate alcohol. As opposed to social learning and imitation, recapitulation learning is based on concepts such as repetition, order, and punishment. The punishment in particular is representative of Freud’s take on learning through recapitulation.

Once insights into the natural human behavior Rotpeter exhibits have been made, the distinctions between man and ape begin to become clear. Earlier, it was posited that Rotpeter chose learning and adaptation for reason of preservation of physical freedom. However, it is apparent that for every step deeper into the world of humans Rotpeter takes, he is gaining physical freedom, but he is losing something vitally important – mental freedom. By entering civilization, he has submitted to the mental yoke that all humans wear, a yoke that constrains their behaviors and mannerisms. Subsequently, in the process of becoming civilized Rotpeter’s ties with the ape existence become nearly (though not quite) severed. This is where Kafka begins to draw the line between man and ape, a line that borders on psychological freedom. One can’t have both – to be human is to adapt to civilization and, hence, be less free.

Interestingly, Kafka demarcates this line between man and ape by, at first, blurring it. Rotpeter’s experience with alcohol exposes animal tendencies in the human as much as it showcases human learning in the ape. The punishment inflicted by the sailor upon Rotpeter, and the behavior of many of the crew members, is evident of a lower degree of mind. Indeed, the sailor who trained Rotpeter is said to later be admitted to a mental hospital. It may be said that at this point in the story the line between ape and human is quite blurry. As they each retain qualities of the other, which is which? The alcohol further reinforces this mix-up as a symbol of baseness and abandon. Indeed, here it is the ape who abstains from liquor, while the human does not. But if one looks hard enough the line begins to resolve itself; what finally characterizes the human is a high level of behavioral adaptation, seen here in the ape, while the characteristic of psychological freedom, what the ape has lost, is symbolized by human behavior under the influence of alcohol.

By the end of “A Report,” Rotpeter is neither fully human nor fully ape. He spends the day in the company of humans but sleeps with a “half-trained chimpanzee” by night (6). He has made an effort to learn to be human, but nevertheless it has been a forced career. And while he feels increasingly comfortable in the human world, the “gentle puff of air playing at his heels” (7) is a continual reminder of the life he has left forever. It is clear that although Rotpeter lives willingly within the confines of human civilization, he does not appreciate the yoke it imposes upon him. Through references to Rotpeter’s disorientation, and to his being caught between two worlds, Kafka again reminds us how man and animal are undeniably different in their levels of freedom and behavioral adaptation.

Finally, there exists a school of thought (in direct contradiction to Freud, although Kafka with his genius manages to incorporate both theories into one story seamlessly to illustrate a wider view of adaptation) that states that humans are limited in their ability to mentally adapt, largely by pre-determined genetic and physical constraints (Spencer). Rotpeter has indeed come a long way from his ape origins, but is it possible that he still retains some measure of them? Throughout the story the narrator appears very frank, asking for openness and speaking of handshakes, yet there is a sense of contrivance about his report. When all is said and done, Rotpeter does not really claim commonness with humans at all. Indeed, he ridicules the supposed physical freedom of human acrobats on a trapeze, implying it pales in comparison to the mental freedom of apes, and finally asserts that his report is only meant to impart knowledge, distancing himself from his audience. His emphatic statement, “I am from the Gold Coast” (1), further proves that he has not renounced his origins. It seems that howsoever Rotpeter may dress himself up as human, an ape is still an ape in his body, as well as in the deep evolutionary recesses of his mind, limiting his ability to completely adapt to civilization. Similarly, no matter how much a human may acclimate to a social constraint, he/she still retains elements of the freedom of the ape (in one form, we have seen, under the influence of alcohol). As Rotpeter states, “your life as apes, gentlemen…cannot be farther removed from you than mine is from me” (7).

In “A Report to an Academy,” Kafka succeeds masterfully in illuminating both obvious and subtle human adaptive behaviors through the medium of his ape. However, instead of drawing human closer to ape through these likenesses, “A Report” goes deeper and divides them on the twin concepts of behavioral acclimation and psychological freedom. As we have seen, one cannot exist without the other; a gain in one correspondingly offsets a loss in the other. Rotpeter resembles a human in behavior, but yet is not one, as part of him is still attached to a free ape state. By dealing with these two concepts in a humorous yet thorough light, Kafka has made a lasting contribution to the literature of what makes us human – a sense of behavioral adaptation that puts on our yoke of civilization, keeping us from experiencing unadapted psychological freedom.

Literature CitedHeward, William L.. Exceptional children: an introduction to special education. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill, 2000. Print.Meltzoff, Andrew N.. “Peer Imitation By Toddlers In Laboratory, Home, And Day-care Contexts: Implications For Social Learning And Memory..” Developmental Psychology 29 (): 701-710. Print.Spencer, Herbert. Education: intellectual, moral, and physical.. Paterson, N.J.: Littlefield, Adams, 1963. Print.Wehner, Elizabeth. “Imitation performance in toddlers with autism and those with other developmental disorders.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 44 (): 763-781. Print.

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