I’ve been thinking about an exchange I witnessed over a year ago on Twitter. A man posted a photo of a formidable-looking chimp standing on all fours and a bathroom selfie of a man (the tweeter) in a tank top, modestly muscled deltoids and pectorals visible.
“Be for real man,” he wrote in the now-deleted tweet. “Y’all really think that I’m losing a fight to him??? Y’all serious?” The replies were a ceremonial clowning: “I got 5 racks on the monkey,” said one Twitter user. “He taking you in 5 moves or less.” Another suggested: “Make sure you update your beneficiaries before the fight.”
Everyone was in agreement that the chimp had the upper hand. Though chimps spent decades as affable sidekicks in old movies or clever students of Jane Goodall, a more accurate reputation of the chimp as a formidable animal has become more common: The 200-pound chimp who mauled and nearly killed a woman in Connecticut in 2009 made sure of that. The contemporary, CGI-heavy Planet of the Apes franchise also helped present chimps as formidable foes, rather than comrades. This isn’t to say that chimps are inherently violent, but rather, they’re not as harmless as they sometimes seem.
This should be obvious, but try telling that to a gym rat with internet access. The idea of man handily winning a battle against a primate is a surprisingly common trope online, and I wanted to figure out why.
Of course, “man versus nature” has been a longstanding obsession. It captivated audiences in Roman coliseums who watched gladiators fend off big cats. Readers have been gripped by this power struggle as well, from The Old Man and the Sea to The Hatchet. And no one even had to watch The Revenant starring Leonardo DiCaprio to hear about the gripping scene between DiCaprio’s character and a grizzly bear, eager to rip him to shreds. Whether it’s a man versus fish or man versus massive fucking bear, the urge to assert dominance—control over the uncontrollable—endures.
But, on the internet, that old trope takes on a very specific form, to the point of parody: Men, confident in their brawn or grasp of science, letting the public know that the right guy could, in fact, take on a wild animal—especially a chimp—with strength, cunning, and agility that our simian cousins could only dream of. A simple Google search of “man vs chimp” produces a sea of hits, with a few science articles peppered in.
“Mike Tyson in his prime vs. an adult male Chimpanzee” reads one Reddit post in the appropriately titled subreddit “r/whowouldwin.”
“Fight takes place in a boxing ring,” the poster explained. “Tyson’s bare fisted and can use any fighting style he chooses to include biting, eye gouges and strikes to the genitals. Both are fighting for their lives.” There are skeptics of Tyson’s chops in this scenario, but the believers are adamant, dedicating long, detailed explanations as to why Tyson would win such a match handily.
“Tyson wins 9 times out of 10,” one poster says.
Another agrees, adding, “If Tyson lands a punch, the chimp would be done.”
Quora boasts similar queries: “Could an MMA fighter defeat a chimpanzee in hand to hand combat?”; “Could the best MMA fighter beat a chimp one-on-one? The chimp would be stronger, but would fast reflexes and knowledge of where to hit prosper?”; “Could a human armed with a spear win against a chimpanzee?”; “Who would win in a fight between the strongest man in the planet and a Chimpanzee?”; and “How do I fight a chimpanzee?”
The best answer to the question about who would win between the strongest man on the planet and a chimp came from a man who said that chimpanzee strength is overrated: “Even if a 90 pound chimp is 2x stronger than an average man its size, I’m 180 pounds so I’m as strong as it, plus I work out so I’m stronger than the average person of my size,” he wrote. “I’d tear a chimp apart.”
This mirrors a similar machismo screed from a martial arts portal of a gaming forum by a man who wrote a Q & A with himself:
“Chimps are wild and aggressive! They would just rush you immediately.”
So what? Bull rushing is not a good way to win a fight. I fight a lot and if everyone I fought just bull rushed me, I would win 100% of the time. Wild flailing has never been and will never be a suitable replacement for calculated technique.
“A chimp can rip off your face!”
Yeah, and? I could rip your face off too, if I wanted to. In fact, lots of serial killers have done this sort of thing. Next.
While admitting that a chimp’s teeth are cause for concern, the poster didn’t consider it a dealbreaker: “Getting bitten by one of them would hurt, yes, but it wouldn’t kill you, nor would it render you unconscious and unable to fight,” he reasoned. “If you could work past the pain of being bitten, there’s really nothing stopping you from digging its eyes out with your thumbs.”
It’s clear that stories of chimps ripping off human faces and appendages with ease has not resonated with internet meatheads. They’re probably still fixated on the characterization of chimps that has dominated in the popular imagination for the better part of a century: Tarzan cradling his loyal pal Cheetah, a chimpanzee, in the long-running franchise, or footage of primatologist Jane Goodall studying placid and playful chimps in their natural habitats. This imagery makes chimps appear mostly harmless. And, to be clear, they certainly can be. But when they’re threatened, even the strongest man would have a hard time winning a fight against one.
But this misconception about chimps isn’t just the fantasy of internet tough guys, said Sarah Bell, a Ph.D. candidate studying human-wildlife conflict in Sierra Leone and founder of wildlife conservation organization Pan Verus Project.
“The idea is not a new one and is very reminiscent of ‘orangutan boxing’ or ‘kangaroo boxing’ which are both very ugly and cruel sports,” Bell said via email. “The people I work and live with in Sierra Leone don’t have the opportunity to see chimpanzees as anything other than things that live in the forest that could kill them if they chose. They all describe chimpanzees as ‘very fearful’ creatures, even though no one in living memory has been attacked by one.”
Even the average notion of what sort of chimp one would hypothetically take on is skewed. Bell noted that most of the chimps we see in television and movies as funloving vehicles for comic relief are actually young chimps stolen from their mothers. “You’ll never see a fully grown adult chimpanzee being used in films because it’s just too dangerous,” Bell said. “Anyone who has ever actually observed fully grown chimpanzees, and especially fully grown wild chimpanzees would never assume they could ‘take on’ a chimpanzee,” said Bell.
I asked Sandeep Kumar, a Portland-based psychotherapist, about why men are deluded by delusions of their physical strength. In an e-mail, Kumar suggested that the anonymity of the internet and social media encourages this kind of “my dad is bigger than your dad” bravado, but is doubtful of its sincerity. “I don’t think any of these men who claim to be willing to take on a chimp would truly do so without someone standing by with a tranquilizer gun,” Kumar wrote.
But one thing did give Kumar pause: claims that martial arts experience could adequately prepare someone to fight a chimp. “I’ve spent over a decade studying several martial arts, and I would do everything I could to never be in a situation with a wild animal,” Kumar noted.
He continued: “The animal will fight to the death if threatened, and might not be the first time it has had to do so. Most people haven’t killed anything more than an insect. Sure, the human might ‘win’ the fight, if walking away from an elective fight having lost a finger or appendage is a ‘win.’ Survive, maybe, but isn’t the ability to [do more than just survive] one of the aspects that we claim separates us from the animal kingdom?”
Common sense, as well as Bell’s extensive research, confirms this. “This isn’t the kind of fighting style men are accustomed to, [so] you wouldn’t just get to fight a chimpanzee who also wanted to show off his strength without permanently damaging you.”
Chimps do not have a concept of fighting below the belt. Not only that: They’ll happily take the fight there, literally. According to Bell, during an attack, chimps tend to go for the face, hands and feet, and genitals first. “Chimpanzees have been known to tear off people’s faces and leave men with a little less manhood than they had before the encounter,” Bell explained. “The chimpanzee would be fearing for its life, so it would do everything in it’s—very impressive—power to incapacitate the threat.
So much for Tyson getting a punch in. Hard to have much fight left if a chimp rips your dick off first.
But why this desire to even entertain such dangerous face-offs in the first place?
“As a student of evolutionary psychology, there may be something pressing about the possibility of our species going extinct and the desire to prove that we are still top of the heap,” Kumar suggested.
Bell came to a similar conclusion. “I think that humans, in general, have an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mindset when it comes to animals, and I am sure that to some men the idea of a ‘them’ being physically superior is upsetting,” she wrote. This is part of a larger problem: thanks to man’s neverending quest for dominance, Western Chimpanzees are considered critically endangered.
“[Chimps] have seen an eighty percent population decline since the 1990s,” Bell wrote. “They are threatened in a large part by habitat loss, but also historically, by the wildlife trade. [...] The demand for chimpanzees as pets, tourist attractions, and even as bushmeat is really catastrophic for wild populations...”
It’s ironic, then, that men dream of fighting a beast they’ve already cornered. A one-on-one battle might not end well, but with human weaponry and greed comes the most destructive show of dominance of all. The average bro drumming up hypothetical scenarios of dominating a chimp is mostly harmless, but ignorance about animals can have real-life consequences. If Bell’s e-mail taught me anything, it’s that when it comes to chimps, the moniker “don’t start nothin’, won’t be nothin’” rings true. So my message to the aggro men of the internet is this: Drop the intricate scenarios of beating a chimp to a pulp and donate some money to a wildlife foundation instead. The chimps—who can absolutely kick your ass—will thank you.
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)