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Archive for September 6th, 2012

A zoologist from outer space would immediately classify us as just a third species of chimpanzee, along with the pygmy chimp of Zaire and the common chimp of the rest of subtropical Africa.  –  Jared Diamond

I have always been fascinated by apes, and to a lesser extent monkeys; both for themselves and for what they can teach us about ourselves.  I did several grade-school projects on hominid evolution, and my senior term paper in high school was on interspecies law; this was not an animal rights-type thing, but rather an examination of the characteristics we might use to define a “person” for the purpose of assigning legal rights.  The “fetal personhood” crowd (which, thankfully, didn’t exist in 1983) insists that a blob of cells carrying the human genetic code be considered a “person” for legal purposes…so why not a full-grown chimp, which shares 98.5% of those genes and is far more intelligent than a human infant, much less a fetus?  Others want even the mindless, abandoned chrysalis of a human which cannot survive without machines to be treated as a “person”…so why not gorillas who can communicate using sign language?  In the next few centuries we may come into contact with extraterrestrial intelligences who are completely different from us biologically, or even be able to build machines which can pass tests for sentience; when we redefine our laws on what constitutes “personhood” to allow for that, where will our closest relatives fall?

Monkeys are very much like us in an astonishing number of ways, including gender-based toy preferences and  prostitution; chimpanzees share those and many others (such as tool use and lesbianism), including some rather nasty similarities such as a propensity toward murder, rape and war.  What’s more, they seem to be showing a great deal more intelligence of late, as you already know if you’ve been following my link columns:  gorillas have learned to destroy snares set by poachers, and chimps in Senegal have been observed using wooden spears to hunt.  A chimpanzee in a Welsh zoo was videotaped asking visitors (via sign language) to release him from his cage, and a bonobo in Israel coins his own sign-language words and makes stone tools (after being shown how to chip flint over 15 years ago).  And then there’s this brilliant lady:

Natasha, a chimp at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda, has always seemed different from her peers.  She’s learned to escape from her enclosure, teases human caretakers, and scores above other chimps in communication tests.  Now…in the largest and most in-depth survey of chimpanzee intelligence, researchers found that Natasha was the smartest of the 106 chimps they tested…”Natasha was really much better than other chimps,” says…Esther Herrmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.  Herrmann and her colleagues had previously tested chimps in a study designed to compare [their] skills…with those of human children…they noticed a wide range of skills among the chimps and wondered whether they could measure this variation…like an IQ test in humans.  So they gave a battery of…tests to 106 chimps at Ngamba Island and the Tchimpounga chimpanzee sanctuary in the Republic of the Congo, and to 23…chimpanzees and bonobos in Germany…”In general, we don’t find any kind of general intelligence factor that can predict intelligence in all areas,” Herrmann says.  “But we did find a big variation overall, and this one outstanding individual.”  The stand-out individual, Natasha, was the chimp that caretakers…consistently ranked as the smartest based on…the way she interacted with them…

Though we’ve been studying apes for decades, these findings and incidents are all comparatively recent, so what’s going on?  Are the apes actually getting more intelligent, due either to evolutionary pressure exerted by human encroachment, direct learning from their human observers or the more consistent nutrition in primate centers and the like?  Or were they always this smart, and they’ve just recently become comfortable enough around humans to demonstrate it?  There’s one more alternative:  maybe they always had these capabilities, but scientists simply refused to acknowledge them for much the same reason some still stubbornly insist that apes who use sign language aren’t “really” communicating.  We’ve believed for a very long time that there is a sharp line between humans and other animals, and a lot of people are made extremely uncomfortable by the idea that there might not be; that’s why they pretend there’s no such thing as evolution, or at least that only our bodies are subject to it while our behavior is somehow magically free from any evolutionary influence  even though no other animal’s is.  In other words, it may be that early primate researchers unconsciously disregarded overtly humanlike behaviors, just as prohibitionist “prostitution researchers” disregard any findings which tend to disprove their deeply-held beliefs.  If this is true, the reason all these things seem to be happening at once is that the observations have finally reached the “critical mass” beyond which it is impossible to ignore them any longer, and each new report emboldens other researchers to release the similar findings they were hesitant to mention before for fear of ridicule.  And I won’t be at all surprised if, sometime in the next few years, a scientific consensus arises that our cousins are a lot more human than we had previously believed.

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