In “Restating the case for human uniqueness,” in Spiked* (Issue 25, June 2009), managing editor Helene Guldberg reviews Not a Chimp: The Hunt to Find the Genes That Make Us Human by Jeremy Taylor (Oxford University Press 2009):
She notes that
Taylor sets out to argue that it is ‘as wrong as it is misguided’ to ‘exaggerate the narrowness of the gap between chimpanzees and ourselves’: ‘It plays into the hands of our natural propensity to anthropomorphise our pets and other animals, and even our inanimate possessions, and it has allowed us to distort what the science is trying to tell us.’ His aim is ‘to set the record straight and restore chimpanzees to arm’s length’.
Good idea that. Remember the horrific case of Travis the chimp? Travis would have been a fine chimp, left to himself in a natural environment. But he went on a rampage and horribly maimed and mutilated the employee of the owner of a towing company, who was keeping him. Her family are now suing for $50 million.
This is the tragedy of anthropomorphizing animals. They neither become people nor fit in with other animals of their kind. Travis was shot by a police officer. But had he lived, one may wonder whether he could even adapt to life in a troupe of chimpanzees, after a career in show business and later as a pet whose mistress thought he was like a son.
In the chapter titled ‘Povinelli’s Gauntlet’, Taylor outlines the fascinating work of the comparative cognitive psychologist Daniel Povinelli, who runs the Cognitive Evolution Group at the University of Louisiana. Povinelli is unequivocal in arguing that no test to date has reliably demonstrated that chimpanzees – or any other primate for that matter – have an understanding of the mental life of others or an understanding of causation in the physical world.
To investigate chimps’ so-called understanding of ‘folk psychology’, Povinelli tested whether chimps understood that their begging gestures will only be effective if the person they are begging from can see them. When one of two experimenters either wore a blindfold, held their hands over their eyes or wore a bucket over their head, the chimps showed no preference for whom they made their begging gestures to.
No surprise there. Chimpanzees do not usually perform as well as dogs in reading human gestures.
Even more interesting:
In order to demonstrate that far too much has been made of the tool-using abilities of chimpanzees in the wild, Taylor outlines recent discoveries showing that the tool-making of some birds equals, or in many cases betters, anything observed in chimpanzees. ‘In two species that parted company 280million years ago, performance is either very similar, or corvids might even have an edge. Bird brains, in specific contexts, are a match for chimp brains’, he writes. What this shows is that chimpanzees may not tell us that much more than corvids about the evolution of our unique genetic make-up, he argues.
Now that is a story that should be investigated more openly than it is. Why are some birds so smart, yet they have key brain differences from the animals that are supposed to be smart – mammals? Clearly, intelligence is not what we have assumed.
I will spoil no more for you; go here for more.
Dogs more like humans than chimpanzees are?
“Loving” chimpanzee eats its victims alive, new research shows
New assessment of ape language skills is dramatically scaled back
A defense of Apes r us – and insider look at the pygmy chimpanzee enthusiasts
Apes R Not Us, and we have to get used to it
*spiked is an independent online phenomenon dedicated to raising the horizons of humanity by waging a culture war of words against misanthropy, priggishness, prejudice, luddism, illiberalism and irrationalism in all their ancient and modern forms. spiked is endorsed by free-thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, and hated by the narrow-minded such as Torquemada and Stalin. Or it would be, if they were lucky enough to be around to read it.