Why humans are superior to apes

The fashion for equating chimps with children is based on a degraded view of humanity and an ignorance about animals.

Helene Guldberg

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Humanism, in the sense of a faith in humanity’s potential to solve problems through the application of science and reason, is taking quite a battering today. As the UK medical scientist Raymond Tallis warns, the role of mind and of self-conscious agency in human affairs is denied ‘by anthropomorphising or “Disneyfying” what animals do and “animalomorphising” what human beings get up to’ (1).

One of the most extreme cases of ‘animalomorphism’ in recent years has come from the philosopher John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics. In his book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, Gray argues that humanity’s belief in our ability to control our destiny and free ourselves from the constraints of the natural environment is as illusory as the Christian promise of salvation (2).

Gray presents humanity as no better than any other living organism – even bacteria. We should therefore not be too concerned about whether humans have a future on this planet, he claims. Rather, it is the balance of the world’s ecosystem that we should really worry about: ‘Homo rapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth preserving. Later or sooner, it will become extinct. When it is gone the Earth will recover.’

Thankfully, not many will go along with John Gray’s image of humans as a plague upon the planet. For our own sanity, if nothing else, we cannot really subscribe to such a misanthropic and nihilistic worldview. If we did, surely we would have no option other than to kill ourselves – for the good of the planet – and try to take as many people with us as possible?

However, even if many will reject Gray’s extreme form of anti-humanism, many more will go along with the notion that animals are ultimately not that different from us. The effect is the same: to denigrate human abilities.

Today, a belief in human exceptionalism is distinctly out of fashion. Almost every day we are presented with new revelations about how animals are more like us than we ever imagined. A selection of news headlines includes: ‘How animals kiss and make up’; ‘Male birds punish unfaithful females’; ‘Dogs experience stress at Christmas’; ‘Capuchin monkeys demand equal rights’; ‘Scientists prove fish intelligence’; ‘Birds going through divorce proceedings’; ‘Bees can think say scientists’; ‘Chimpanzees are cultured creatures’ (3).

The argument is at its most powerful when it comes to the great apes -chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. One of the most influential opponents of the ‘sanctification of human life’, as he describes human exceptionalism, is Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation and co-founder of the Great Ape Project (4). Singer argues that we need to ‘break the species barrier’ and extend rights to the great apes, in the first instance, followed by all other animal species. The great apes are not only our closest living relatives, argues Singer, but they are also beings who possess many of the characteristics that we have long considered distinctive to humans.

Is it the case that apes are just like us? Primatology has indeed shown that apes, and even monkeys, communicate in the wild. Jane Goodall’s observations of chimpanzees show that not only do they use tools, but that they also make them – using sticks to fish for termites, stones as anvils or hammers, and leaves as cups or sponges. Anybody watching juvenile chimps playfighting, tickling each other and giggling, will be struck by their human-like mannerisms and their apparent expressions of glee.

But one has to go beyond first impressions in order to establish to what extent great ape abilities can be compared to those of humans. Is it the case that ape behaviour is the result of a capacity for some rudimentary form of human-like insight? Or can it be explained through Darwinian evolution and associative learning? Associative learning, or contingent learning, are concepts developed in the early twentieth century by BF Skinner, one of the most influential psychologists, to describe a type of learning that is the result of an association between an action and the reinforcer – in the absence of any insight.

BF Skinner became famous for his work with rats, pigeons and chickens using his ‘Skinner Box’. In one experiment he rewarded chickens with a small amount of food (the reinforcer) when they pecked a blue button (the action). If the chicken pecked a yellow, green, or red button, it would get nothing. Associative or contingent learning, concepts developed by the school of behaviourism, is based on the idea that animals behave in the way that they do because this kind of behaviour has had certain consequences in the past, not because they have any insight into why they are doing what they do.

In Intelligence of Apes and Other Rational Beings (2003), primatologist Duane Rumbaugh and comparative psychologist David Washburn argue that ape behaviour cannot be explained on the basis of contingent learning alone (5). Apes are rational, they claim, and do make decisions using higher order reasoning skills. But the evidence for this is weak, and getting weaker, as more rigorous methodologies are being developed for investigating the capabilities of primates. As a result, many of the past claims about apes’ capacity for insight into their own actions and those of their fellow apes are now being questioned.

  • Cultural transmission and social learning

The cultural transmission of behaviour, where actions are passed on through some kind of teaching, learning or observation rather than through genetics, is used as evidence of apes’ higher order reasoning abilities. This is currently being revised.

The generation-upon-generation growth in human abilities has historically been seen as our defining characteristic. Human progress has been made possible through our ability to reflect on what we, and our fellow humans, are doing – thereby teaching, and learning from, each other.

The first evidence of cultural transmission among primates was found in the 1950s in Japan, with observations of the spread of potato washing among macaque monkeys (6). One juvenile female pioneered the habit, followed by her mother and closest peers. Within a decade, the whole of the population under middle age was washing potatoes. A review by Andrew Whiten and his colleagues of a number of field studies reveals evidence of at least 39 local variations in behavioural patterns, including tool-use, communication and grooming rituals, among chimpanzees – behaviours that are common in some communities and absent in others (7). So it seems that these animals are capable of learning new skills and of passing them on to their fellows.

The question remains: what does this tell us about their mental capacities? The existence of cultural transmission is often taken as evidence that the animals are capable of some form of social learning (such as imitation) and possibly even teaching. But there is in fact no evidence of apes being able to teach their young. Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center in Germany, points out that ‘nonhuman primates do not point to distal entities in the environment, they do not hold up objects for others to see and share, and they do not actively give or offer objects to other individuals. They also do not actively teach one another’ (8).

Yet even if apes cannot actively teach each other, if they are capable of social learning – in terms of imitation (which it has long been assumed that they are) – this does still imply they are capable of quite complex cognitive processes. Imitation involves being able to appreciate not just what an act looks like when performed by another individual, but also what it is like to do that act oneself. They must be able to put themselves in another person’s shoes, so to speak.

However, comparative psychologist Bennett Galef points out, after scrutinising the data from Japan, that the rate the behaviour spread among the macaque monkeys was very slow and steady, not accelerated as one might expect in the case of imitation (9). It took up to a decade for what, in human terms, would be described as a tiny group of individuals to acquire the habit of the ‘innovator’. Compare this to the human ability to teach new skills and ways of thinking and to learn from each other’s insights: which laid the foundation for the agricultural and industrial revolutions, the development of science and technology and the transformations of our ways of living that flow from these.

Reviewing the literature on primate behaviour, it emerges that there is in fact no consensus among scientists as to whether apes are capable of the simplest form of social learning – imitation (10). Instead it could be the case that the differences in their behavioural repertoires are the result of what has been coined stimulus enhancement. It has been shown in birds, for instance, that the stimulus enhancement of a feeding site may occur if bird A sees bird B gaining food there. In other words, their attention has been drawn to a stimulus, without any knowledge or appreciation of the significance of the stimulus.

Others argue that local variations may be due to observational conditioning, where an animal may learn about the positive or negative consequences of actions, not on the basis of experiencing the outcomes themselves, but on the basis of seeing the responses of other animals. This involves a form of associative learning (learning from the association between an action and the reinforcer), rather than any insight.

Michael Tomasello emphasises the special nature of human learning. Unlike animals, he argues, humans understand that in the social domain relations between people involve intentionality, and in the physical domain that relations between objects involve causality (11). We do not tend to respond blindly to what others do or say, but, to some degree, analyse their motives. Similarly we have some understanding how physical processes work, which means we can manipulate the physical world to our advantage and continually develop and perfect the tools we use to do so.

Social learning and teaching depends on these abilities, and human children begin on this task at the end of their first year. Because other primates do not understand intentionality or causality they do not engage in cultural learning of this type.

The fact that it takes chimps up to four years to acquire the necessary skills to select and adequately use tools to crack nuts implies that they are not capable of true imitation, never mind any form of teaching. Young chimps invest a lot of time and effort in attempts to crack nuts that are, after all, an important part of their diet. The slow rate of their development raises serious questions about their ability to reflect on what they and their fellow apes are doing.

  • Language

But can apes use language? Groundbreaking research by Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney in the 1980s on vervet monkeys in the wild showed that their vocalisations went beyond merely expressing emotions such as anger or fear. Their vocalisations could instead be described as ‘referential’ – in that they refer to objects or events (12). But it could not be established from these studies whether the callers vocalised with the explicit intent of referring to a particular object or event, for instance the proximity of a predator.

And Seyfarth and Cheney were careful to point out that there was no evidence that the monkeys had any insight into what they were doing. Their vocalisations could merely be the result of a form of associative learning. Later experiments have attempted to refine analyses in order to establish whether there is an intention to communicate: involving an understanding that someone else may have a different perspective or understanding of a situation from themselves, and using communication in order to change the others’ understanding.

It is too early to draw any firm conclusions on this question from research carried out to date. There is no evidence that primates have any, even rudimentary, human-like insight into the effect of their communications. But neither is there clear evidence that they do not. What is clear, however, is that primates, as with all non-human animals, only ever communicate about events in the here and now. They do not communicate about possible future events or previously encountered ones.

Ape communications cannot therefore be elevated to the status of human language. Human beings debate and discuss ideas, constructing arguments, drawing on past experiences and imagining future possibilities, in order to change the opinions of others. This goes way beyond warning fellow humans about a clear and present danger.

  • Deception and Theory of Mind

What about the fact that apes have been seen to deceive their fellows? Does this not point towards what some have described as a Machiavellian Intelligence (13)? Primatologists have observed apes in the wild giving alarm calls when no danger is present, with the effect of distracting another animal from food or a mate. But again the question remains whether they are aware of what they are doing. To be able to deceive intentionally, they would have to have some form of a ‘theory of mind’ – that is, the recognition that one’s own perspectives and beliefs are sometimes different from somebody else’s.

Although psychologist Richard Byrne argues that the abilities of the great apes are limited compared with even very young humans, he claims that ‘some “theory of mind” in great apes but not monkeys now seems clear’ (14). However, as the cognitive neuroscientist Marc Hauser points out, most studies of deception have left the question of intentionality unanswered (15). Studies that do attribute beliefs-about-beliefs to apes tend to rely heavily on fascinating, but largely unsubstantiated, anecdotes. As professor of archaeology Steven Mithen points out, ‘even the most compelling examples can be explained in terms of learned behavioural contingencies [associative learning], without recourse to higher order intentionality’ (16).

So even if apes are found to deceive, that does not necessarily imply that the apes know that they are deceiving. The apes may just be highly adaptive and adept at picking up useful routines that bring them food, sex or safety, without necessarily having any understanding or insight into what they are doing.

  • Self-awareness

Although there is no substantive evidence of apes having a theory of mind, they may possess its precursor – a rudimentary self-awareness. This is backed up by the fact that, apart from human beings, apes are the only species able to recognise themselves in the mirror. In developmental literature, the moment when human infants first recognise themselves in the mirror (between 15 and 21 months of age) is seen as an important milestone in the emergence of the notion of ‘self’. How important is it, then, that apes can make the same sort of mirror recognition?

The development of self-awareness is a complex process with different elements emerging at different times. In humans, mirror recognition is only the precursor to a continually developing capacity for self-awareness and self-evaluation. Younger children’s initial self-awareness is focused around physical characteristics. With maturity comes a greater appreciation of psychological characteristics. When asking ‘who am I?’, younger children use outer visible characteristics – such as gender and hair colour – while older children tend to use inner attributes – such as feelings and abilities.

The ability of apes to recognise themselves in the mirror does not necessarily imply a human-like self-awareness or the existence of mental experiences. They seem able to represent their own bodies visually, but they never move beyond the stage reached by human children in their second year of life.

  • Children

Research to date presents a rather murky picture of what primates are and are not capable of. Field studies may not have demonstrated conclusively that apes are incapable of understanding intentionality in the social domain or causality in the physical domain, but logically this must be the case. Understanding of this sort would lead to a much more flexible kind of learning. It may be the case that the great apes do possess some rudimentary form of human-like insight. But the limitations of this rudimentary insight (if it exists at all) becomes clear when exploring the emergence, and transformative nature, of insight in young children.

We are not born with the creative, flexible and imaginative thinking that characterises humans. It emerges in the course of development: humans develop from helpless biological beings into conscious beings with a sense of self and an independence of thought.

The study of children can therefore give us great insights into the human mind. As Peter Hobson, professor of developmental psychopathology and author of The Cradle of Thought: Exploring the Origins of Thinking, states: ‘It is always difficult to consider things in the abstract, and this is especially the case when what we are considering is something as elusive as the development of thought. It is one of the great benefits of studying very young children that one can see thinking taking place as it is lived out in a child’s observable behaviour’ (17). Thinking is more internalised, and therefore hidden, in older children and adults, but it is more externalised and nearer to the surface in children who are just beginning to talk.

Hobson puts a persuasive case for human thought, language, and self-awareness developing ‘in the cradle of emotional engagement between the infant and caregiver’. Emotional engagement and communication, he argues, are the foundation on which creative symbolic thought develops.

Through reviewing an array of clinical and experimental studies, Hobson captures aspects of human exchanges that happen before thought. He shows that even in early infancy children have a capacity to react to the emotions of others. This points to an innate desire to engage with fellow human beings, he argues. However, with development, that innate desire is transformed into something qualitatively different.

So, for instance, at around nine months of age, infants begin to share their experiences of objects or actions with others. They begin to monitor the emotional responses of adults, such as responding to facial expression or the tone of voice. When faced with novel situations or objects, infants look at their carers’ faces and, by picking up emotional signals, they decide on their actions. When they receive positive/encouraging signals, they engage; when the signals are anxious/negative, they retreat. Towards the middle of the second year these mutually sensitive interpersonal engagements are transformed into more conscious exchanges of feelings, views and beliefs.

Hobson is able to show that the ability to symbolise emerges out of the cradle of early emotional engagements. With the insight that people-with-minds have their own subjective experiences and can give things meanings comes the insight that these meanings can be anchored in symbols. This, according to Hobson, is the dawn of thought and the dawn of language: ‘At this point, [the child] leaves infancy behind. Empowered by language and other forms of symbolic functioning, she takes off into the realms of culture. The infant has been lifted out of the cradle of thought. Engagement with others has taught this soul to fly.’ (p274)

The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky showed that a significant moment in the development of the human individual occurs when language and practical intelligence converge (18). It is when thought and speech come together that children’s thinking is raised to new heights and they start acquiring truly human characteristics. Language becomes a tool of thought allowing children increasingly to master their own behaviour.

As Vygotsky pointed out, young children will often talk out loud – to themselves it seems – when carrying out particular tasks. This ‘egocentric speech’ does not disappear, but gradually becomes internalised into private inner speech – also known as thought. Vygotsky and Luria concluded that ‘the meeting between speech and thinking is a major event in the development of the individual; in fact, it is this connection that raises human thinking to extraordinary heights’ (19). Apes never develop the ability to use language to regulate their own actions in the way that even toddlers are able to do.

With the development of language, children’s understanding of their own and other people’s minds is transformed. So by three or four years of age, most children have developed a theory of mind. This involves an understanding of their own and others’ mental life, including the understanding that others may have false beliefs and that they themselves may have had false beliefs.

When my nephew Stefan was three years of age, he excitedly told me that ‘this is my right hand [lifting his right hand] and this is my left hand [lifting his left hand]. But this morning [which is the phrase he used for anything that has happened in the past] I told daddy that this was my left hand [lifting his right hand] and this is my right hand [lifting his left hand]’. He was amused by the fact that he had been mistaken in his knowledge of what is right and what is left. He clearly had developed an understanding that people, including himself, have beliefs about things and that those beliefs can be wrong as well as right. Once children are able to think about thoughts in this way, their thinking has been lifted to a different height.

The formal education system requires children to go much further in turning language and thought in upon themselves. Children must learn to direct their thought processes in a conscious manner. Above all, they need to become capable of consciously manipulating symbols. Literacy and numeracy serve important functions in aiding communication and manipulating numbers. But, above all, they have transformative effects on children’s thinking, in particular on the development of abstract thought and reflective processes.

In the influential book Children’s Minds, child psychologist Margaret Donaldson shows that ‘those very features of the written word which encourage awareness of language may also encourage awareness of one’s own thinking and be relevant to the development of intellectual self-control, with incalculable consequences for the kinds of thinking which are characteristic of logic, mathematics and the sciences’ (20).

The differences in language, tool-use, self-awareness and insight between apes and humans are vast. A human child, even as young as two years of age, is intellectually head and shoulders above any ape.

  • Denigrating humans

As American biological anthropologist Kathleen R Gibson states: ‘Other animals possess elements that are common to human behaviours, but none reaches the human level of accomplishment in any domain – vocal, gestural, imitative, technical or social. Nor do other species combine social, technical and linguistic behaviours into a rich, interactive and self-propelling cognitive complex.’ (21)

In the six million years since the human and ape lines first diverged, the behaviour and lifestyles of apes have hardly changed. Human behaviour, relationships, lifestyles and culture clearly have. We have been able to build upon the achievements of previous generations. In just the past century we have brought, through constant innovation, vast improvements to our lives: including better health, longer life expectancy, higher living standards and more sophisticated means of communication and transport.

Six million years of ape evolution may have resulted in the emergence of 39 local behavioural patterns – in tool-use, communication and grooming rituals. However this has not moved them beyond their hand-to-mouth existence nor led to any significant changes in the way they live. Our lives have changed much more in the past decade – in terms of the technology we use, how we communicate with each other, and how we form and sustain personal relationships.

Considering the vast differences in the way we live, it is very difficult to sustain the argument that apes are ‘just like us’. What appears to be behind today’s fashionable view of ape and human equivalence is a denigration of human capacities and human ingenuity. The richness of human experience is trivialised because human experiences are lowered to, and equated with, those of animals.

Dr Roger Fouts from the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute expresses this anti-human view well in his statement. ‘[Human] intelligence has not only moved us away from our bodies, but from our families, communities, and even Earth itself. This may be a big mistake for the survival of our species in the long run.’ (22)

Investigations into apes’ behaviour could shed some useful light on how they resemble us – and give us some insight into our evolutionary past, several million years back. Developing a science true to its subject matter could give us real insights into what shapes ape behaviour.

Stephen Budiansky’s fascinating book If A Lion Could Talk shows how evolutionary ecology (the study of how natural selection has equipped animals to lead the lives they do) is showing us how animals process information in ways that are uniquely their own, much of which we can only marvel at (23). But as Karl Marx pointed out in the late nineteenth century: ‘What distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement.’(24)

Much animal behaviour is fascinating. But, as Budiansky shows, it is also the case that animals do remarkably stupid things in situations very similar to those where they previously seemed to show a degree of intelligence. This is partly because they learn many of their clever feats by pure accident. But it is also because animal learning is highly specialised. Their ability to learn is not a result of general cognitive processes but ‘specialised channels attuned to an animal’s basic hard-wired behaviours’ (23).

It is sloppy simply to apply human characteristics and motives to animals. It blocks our understanding of what is specific about animal behaviour, and degrades what is unique about our humanity.

It is ironic that we, who have something that no other organism has – the ability to evaluate who we are, where we come from and where we are going, and, with that, our place in nature – increasingly seem to use this unique ability in order to downplay the exceptional nature of our own capacities and achievements.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Animals

(1) New Humanist, November 2003

(2) Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, by John Gray, Granta, August 2002

(3) ‘How animals kiss and make up’, BBC News, 13 October 2003; Male birds punish unfaithful females, Animal Sentience, 31 October; Dogs experience stress at Christmas, Animal Sentience, 10 December 2003; Capuchin monkeys demand equal rights, Animal Sentience, 20 September 2003; Scientists prove fish intelligence, 31 August 2003; Birds going through divorce proceedings, Animal Sentience, 18 August 2003; Bees can think say scientists, Guardian, 19 April 2001; Chimpanzees are cultured creatures, Guardian, 24 September 2002

(4) See the Great Ape project website

(5) Intelligence of Apes and Other Rational Beings, by Duane M Rumbaugh and David A Washburn (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

(6) Frans de Waal, Nature, Vol 399, 17 June 1999

(7) Nature, Vol 399, 17 June 1999

(8) Michael Tomasello, ‘Primate Cognition: Introduction to the issue’, Cognitive Science Vol 24 (3) 2000, p358

(9) BG Galef, Human Nature 3, 157-178, 1990

(10) See a detailed review by Andrew Whiten, ‘Primate Culture and Social Learning’, Cognitive Science Vol 24 (3), 2000

(11) Tomasello and Call, Primate Cognition, Oxford University Press, 1997

(12) Peter Singer: Curriculum Vitae

(13) Machiavellian Intelligence: Social Expertise and the Evolution of Intellect in Monkeys, Apes, and Humans, (eds) Andrew Whiten and Richard Byrne, Oxford 1990. Buy this book from
Amazon (USA) or Amazon (UK)

(14) How primates learn novel complex skills: The evolutionary origins of generative planning?, by Richard W Byrne

(15) M Hauser, ‘A primate dictionary?’, Cognitive Science Vol 24(3) 2000

(16) The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science, Steven Mithen, Phoenix, 1998. Buy this book from or Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(17) The Cradle of Thought: exploring the origins of thinking, Peter Hobson, Macmillan, 22 February 2002, p76. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or
Amazon (USA)

(18) Thought and Language, Lev Vygotsky, MIT, 1986

(19) Ape, Primitive Man and Child, Lev Vygotsky, 1991, p140

(20) Children’s Minds, Margaret Donaldson, HarperCollins, 1978, p95

(21) Tools, Language and Cognition in Human Evolution, Kathleen R Gibson, 1993, p7-8

(22) CHCI Frequently Asked Questions: Chimpanzee Facts

(23) If a Lion Could Talk: Animal Intelligence and the Evolution of Consciousness, by Stephen Budiansky. Buy this book from
Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(24) Capital, Karl Marx, vol 1 p198

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