Me human, you chimp

In a sparkling, erudite polemic, Helene Guldberg demolishes the idea that apes are anything as intelligent or emotional as human beings.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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This article is republished from the August 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

When spiked’s Dr Helene Guldberg began doing the research for what was to become Just Another Ape?, she anticipated that the study and analysis of ape behaviour would shed some light on how humans came to be. After all, we shared a common ancestor just six million years ago – a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. It would surely be plausible, then, to expect to find a nascent form of our human abilities in our primate cousins, a seed, perhaps, of our linguistic capacity, our tool-using potential or our intense sociality.

But such insight into our human present was not forthcoming. ‘Having investigated further’, she writes, ‘I am no longer convinced that the study of apes can help explain much about human behaviour’.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Far from sheding light on the evolution of humanity, the study of apes – whether chimpanzees, bonobos or gorillas – is often used to efface that development. Distinctions are glossed, differences erased, and our uniqueness lost. It seems that the contemporary focus on ape behaviour does not allow us to see how far we have come but how near we still are. Look, run newspaper reports, they mourn like us; they use tools like us; they communicate like us. In fact, they are us! (Give or take a dragged knuckle or two.)

This sentiment is not confined to apes; it is often extended to other animals, too. In the words of the British psychologist Richard Ryder, former chair of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to elevate humans above other species is, ‘like racism or sexism’, little more than ‘a prejudice based upon morally irrelevant physical differences’. This all-too-human discrimination, in the words of philosopher Peter Singer’s hugely influential 1975 book Animal Liberation, is nothing less than ‘species-ism’. ‘This idea’, ran a New York Times editorial from last year, ‘that we have ethical obligations that transcend our species… is one whose time appears to have come’. Indeed. Everywhere one looks these days, the supposed interests of animals are rendered equivalent to humanity’s. Long-held distinctions are increasingly blurred. But in this loss of perspective, in this tendentious drawing close of us and animals, our humanity is diminished and our vast, species-specific achievements are denigrated.

Little wonder that the contemporary obsession with animals often goes hand-in-hand with what Guldberg calls the ‘broader contempt for humanity’. This is evident in the flippancy with which our demise is speculated upon, not to mention hoped for. Upon becoming patron of the Optimum Population Trust in 2009, Sir David Attenborough declared: ‘I’ve never seen a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people, or harder, and ultimately impossible, with more.’ Bestselling author Lionel Shriver went further: ‘If [humans] make a mess of matters and disappear, another form of life will take our place – creatures beautiful, not so self-destructive or simply weird. That’s cheerful news, really.’ Never has callousness towards other humans seemed so at home with a love of other creatures.

While this mood of misanthropy is most definitely abroad, Guldberg is quick to point out that intuitively, experientially, most of us do value humans above animals. We may like pets, but we prefer people. For all the gee-whiz, aren’t animals amazing wildlife documentaries, we know that a cat’s ability to paw a door open, or even a chimpanzee’s dexterity with a stick when digging for termites, is far inferior to what humans have done with the microchip. We also tacitly accept that an animal’s life, in the interests of medical research for instance, is worth less than the human lives that the research might save. This ability to elevate our interests above animals does not make us sadists: it makes us human. However, as Guldberg points out, ‘the problem is that it is considered outrageously arrogant to assert this superiority’.

And that is why this sparkling, erudite polemic is so welcome. Just Another Ape? draws out, not our similarities with our closest animal relative, the ape, but our differences to it. It dwells not on the affinity between a vervet monkey’s set of alarm calls and human language, but on the near-fathomless chasm that divides them. It is what separates us from the animals that is important to Guldberg, not what binds us. Yes, we may share 98 per cent of DNA with chimpanzees, but we also share 70 per cent with yeast. Clearly biology does not exhaust our humanity. We are a bit more than our DNA. As Guldberg argues: ‘Our biology is the precondition for our humanity, but our instincts are transformed into something very different as a result of human consciousness and culture.’ Or as she puts it later in the book: ‘We need to look to cultural evolution, rather than genetic evolution, to explain the vast gulf that exists between the capabilities and achievements of humans and those of apes.’

For Guldberg, it is our culture that sets us apart from other species. That is, humans do not learn merely from those living, but from past generations, too. We do not have to re-invent everything for ourselves, from the wheel upwards – rather, we develop in an already cultivated world, one in which we learn from others and build upon existing achievements. If we are to be animals, then we are cultural animals.

Of course, there are plenty of people willing to dismiss claims made for humanity’s unique cultural ability. Apes can make history, too, primophiliacs claim. Apes accumulate knowledge, they pass on skills, and they acquire behaviours conditioned by their society. They are not simply as nature intended; they are cultivated.

Guldberg’s argument is particularly subtle here. She acknowledges that apes do seem to develop certain society-specific skills. That is, they appear to learn from one another. For instance, in 1999 developmental psychologist Andrew Whiten and colleagues reviewed existing field studies of chimpanzee behaviour and found 39 local traditions – foraging techniques, communications and grooming rituals – that were particular to specific groupings. But does this mean they are learning from others and building on past achievements in the way we understand it?

Drawing a distinction between imitation and emulation, Guldberg argues that while human infants can learn through imitating others – that is, they can grasp both the how and why of certain actions – apes, of whatever sort, tend merely to emulate. They try to reproduce the result without understanding how it was achieved. They can’t grasp the process leading to a behaviour – they can only see the product. That it takes chimps four years to develop a skill like nut-cracking suggests that they are not really learning the how and what of the process; they are simply attempting to emulate a specific behaviour. It is less a case of learning how to do something and more a laborious trial-and-error exercise – for they know not what they do.

That’s why, given the right conditions, all ape behaviour could be invented by a solitary chimp. ‘To say that there is no substantial difference between cultural transmission among apes and humans’, concludes Guldberg, ‘is like saying there is no substantial difference between a glacier and a car – both move from A to B, albeit one a lot slower than the other’.

Whether it is the ability to acquire culture – and in humanity’s case, innovate upon the acquisition – or the capacity to grasp others as intentional beings with motives, interests and rationales, humanity’s distinct capacity for culture separates us, not just from cats and dogs, but from our ape ancestors, too.

That apes can seem to behave like us is not evidence that they are like us. One of the most spectacular examples of such misapprehension comes in Guldberg’s discussion of ‘language and communication’. There she looks at Koko the gorilla, born in San Francisco Children’s Zoo in 1971, but moved to a trailer aged two and brought up like a human child. Koko now has a vocabulary of 1,300 sign-language words. On her thirty-eighth birthday in 2009, Koko reportedly signed three birthday wishes, involving future child prospects, her hopes for the Mauri wildlife preserve and a particularly plaintive one: ‘Koko hopes that people will become aware of the plight of her species before it is too late.’ Which all sounds pretty amazing.

Yet an actual transcript of another ‘conversation’ with Koko tells a different story. In response to a question as to whether she liked to chat with people, Koko responded ‘Fine nipple’. Her language coach Francine Patterson explained: ‘Nipple rhymes with people, she doesn’t sign people per se, she was trying to do a “sounds like”.’ Charades aside, the absence of grammar of even the most primitive kind, and the seeming random generation of words, suggests Koko possesses nothing like a language as we understand it. What there is, however, is a considerable amount of human interpretation when it comes to deciphering what apes are signing. Writing of Koko and her teacher in The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker was dismissive: ‘Patterson in particular has found ways to excuse Koko’s performance on the grounds that the gorilla is fond of puns, jokes, metaphors, and mischievous lies. Generally the stronger the claims made about animal’s abilities, the skimpier the data made available.’

But there is something more to this particular anecdote, something almost moving. The sheer human effort involved in showing that a gorilla is talking – Patterson’s sheer linguistic ingenuity – is not proof of a gorilla’s humanity, but of ours. Guldberg’s brilliant book reminds us why we should always keep this distinction between them and us in mind.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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