Thursday, September 05, 2013

Kissing Cousins

Kanzi, his Language Board and Susan

One of the most interesting relationships that humans have with the world they live in is the one we have with our nearest biological kin. In this case our Chimpanzee and Bonobo relatives. What is particularly interesting is the human desire to deny, downplay and frankly ignore the relationship. It appears that Bonobos and Chimpanzees are the embarrassing cousins that we don’t want to be reminded exist.

The bottom line is that genetically we are closely related to both Bonobos and Chimpanzees. In fact until recently Bonobos were considered to be simply a different type of Chimpanzee. More recent studies have indicated that they are distinct from the classic Chimpanzee.1 what genetic studies have indicated is that humans, (Homo sapiens, sapiens), share c. 98% of the same genes with Chimpanzees and the same with Bonobos. That is to put it bluntly a pretty close relationship. It appears that the last common ancestor to Humans and Chimpanzees and Bonobos lived c. 7-6 million years ago; which in the long history of life on earth is not that long ago.2

Of course none of this genetic evidence to say nothing of paleontology etc., has made the slightest difference to Creationists who regard the idea of Humans having evolutionary developed from an animal much like the common Chimpanzee to be anathema. In their minds the distinction between Human and non-Human is an unbridgeable chasm. They postulate the existence of personal unique souls for each human being, and of course animals do not have one. This is combined with intellectual traditions that define things in terms of binary oppositions between “Human” and “Animal”. Thus negative, destructive traits are given to “nature” to the “Animal”, as a binary opposition to “Human” “Humane” and civilized values. In this scheme of organizing reality the idea that man’s ancestor could have been one of those “Animals” is unthinkable and in effect blasphemous.3

For in this view God created man in “his own image”, in contra distinction to the rest of living creation which was created by God via fiat. Man is special by reason of being “Godlike” and saying that he is the descendant of “Animals” is to declare that man is also an “Animal”.

And again it should be noted that “Animal” is associated with many negative values in much of human culture. More especially it is associated with the lack of civilized restraint and indulging in emotional and other forms of excess. Thus we use phrases like “Animal passions”, and talk about the cruelty of nature. Metaphors from the world of nature are used to illustrate or define negative traits. Thus we get, “eats like a pig”. “Bird brained”, “wolf like” and so on and so forth.

The negativity is part of the ideology that elevates man above nature and as separate from nature. Thus man is created in the image of God unlike the rest of nature. Any belief that man is the descendant of a creature that was also the ancestor of creatures defined as “Animals” undermines the notion of man’s special place in the universe.

For when Humans were defined as God fashioned, what was also fashioned was the idea of nature and the animals in it as the other. In them were all the brutal, cruel and uncivilized aspects of the world that man lived in. Thus “Animals” were described as “lawless”, “passionate” “lustful”, “brutal”, gluttonous” etc. It was the task of Humans to rise above their “Animal” passions and become like God, and in so doing reject the “other” “Animal” nature of the world.

Of course even before evolutionary theory came into existence the mere fact that creatures like Chimpanzee and Bonobos existed created problems for those who believed in the unique, God-given specialness of Human beings.4

In the 19th century as greater and greater knowledge of Gorillas, Chimpanzees and Orangutans spread many were disconcerted by the fact that they resembled men so closely.  Thus the “animal” nature of these animals was asserted again and again.

In fact one of the characteristics of the study of these animals was to exaggerate the differences to portray men as uniquely different from these animals. Of course certain fundamentalists out and out deny any link at all. Thus researchers concentrated on the various skeletal / locomotion differences ignoring the similarities.

For example the fact that humans are bipedal, walk on two legs, as against the fact that Chimpanzees, for example, are knuckle walkers was heavily emphasized. So was the different proportions in terms of bone length, size etc., in order to describe and still hold that humans were / are fundamentally different from Chimpanzees and the other great Apes.5

Of course the bottom line is that humans are simply another species of Great Ape. The differences between Apes and Humans are not huge, and on a genetic level they are basically small. Humans do not look like any of the Great Apes exactly but we certainly have similarities to them and frankly the various Great Ape species do not look like each other. So why it is surprising that Humans, if we are so close genetically should look like them, is a bit of a mystery.

Since except in the most backward creationist groupings it is generally accepted that man is basically another great ape. The battle to make Humans fundamentally different from them and hence not “animal” has moved to another level of argumentation. This one concentrates on the brain.

It is basically arguing that the Human and Ape animal brain are fundamentally different. That in the human mind has a fundamentally different, unique property that makes it qualitatively different from the Ape animal brain. In fact this basically dressing up in modern scientific garb the argument that men have souls and animals do not. It also goes back to Cartesian dualism of the mind and body which was again an attempt to raise man above the rest of creation.6

In this conception of man, only man really has “mind” all other animals are basically organic machines and do not in fact experience pain etc. Animals may simulate, human emotional states or states that can be interpreted as emotional states, like pain, suffering, fear etc., but in fact those are nothing more than simulations of those states and the animal in question lack the “mind” to truly really experience those subjective states.

That this view flatters humanity with another dose of supposed specialness is obvious. It also goes against common sense and much everyday experience, as anyone who as seen, say a deer die can understand. But again the notion flatters human notions of specialness.
One of the most common ways of flattering human specialness is the assertion that intelligence as only arisen once on the Earth. This is patent nonsense. If the assertion is that men are the most intelligent species on the planet that is likely true, but the argument that humans are the only intelligent species is simply a falsehood.

And it is not simply that there are, aside from man, five other species of Great Ape, to which the description “intelligent” applies. There are other species to which in all fairness the description “intelligent” applies. It appears that Dolphins are intelligent and so are many of the great whales. Elephants are apparently pretty bright, and to finish off there are species of Parrot and Octopi. Of course not all of those species are equal in intelligence and none of them is probably equal to human intelligence. Still describing them has “intelligent” is probably accurate. So it appears to be the case that intelligence has indeed arisen more than once on Earth. What has arisen only once on Earth is not intelligence but technological culture and civilization.

It is man’s possession of technology that gives him dominion over the earth not simply his intelligence.

But the game of asserting that humans are genetically and biologically unique continues. One of the last strongholds of this view is that certain human cultural / biological attributes make humans fundamentally different from non-humans.

Thus it is asserted that the human possession of language makes humans unique and different from other animals. Thus in the 1970’s when research projects tried to teach ASL (American Sign Language), to Chimpanzees there were a lot of nay saying and eventually the research was discredited on the grounds a lot of it, if not all of it was a combination of the “Clever Hans” effect and begging behaviour. It turned out that the demise of these studies was premature. That however flawed these pioneering studies it appears that they were on to something. More recent research has indicated at the very least language like abilities in Apes. The tests for example on Kanzi, a Bonobo ape, would if done with a human child be accepted as indicating some language understanding.7

However the response of the naysayers, whose wish to preserve human uniqueness and the concept of a distinct human “mind” has been to so define things that it probably going to be impossible to define and do an experiment that if it got positive results would be said to “prove” that a non-human animal understands language on any level. In effect they have raised the bar so high that “proof” is impossible.

And of course if that is the case with language studies with great apes the studies of language comprehension with other animals will be subject to the same high bar.

Thus the studies of Alex, the African Grey Parrot, will be dismissed or semantically defined in such a way as to forever preclude proof of understanding language.8

In such ways does the continued effort to separate man from other animals continues along with the desire to give man a separate special creation.

I suspect that these are little more than efforts to stem the tide of knowledge. For it appears to be the case that what is obvious is true; that the difference between man and other animals, especially his nearest kin the great apes, is not qualitative but quantitative. In other words we have what other Apes have only in some cases more of it.

Perhaps one day will accept that our cousins are indeed our cousins.

1. Bonobo, Wikipedia Here.

2. IBID, Common Chimpanzee, Wikipedia Here.

3. Kitcher, Philip, Abusing Science, The MIT Press, Cambridge MASS, 1982, pp. 186-202, Plavcan, Michael J., The Invisible Bible, in Editors, Petto, Andrew J., & Goidfrey, Laurie R., Scientists Confront Creationism, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007, pp. 361-380.

4. See To Show an Ape, & Bound by the Great Chain, in Gould, Stephen Jay, The Flamingo’s Smile, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1985, pp. 263-280,281-290.

5. The great Apes are Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas, Orangutans and Gibbons.

6. Savage-Rumbaugh, Shanker, Stuart G., Taylor, Talbot J., Apes Language and the Human Mind, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, pp. 77-138.

7. IBID, pp. 3-76. For Elephant intelligence see Elephant cognition, Wikipedia Here,. For Dolphins see Cetacean intelligence, Wikipedia Here. For Octopi see Cephalopod intelligence, Wikipedia Here. For Parrots see Footnote 8.

8. IBID, pp. 139-180. For a brief overview of Alex see Alex (Parrot), Wikipedia Here, and Metz, Rachel, Parrot Proves it’s no Birdbrain, Wired, July 20, 2005, Here.

Pierre Cloutier 

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