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July 09, 2007

Christie Davies goes to an exhibition in Boston's Museum of Science about the work of the pioneering British scientist Jane Goodall and finds that Americans are far closer to chimpanzees than they believe

Posted by Christie Davies

Discovering Chimpanzees: The Remarkable World of Jane Goodall
Museum of Science, Boston
1st June - 28th August 2007

The exhibition at the Science Museum in Boston is a fitting tribute to Jane Goodall, the deservedly celebrated British scientist, the woman who first observed that chimpanzees in the wild are both meat eaters and not just tool users but tool makers. Vegetarians quailed, those who believed in the uniqueness of homo faber despaired and Marxists quarrelled as to whether a carefully trimmed and shaped stick made to poke into an ant or termite nest counted as a means of production. Indeed they feared lest further inquiries should show that the brighter chimps stockpiled the sticks that they had prepared and lent them out at interest to their less acute brethren.

Rather less insightfully we have been getting a re-run of the old statement that we differ very little from other primates. We share 98.5% of our DNA with chimpanzees, so it is argued that we must be 98.5% chimpanzee. You might just as well say that we are 50% radishes, since we share half our DNA with that flatulent vegetable.

But I digress. The evidence that Jane Goodall went on to collect did show that chimpanzees are remarkably human in many respects. In a film shown in the exhibition about her work we see the chimpanzee Frodo, an "alpha male", a bully who rules by brute force and deposed his own brother to get to the top. Frodo is the model of a Sarf London gang leader or an Italian Renaissance princeling or a university vice-chancellor. What I do find worrying is the way in which journalists have come to use the phrase "alpha male" approvingly to describe such thugs and to imply that this is how things ought to be because that is how nature intended them to be. It is a re-run of General von Bernhardi's arguments in favour of starting World War I.

Indeed perhaps the strongest evidence of truly human qualities in chimpanzees is the war that took place in the Gombe reserve in Tanzania in 1974-77 between the Kasekela chimps and the Kahama chimps which led to the complete annihilation of the latter except for three adolescent females who were taken over as booty. Not only are we not unique as tool makers but we cannot even claim that our penchant for genocide sets us decisively apart from the brute beasts.

Until I learned of this war observed by Goodall, I had assumed that only human beings went in for genocide, for the illuminating reason given by the late Hans J. Eysenck. Eysenck argued that the more primitive part of our brain contained within it a protective instinct, such that when a fight took place, the winner did not pursue and kill a loser who had submitted or run away. Only humans were capable of being murderers, because only they had evolved a more complex brain that enabled them to manipulate symbols in such a way as to override their instinct to limit aggression. Only if you had the capacity to redefine a fellow being as an enemy, a heretic, an organiser of international conspiracies, a kulak or a kafir could you feel justified in not behaving like a brute and failing to restrain yourself from murder. Perhaps chimpanzees have a richer mental life than we have ever imagined.

Chimp experts recently met at the Chicago zoo to discuss how chimpanzees think and in particular their capacity for:

empathy, problem solving and even deception.
Why "even"? In a world of alpha male thugs, war and genocide, deception must be a necessity.

The other human quality that chimpanzees and gorillas seem to share with human beings is a sense of humour. Indeed the world's expert on the subject, Roger Fouts claims that they can use American Sign Language to tell jokes. ASL was designed to make easier communication between deaf and dumb Americans, but it has now been taught to primates, who cannot make the sounds necessary for human speech but who can learn the signs for words and construct simple subject-verb-object sentences. This is why they have been taught English rather than Latin or German. One of Fouts' co-workers was trying to get a stubborn gorilla to eat a proffered banana. The gorilla refused to take it. "Put the banana in your mouth", signalled the human. "Stick the banana up your nose", replied the gorilla.

Such observations are not disturbing to Christians, for they know that human beings are special because God became one of them and in and as that person lived and died. Indeed without this specific belief religion would be worthless nonsense. Humanists, though, find these similarities bothersome. A story is told, for whose truth I cannot vouch, that when Horace Romano Harré, the humanist and hermeneutical social psychologist and Oxford philosopher worked at Fouts' university, he had every day on his way to work to pass the home of a chimpanzee in Fouts' department. The chimpanzee would wave to him in a friendly way because he recognised him and wanted to communicate with him. It is said that Harré found this so disturbing that he changed his route to work to one that was a mile longer to avoid this much too human chimpanzee. In fairness, perhaps Harré simply liked the exercise involved in walking further, something Americans find very difficult to understand.

What Goodall deduces from her research and experiences, and she is entirely right, is that we have a special duty to protect apes such as chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans. I felt this most strongly when watching the orang-utans at a zoo near Washington D.C. working on a computer. They were encouraged to do so with fruit, but this was no mere case of pets doing tricks. They enjoyed their time on the computer and disputed who should be the first to use it. It must warm the heart of every nerd to know that.

In the early 1900s there were probably a million chimpanzees in Africa, today there are only 150,000. Humans are the only species of primate whose numbers are growing. The chimpanzees have lost out because of the destruction of their forests for firewood and agriculture, because proximity means that they catch human diseases such as flu, whooping cough, hepatitis and Ebola, and because they are caught and eaten as "bush meat", even though other more suitable meat is available to the local fressers. Those who have eaten them may have paid a terrible price since the chimpanzees carry the HIV virus which does not seem to harm chimpanzees. It can not be transmitted to humans unless they either eat a chimpanzee or have sex with one. I have no idea what happened but AIDS in humans began in proximity to the chimps' homelands.

The film about Jane Goodall and the chimpanzees shown at the exhibition is a surprise and a delight. It is a surprise because she played herself, both as a young woman and now as an elderly one, and spoke with a very English accent; indeed she even has an English accent when speaking Swahili. The voice-over comment was in American and there had to be a walk-on part for a young American zoologist now working in the Gombe reserve, but the very English Jane Goodall was allowed to be the star, something unheard of in Hollywood.

The film brought across very clearly how the key to her success was her remarkable skill in getting the chimpanzees to trust her so that she could get close up and observe their behaviour in detail. To the great disgust of rival scientists, she gave each of her chimpanzees names, rather than mere numbers, but then that is why she succeeded. Go to the Science Museum in Boston and rejoice in her achievements.

The Boston Science Museum is very un-American in that it presses Darwin's theory of evolution on young children, something that must cause intense anguish to the descendants of William Jennings Bryan, Sockless Jerry Simpson, Pitchfork Ben Tilden and Carrie Nation who still control the great interior of that country and indeed the federal government. Go twenty miles inland and evolution ceases.

Yet the Museum is also an un-European place for it rightly celebrates the immense benefits that genetically modified crops have brought us. In the labs of America plants now manufacture plastic without any help from the petrochemical industry. Blue jeans are dyed with indigo from genetically engineered bacteria, a mode of dying that involves far less pollution and consumption of petrol than earlier methods. From genes to jeans. "Green is the new blue…" as Dylan Thomas would have said on a bad day. The plant is the only judge of what is natural. If an added gene is unsuitable then the plant will not grow or will fail to compete with existing varieties. But Shakespeare put it better when shrewd Polixenes chides rustic Perdita in Winter's Tale (Act 4, Scene 4 ). Let him have the last word:

PERDITA
Sir, the year growing ancient,
Not yet on summer's death, nor on the birth
Of trembling winter, the fairest
flowers o' the season
Are our carnations and streak'd gillyvors,
Which some call nature's bastards: of that kind
Our rustic garden's barren; and I care not
To get slips of them.

POLIXENES
Wherefore, gentle maiden,
Do you neglect them?

PERDITA
For I have heard it said
There is an art which in their piedness shares
With great creating nature.

POLIXENES
Say there be;
Yet nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean: so, over that art
Which you say adds to nature, is an art
That nature makes….
…….this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.

PERDITA
So it is.

POLIXENES
Then make your garden rich in gillyvors,
And do not call them bastards.

PERDITA
I'll not put
The dibble in earth to set one slip of them;

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations, New Brunswick NJ, Transaction, 2002.


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