Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Collective Learning: Not Just for Chimps

October 1, 2010

I could feel the steam rising through my body, heading right out my ears like in some old TV cartoon. Here was a person discussing how to define and understand unique abilities that arose in human history—but overlooking the magnificent sociality and emotionality of great apes.

We were seated around a seminar table at the Oakley Center on the Williams College campus (see blog post of September 17). The speaker was David Christian of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. David was saying that humans are utterly unique in our abilities: 1) to learn collectively from one another and 2) to live in a collective emotional world. Only at around 200,000 years ago—when we became Homo sapiens—did these abilities come into fruition.

In what no doubt was a tight voice (matched by less-than-relaxed body language!), I asked David after his presentation: What would you need to observe in order to conclude that apes do indeed live in a collection emotional world? “Apes don’t tell stories or narratives to each other,” David replied.

Well, the game’s up right there. True, apes don’t tell stories. Apes don’t talk. Presumably, for apes, narratives are simply not part of their world.

That night, back in my hotel room, I scribbled point after point in support of apes living in a collective emotional world, as expressed in their own non-linguistic ways. Apes’ response to death, apes’ compassion to each other, even apes’ cruelty to each other are all rooted, I believe, in their ability to inhabit each other’s emotions via a complex system of body postures, body gestures, facial expressions, and vocalizations.

My own presentation was scheduled for the next day. I decided to add in some new facts just recently published, facts that bear on the question of ape collective learning. David, I knew, accepted that apes learn from each other; he was suggesting that only humans build on each other’s learned behaviors.

The new data come from Bossou in Guinea, West Africa. The Bossou chimpanzees had been known to suffer injuries derived from snare traps at a lower rate than chimpanzees elsewhere. Now, as Gaku Ohashi and Tetsuro Matsuzawa wrote in the journal Primates, chimpanzees were observed disabling the human-set snares.

This is pretty stunning stuff, especially because the snares are challenging to neutralize and because sometimes more than one chimpanzee approaches and investigates any given snare. How often the apes behave this way and how often they are successful remains to be discovered. What’s clear is that these apes have learned together—perhaps more aptly, are learning together-- how to respond to a historically recent threat (as other chimpanzees have apparently not learned).

The next day (before giving my presentation), I shared a lunch table with David and also Bill Lynn of Williams College. I connected with Bill, an ethicist who studies wolves, immediately. That sometimes happens at these conferences and is always a gift. This time, with Bill, and with Cary Wolfe of Rice University who has written brilliantly about animals, I felt a little high from finding people who care deeply about animals as individuals, as distinct selves. (And I was grateful because those conversations did not produce the above-mentioned steam!)

And then a funny thing happened.

I listened as David explained his views to Bill (who had not heard David’s paper the day before). While I had heard David earlier speaking mostly about boundaries—of our need and ability to draw borders around our species—now I heard instead an argument framed with great emphasis on thresholds. His presentation had struck me as focused on qualitative differences across species, but the more we talked together, the more I heard (and importantly, as that built-up steam began to dissipate, the more I was able to hear) about smaller quantitative shifts as humans evolved from ape-like ancestors.

My differences with David that the day before had felt so stark and fixed became far more pliable and dynamic in conversation. As the day went on, he admitted keen interest in chimpanzees’ qualities of collective response and I admitted keen interest in how, at some point in our prehistory, we humans crossed into new behavioral and emotional (and linguistic) territory.

Speaking for myself (but hoping he would agree), David and I each produced a shift—at least a small one—in the other’s point of view. I still embrace a different set of questions and a different starting point than David does. But still: the dynamic dance strikes again! I learned a lot from talking with David, Bill, and Cary. It’s so much fun when that happens. It’s the very reason we Homo sapiens leave our comfortable routine, squeeze into a winged vehicle that hurtles itself into the sky, and participate in these conferences in the first place.

Information on David Christian:

David Christian

Information on Bill Lynn:

Bill Lynn

Information on Cary Wolfe:

Cary Wolfe


  1. October 1, 2010 10:16 AM EDT
    Wonderful story, Barbara! I like the threshold idea. I observe (as a layperson, far from an expert) a lot of incidences of animals learning from each other, building on what they've learned, and sharing others' emotions. At the same time, I know there's a difference between the communication I can have with my fellow humans and with my non-human friends. The threshold model is a good one for me. It's also one some people I know need to cross! lol
    - Marian Allen
  2. October 3, 2010 7:08 AM EDT
    I spent some time recently talking with our son--who is a philosopher--and during the conversation, he told me that there is at least one philosopher who believes that philosophy is about defining what it means to be human--and excluding everything that isn't. It largely has to do with MIND. In the next few weeks, I'm planning to ask him for some readings about this. It sounds a bit like the threshold concept.
    - Mary Pratt
  3. October 3, 2010 8:38 AM EDT
    Marian, that's exactly it- how do we account for both the amazing similarities, and also the inescapable differences, across species? Mary, I think the exclusion theories in philosophy, or discontinuity theories as we anthropologists call them, can be either threshold theories or what I might call rubicon theories: in the latter case there is a great QUALITATIVE gap between humans and other animals, a divide rather than a threshold. There's a continuum of these theories, and I'm very wary the more scholars move toward qualitative unbridgeable gaps because they tend to be divorced from the data, and more about a priori assumptions. I'd be interested to learn what you come up with as you pursue this question. Assuming your son is at a college, may I ask where?
    - Barbara J. King
  4. October 8, 2010 6:25 AM EDT
    Barbara, he teaches at Marist College in Poughkeepsie--his areas of expertise are aesthetics and ethics, and he has been occasionally teaching bioethics in the science department, where he has asked students to write about the ethics of animal experimentation. (He's been a vegetarian for years.)
    - Mary Pratt
  5. October 21, 2010 12:35 AM EDT
    Professor King,
    I am a student in your Introduction to Biological Anthropology class, and I just wanted to comment on my interest and appreciation of this blog! I completely understand your initial frustration; based on what we have learned in class thus far along with my deep passion for animals, I would have also had problems with David Christian's philosophy. However, you have made the valid point that people should still be open to other's ideas, because they never know what they might learn about their own beliefs. I know that many of my conventional views have been challenged since I started taking this class. Even with all of the experience that you have in the field of anthropology, you have shown me that it is always appropriate and necessary to be open to new point of views in order to have the ability to approach any scientific research from several perspectives, not just one. This is a very good model as I pursue my own research in the field of anthropology!
    Also, could you further explain his emphasis on thresholds versus boundaries?
    -Kelly O'Toole
    - Kelly O'Toole
  6. October 21, 2010 8:33 AM EDT
    Kelly, thank you! I am grateful for your nice words. Yes, I spent some time thinking about David's thresholds versus boundaries. As I envision it, a boundary is more of a definite dividing line with a GAP that might be quite pronounced, for example, the idea that language/linguistics skills are a boundary between chimpanzees and humans implies a big GAP between the two communication systems. By contrast, with a threshold, the chimpanzee communication system might be quite complex with a quite small difference between it and the original human linguistic system, with there being a kind of tipping point that pushes an ape-like system over into a human-like one. Here it's more of a continuity model and less of a dichotomous model. I should make clear that this is my interpretation and I'd like to have David's explicit confirmation at some point.
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.