Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Are We “Over-Connected” to Chimpanzees?

August 5, 2011

For almost two months now, a comment made by the science writer Jon Cohen has been rattling around in my brain. Interviewed for an article about the film Rise of the Planet of the Apes- opening today- by USA Today's Dan Vergano, Cohen made a provocative observation.

Noting that the movie’s hyper-intelligent chimpanzee is made into the equivalent of a smart person, he said this of chimpanzees: “We like to pretend they are the same as us, but they are a different animal. Give a drug to make a smarter chimp and you would have an animal that would be really great at being a chimp. It wouldn’t be a human.”

Okay, that makes good sense; as an anthropologist, I see that it’s poor science to conflate two distinct creatures, because doing so causes us to miss out on the elegantly unique nature of each.

So that’s not the provocative part.

People who debate evolution often invoke chimpanzees in one way or another, Cohen pointed out. He then commented that this practice “has led us to over-connect ourselves to these distinct species.” After all, chimpanzees don’t teach things to each other. They “can’t run. They can’t swim. They don’t cook. Their fathers don’t know their children. It’s not that they don’t know how, they just can’t. They aren’t human.”

To read Cohen’s words in full context, click here:


Now, that’s the provocative part, or so it seems to me. There’s evidence for all kinds of social information exchange in chimpanzees, even if the methods of direct teaching that we humans favor are rarely exhibited. And sure, we each have our own patterns of adaptation. It would be just as accurate to say something like this: “Humans can’t brachiate swiftly through the forest. They need to expend valuable energy in cooking their food instead of assembling a highly nutritious diet of raw foods. They just can’t. They aren’t chimpanzees.”

Then again, Cohen often provokes me. In his book Almost Chimpanzee, some passages, especially those on ape language, made me wince in frustration at how much complexity he was missing. “Granted,” he writes, “apes can be taught to use and recognize words and symbols, even to utter a few words. But as [Steven] Pinker said, they just don’t get it.”

For now, though, I’m stuck on “over-connection.” In this blog and in much of my work, I have stressed the beauty, and indeed the scientific validity, of a sense of connection to our closest living relatives, the great apes. Have I succumbed to an inappropriate “over-connection”?

Maybe I can blog a bit more about this later. (Today is one of two days in August with a big “!!!” on the family calendar, with major events underway.) Towards that end, I’d like to issue a challenge: Can we get a good solid mix of different views on Cohen’s comment, maybe 15-20 responses here, in order to hold a good discussion?

Among the questions to ponder (and add your own): How might we step back and recognize a tendency to “over-connect” with chimpanzees and other great apes? In what cases—in the real world, not Hollywood—might we project too much of ourselves onto them (and vice versa), to the harm of these other species and to our understanding of them? Conversely, could what Cohen sees as “over-connection” be rooted in a less-than-clear view of the true similarities we share with chimpanzees- not running, swimming, cooking, or even how we parent, but in some very significant emotional and cognitive arenas? And isn’t it “over-connection” only if we go way too far and make chimpanzees and humans the same, which strikes me as very different from recognizing our cognitive and emotional similarities?

Please have your say. See you next week.


  1. August 5, 2011 7:16 AM EDT
    I've never spent time with a chimpanzee, or any other non-human primate. But when I look into the eyes of the dog, or one of the cats who live with us, and really pay attention, I know both that we are not the same and that in a deeper sense, we are the same--not-connected and yet connected. We're trying to survive, to find food and warmth and, yes, affection. To a great extent, we understand one another's body language, which makes sense to me, given the economy of evolution. I am not a cat or a dog, and cannot know what it is like to be one, but I am a mammal, as they are. I can only imagine what connecting with our closer evolutionary relatives might be like. 'Making chimpanzees and humans the same" may not be "over-connection," but under-connection, since it means not comprehending and respecting the differences. (I think the same holds for our attempts to make other HUMANS the same!)
    - Mary Pratt
  2. August 5, 2011 9:41 AM EDT
    Yesterday I was watching a Nature video-podcast that brought up a great point that had slipped my mind over the last couple years: if we were to classify primates according to the same species concepts that we apply to most types of life, chimps and humans would easily be considered part of the same genus (ie, Homo). While I'm unsure of the direct bearing this has on the culture-specific discussion you're cultivating above, Barbara, I thought it was a humbling point about how we do science and how we try to distinguish ourselves from other animals. Hopefully it was also worth bringing up!
    - Neil Zaki
  3. August 5, 2011 11:31 AM EDT
    I think it's a pendulum swing from half-a-century of Jane Goodall, bless her heart.
    - Jon Marks
  4. August 5, 2011 11:40 AM EDT
    We are over-connected to chimpanzees in the sense that many foolish people believe they are "just like" furry humans. They aren't and that is one of many things that is wrong, even wicked, about keeping chimps as pets or raising them as humans. Chimps are very very good at chimp things, as you observe Barbara, and people are not. They are magnificently chimp-y. If by "over-connected" Cohen means those who truly understand and know chimps are being sentimental, he is dead wrong. I know a lot of chimp researchers and I don't think they are projecting onto the animals they study; they are, instead, more adept at "speaking chimp" (reading what is going on) than untrained observers. I believe very strongly that all animals should be accorded dignity and respect for their place in the world, even the ones I personally detest, like ticks and leeches. But that dignity and respect means understanding and appreciating our differences and being APPROPRIATELY connected.
    - Pat Shipman
  5. August 5, 2011 12:16 PM EDT
    It takes a special person to empathize with chimpanzees. Jon Cohen is clearly not one of them. Understanding chimpanzees (and humans) can be complicated (especially for humans) and I'm sure there are plenty of humans who agree with Cohen's assessment of our closest living relative.
    - Sian Evans
  6. August 5, 2011 2:11 PM EDT
    I agree, Barbara, that a provocative part is the way he chooses to frame his thoughts/evidence regarding our tendency to "overconnect". I try to check myself from immediately attacking little things in his writing, because I'm aware of my sensitivity about his prior assessments of ape language abilities, which I truly feel lack nuanced understanding to the point of inaccuracy (even as I acknowledge great limitations in ape language research). However, Cohen often opts for phrasings such as “they just don’t get it”, and any superior abilities he might accord to chimps are limited to nonthreatening things like climbing trees. His tone consistently belies a persuasion that chimpanzees remain just a few, insurmountable rungs down a culture/cognition ladder from humans. This perspective is unfortunate, and I feel it’s related to a pattern in his writing: he operates under the assumption of fundamental, essential ape and human natures.

    For example, although I appreciate the sentiment behind his statement, “Give a drug to make a smarter chimp and you would have an animal that would be really great at being a chimp. It wouldn’t be a human.”, this says to me :chimps are this, they have a fixed nature, and no matter what experiences they have in life, they will always be just a chimp. Furthermore, giving them a drug will affect them the same way. All chimps react the same way. They are chimps. A corollary to that is the idea that humans have a fixed nature with fixed abilities and ways of being. In reality, one of the biggest similarities between human and nonhuman apes is actually the huge role that our lived, cultural experiences play in what, who we become. Many of the ideas about what “humans” versus nonhuman apes do are really based upon what nonhuman apes do versus what Western European or Americans do. Our ideas about what apes can do are often rooted in our own, ethnocentric ideas about what defines a human.

    Like you, I don't believe we're the same. I have spent many hours with orangutans and bonobos and a few with gorillas, and I see many differences. When I work with orangs and bonobos, I see things I’m much more competent at, and things they do much better. There are critical parts of me I can never share with them. And vise versa, I might guess. I feel baffled by behaviors that don’t make sense to me, and they get frustrated because I don’t get what they’re trying to communicate. We are so different that we can spend hours, minutes trying to figure out what the other wants, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. But every day I’m with them, I try, and they try. The outcome matters to both of us. We have a give and take. Being able to interact effectively, ethically, and meaningfully with the apes I know has required me to draw on all the skills I have cultivated as a human interacting with other humans over my lifetime-how interesting.

    I can think of so many ways in which our failure to appreciate the complex (and similar) emotional lives of great apes has contributed to their suffering, for example by housing them in impoverished captive environments. I also recognize that a tendency by some to see a baby ape as simply a hairy human child leads to people keeping apes as child-pets, a situation that has lead to tragedy more than once. This type of tragedy, however, does not flow inevitably from recognizing, and connecting with, nonhuman great apes.

    Apes and humans share incredible biological flexibility. Research often tells more about how humans ask questions than about how nonhuman apes develop and behave or what they are capable of. I do feel that so many things-from social lives to brain development-belong at least in part to that middle chunk of the human/nonhuman ape Venn diagram that it's healthy, productive, and great science to assess and investigate our many cognitive and emotional similarities.
    - Stephanie Perkins
  7. August 5, 2011 2:20 PM EDT
    Taking a break (eldercare move day!) at Starbuck's, so happy to see all these comments so far. Will stay silent for a bit, though I'm tweeting the link to generate more action; back with everyone later on.
    - Barbara J. King
  8. August 5, 2011 4:03 PM EDT
    Interesting discussion. I like the drug quote and have published something similar myself. Koalas are the best at being koalas, and we would fail miserably on a diet of gum leaves. But the real point is what on earth "overconnected" could imply. Is there a right amount of connectedness? What for? I have been a disconnected consumer of the wonderful work of others here, and my view is severely not about individual animals. I am interested in work with primates for what I can learn about humans (not being good at learning from other humans!). But I am always aware that most of the lessons must avoid the issue of projection onto the animals. And I am aware too that the question I am asking is not about the two species in the present day but about constructing evolutionary models. And then we come up against some of the peculiar attitudes to evolution that I need not bore your American readership with. It is arguable that the whole "are you descended from a chimpanzee on your mother's side or your father's side" thing is behind both the perception of over-connection, and the inability of the stupid masses to come to terms with what evolution is all about.
    - Iain Davidson
  9. August 5, 2011 5:01 PM EDT
    Got no idea who Jon Cohen is, but it's always a shame when anyone gets lots of public attention -- making thoughtful folks like Barbara feel nearly obliged to respond -- despite publishing such wholly ambiguous word-concepts as humans "over-connecting" with chimpanzees (um, could you say something actually meaningful, please?) & lame, empty statements like "they just don't get it" (er... excuse me? get what, exactly? Do Teapers "get it?" Frackers? Persons lacking a sense of direction?... sorry, just not following...).

    It's, of course, a classic bit of chalatanry to use each of two opposing sides to an argument to vex or confound one's opponents in debate -- if Cohen wishes to lean heaviest on the view that we're DIFFERENT, then, as BJK said (a) chimp things we do not "get" are every bit as (trivially) significant to underscore in this context as the *Homo* things that chimps may appear not to "get;" but also, and more importantly (b) the burden would remain then with the charlatan to (somehow) otherwise explain our pervasive similarities with chimps, from the molecular to the population levels.

    Of course, he would likely next say, "You miss my point." And, had I the requisite patience, I might simply say, "Not really... Your primary point is obviously to grand-stand and maximize the attention you can garner for yourself, no matter how much you may need to double-talk & misrepresent facts."

    There's obviously no "over-connecting" in documenting that, among the myriad things that chimpanzees but few other animals share with us, include thinking into the future, reciprocating social acts -- positive or negative -- after appreciable time delays, preferentially attacking *close kin* and *friends* of recent fight opponents as pay-back, exchanging kindnesses of different media, shifting alliances to new partners to balance better newly-achieved power by an individual, and becoming clinically depressed, sometimes lethally so, upon the passing of close kin, while also noting that these same creatures also uniquely share with us an overwhelmingly large majority of DNA and, most important, functional proteins deriving from same.

    If Cohen were interested to "play fair," given his purported view, he'd welcome what our colleague Frans de Waal emphasized, some 20 years ago now -- that the NULL hypothesis most appropriately requiring rejection in meaningful research on *chimpanzees* is not that we are the same (unless we can demonstrate a difference), but that we are different (unless we can never manage to substantiate that).

    But, you know how it goes... the charlatan would next assert that he meant "over-connecting" only in the way that many people "over-connect" to their pets snails in the aquarium!

    You just can't quite ever succeed in pinning most charlatans down, but they love it when they succeed in attracting you to try too often... providing precisely the amount & level of attention that they had hoped to evoke.
    - Michael E. Pereira
  10. August 5, 2011 7:32 PM EDT
    Mary: I like your notion of under-connection. I've been discussing (in print) with Gay Bradshaw why I am uneasy about her direct equation of elephant suffering (which is very real) with human suffering during the Holocaust. To me, it seems that elephant suffering is real on its own terms, and that (as I now see it) endeavoring to equate two different natural systems of emotion is a form of under-connection because we don't see that elephants' emotions are valid in their own right. (Bradshaw would vehemently disagree, and I admire her work for animals as well as her passion.)

    Neil: Yes, it does bear noting that apes and humans are so similar as to merit the same generic nomenclature. It's again that the-same not-the-same-seesaw, I think- "same enough" to be grouped together, "different enough" to be, well, very different in some ways. The key is in that balance.

    Jon: A question of clarification, you're saying that Goodall was way over-connected with chimpanzees, to the detriment of her proferred conclusions?

    Pat: Nice to see you here, and I like especially your point about inappropriate over-connection leading to the keeping of primates as pets, an entirely terrible practice. Sometimes I think ape researchers do contribute to the conclusion Jon Cohen reaches, as when bonobos are made to be co-authors on a scientific paper, but in the main I agree that empathetic intuitive ape researchers are skilled at seeing what IS THERE and needs attention.

    Sian:... and following on from the above, yes, it takes time, years and years and years in my view, of BEING WITH apes to see what is going on. Steven Pinker once said "it isn't science if you have to be there," about ape language. But the type of science I most favor, dynamic-systems models, embraces the scientist's participation IN the system - so that the best scientists come to learn and see by spending time with other animals.

    Stephanie! Great points, and they follow on from what I just wrote, or rather, I should say, resonate with them. (I am reading/answering each comment sequentially.) Also I think you exactly nailed it with this sentence: "In reality, one of the biggest similarities between human and nonhuman apes is actually the huge role that our lived, cultural experiences play in what, who we become."

    Iain: Excellent question, how much connection is too much connection and what could that mean? And I do think the evolutionary modeling is a big part of the issue in society at large (obviously not with Jon Cohen's perspective, as he's a scientist). In other words, yes, some people FEAR that connection for a variety of reasons.

    Michael: As someone who is engaged in a big project on animal grief (e.g., understanding how apes and other animals express emotions around death), I appreciate your points-of-connection list. I'm very uneasy with the word "charlatan", however. Jon Cohen is a respected science reporter whose work I read not because I feel that I need to respond, and I don't worry about giving him extra attention- he already has a lot- in fact I like to read different points of view and learn what I can from them.

    - Barbara J. King
  11. August 6, 2011 10:44 AM EDT
    This is a provocative question, one that I’ve been trying to deal with for the last six months that I’ve been writing my blog at With a father who beat us kids AND the chimpanzees at the Detroit Zoo, I can see so many similarities between the human and the chimpanzee reactions and results. Dad pummels my brother and Tarzan, and both respond with the “freeze” component of the fight-flee-freeze response options. Dad hits Jo Mendi II and me? We both select the fight options. And then there is the PTSD that my father and research chimpanzees shared. I could go on and on (as I do in the blog ;-)…

    But I also have to constantly stand on guard against carrying it too far. As other posters stated so eloquently, the great apes and humans are both magnificent and vulnerable in our own unique ways.

    To return to your question, are we over-connected? I have to come down on the “we are not over-connecting” side. We share too much. We ignore those connections at our (and their) peril.
    - Dawn Forsythe
  12. August 6, 2011 1:42 PM EDT
    I'm commenting before reading any others. ... The only "study" I've done with Chimps is in the form of being a Zoo Visitor and watching the same group of four Chimps an avgerage of 3 times a week. The Chimps in this group consist of a male who at one time had his own TV Show, and a female who was the companion of an elderly lady, who dressed her up and had tea parties. Tallulah is the most human because of how she lived. She still loves to wrap herself in blankets. All four are in their 50s and have lived at the Zoo since the 60s. They are smart! Now whether you want to debate if they are human smart is another thing. I prefer to think most animals are smarter than humans, in the ways that they need to be. They have their own ways of teaching and communicating in the ways to suit their needs. Do these Zoo friends understand human language that is spoken to them? YES they do! Since I'm not a scientific contributor,, I will lastly say, not all humans can swim or cook!
    - Kim Forwood
  13. August 6, 2011 2:01 PM EDT
    Dawn: Thank you for joining in, and for alerting my readers to your blog, which I highly recommend. I was particularly caught by your PTSD example, which is on my mind still after reading, a few months back, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, which I recommend to anyone and everyone (by Andrew Westoll, absolutely riveting).

    Kim: You may not be, as you put it, "a scientific contributor" but this sentence totally hits at the heart of good evolutionary thinking: Animals "have their own ways of teaching and communicating in the ways to suit their needs." This is, I think, why the writer/activist Marc Bekoff refuses to put up with language such as "higher" and "lower" animals. As I've noted, I agree with Jon Cohen that we need to understand that humans and chimpanzees are not the same, because (as I also mentioned in the blog) I'd be a poor anthropologist otherwise. So: As you say (and I agree) some animals including zoo chimpanzees understand aspects of our language (REALLY understand!). There has to be an evolutionary reason for this, rooted in the complexity of their own communication systems - both in terms of production and comprehension. We wouldn't expect them to "have language" exactly as we do, in any case, so we need to listen and look very carefully to what they do when with us, and what they do spontaneously and naturally when together.
    - Barbara J. King
  14. August 6, 2011 2:15 PM EDT

    Perhaps the proper term is not "connectedness" but "identification". Over-identification leads to people who believe, for example, they really can run with wild wolves. I mean, they CAN, but for how long depends on how hungry the wolves are.

    As for chimps being incapable of this or that, the fact that chimps in captivity learn to behave differently than chimps in the wild doesn't demonstrate, to me, that the behavior of captive chimps isn't "real" chimp behavior; it demonstrates that "real" chimp behavior changes -- evolves -- as appropriate.

    And the fact that animals, including humans, TRY to understand and communicate with each other is more important than the success or lack of success of the process. If there is no real connection between us, why would we even try?
    - Marian Allen
  15. August 7, 2011 10:43 AM EDT
    Thanks for clarifying & my apologies to Cohen & your audience. Given how few scientists speak/write often & clearly to the public, we certainly need all respected science reporters we can get & to encourage their work. I also agree whole-heartedly that one should strive to learn something from everyone, regardless of concordance of views. Glad, at least, to have admitted up front that I knew nothing about JC. In a foul mood, I obviously assumed his "over-connection" claim had been intended to be provocative, much as I felt Stephen Budiansky must have been in claiming in some piece, a while back, that chimpanzees,after all, may simply be looking by *chance* in the direction of mirrors in self-awareness experiments while investigating body parts otherwise not visible to them! Good to be in touch again a bit, after, what?... nearly 20 years?
    - Michael E. Pereira
  16. August 8, 2011 9:39 AM EDT
    Marian: Ah! I like the substitution of "identification" for "connection"- thank you for that point.

    Michael: Thank you as well for the good note. I absolutely understand the sense of frustration at times (I had an exchange with Stephen Budiansky in print once...) Hey, yes, it's good to be in touch- do I understand correctly that you're in Peru full time?
    - Barbara J. King
  17. August 8, 2011 10:59 AM EDT
    Yes, I think Goodall humanized the Gombe chimps, and I think she is indirectly responsible for putting the idea into the heads of morons that having a pet chimp would be really neat. This is not meant to disparage either her work or her conservation efforts.
    - Jon Marks
  18. August 12, 2011 12:58 PM EDT
    With respect to Dr Marks, people were keeping chimps as pets long before Jane Goodall went to Gombe. I'm a baby boomer, and one of my first Golden books was Zippy the Chimp's Birthday Party, featuring a performing chimp. TV and circuses probably bear much more responsibility.
    Perhaps if scientists focused more on the differences between us rather than the similarities, and made John Q Public aware of how amazing those differences are, we could achieve a more balanced view of connectedness. I'm paraphrasing Dr. Marks, I think, when I tell people, "after all, we share 25% of our DNA with daffodils".
    Bekoff is correct in trying to get folks to see that we are connected (and therefore share the fate of) all living things. Those who study reptiles, parasites and slime molds would love to have the problem of overconnection!
    - Melanie Bond
  19. August 12, 2011 1:39 PM EDT
    Melanie, I agree that TV and certain kinds of books and circuses -- the "animals as entertainment industry"-- bear more responsiblity than Jane Goodall for pet-hunger when it comes to apes. As for scientists and difference, I still see such a tendency for the study of difference and of human uniqueness to become the study of human superiority. I'm just reviewing (for the TLS) Michael Corballis's lastest book (THE RECURSIVE MIND) which is an excellent example. As for Marc B., I've been corresponding with him and couldn't possibly be more impressed by him --both as a person and a scientist!
    - Barbara J. King
  20. August 17, 2011 5:05 PM EDT

    Thanks so much for sparking this discussion, and I think it might help if I clarify a few points. I of course see the remarkable similarities between humans and other great apes, and I, too, feel a unique kinship to chimpanzee and bonobos in particular. That said, I think (as I explain at length in my book, Almost Chimpanzee) that we have exaggerated the similarities. The exaggerations include:

    * confusion about our different reactions to diseases: the misguided notion that chimps do not get AIDS because HIV does not typically harm them comes from the fundamental oversight that this version of the virus had adapted to us, not them
    * mixing up distinctions between language and communication
    * oversimplifying genetics: there is no "language" gene and the differences between chimp and human genomes is five times greater than the 1% often invoked
    * profound and under appreciated anatomical differences: the fact that chimps cannot swim means they cannot cross rivers, which influences the limited food and pathogens they encounter, the evolution of their immune systems, and the other species they interact with

    These sorts of exaggerations contribute to the fiction that we could give chimpanzees a drug that would make them more humanlike. They are different from humans in myriad ways, and the delusion that we are the same but for a gene here or there is convenient for Hollywoo--and far from reality.

    By over-connected, I mean that we should not be surprised when a chimpanzee rips off the face of a human. It's a chimpanzee. Much as we should protect and care about chimpanzees, I blanch at court cases like the one for Hiasl that tried to grant him personhood. We also frequently invoke chimpanzees as an explanation for our own behavior without factoring in the behavior of bonobos, which are equidistant from humans.

    As for Goodall, she has helped elucidate many aspects of wild chimpanzees that were unrecognized or not formally documented. And as an animal conservationist, few have had more impact. That said, again, as I document in my book, she at times overconnects us to chimps to further her conservation agenda (she frequently has told the story of a man who rescued a drowning chimp at a zoo because he looked into his eyes and it was like "looking into the eyes of a man"...a fictional retelling of what happened).

    I suspect you and I differ on language because of definition. I understand the argument that language is a continuum that moves from grunts to grammar, but my own conclusion is there is a sharp dividing line between communication and the language used by humans. Let me put a fine point on it: Humans have a huge vocabulary, on the order of tens of thousands of words by the time we are teenagers, that we use with a set of rules (grammar) to create complex sentences and paragraphs, which often embed ideas (recursion). No other species does that. When Pinker said that chimps and other apes in language experiments just don't get it, that was his point. They can learn words and they can understand many things that we say. But they do not compare to a 3-year-old human child in their abilities.

    I'm amused by some of the animosity directed at me in this blog for airing these ideas. I think it speaks to a widespread discomfort about drawing dividing lines between species, and yet these are distinctions that every cognizant youngster, chimp or human, recognizes immediately.


    - Jon Cohen
  21. August 17, 2011 10:13 PM EDT
    Jon, thanks so much for writing in. I'm going to let your comments sink in, and then think them over for a few days. I've just been reading and reviewing Michael Corballis's book, so dwelling a lot on recursion and what counts as recursion and what doesn't. I definitely see MENTAL recursion in chimpanzees (Corballis's focus), have thought a bit less so far about the question of comparative LINGUISTIC recursion. Meanwhile, I hope when you mention "animosity in the blog," you don't see any in my post itself. The whole idea of it was to take our differences seriously and explore them through questions.
    - Barbara J. King
  22. August 18, 2011 3:08 PM EDT
    No, I was not referring to any animosity from you. I was reacting to the charges that I was a charlatan grandstander (which I see that writer later recanted), not "special" enough to empathize with chimpanzee, and "inaccurate" without any specific examples of errors (a common way that readers unfairly disparage writers who anger them). I enjoy criticism and debate. On the whole, I'm glad to absorb a few low blows by people who, more often than not, have not read my book or have their own unstated conflicts of interest: There's a sharply critical review of my book, for example, by a grad student in ape language research who uses a pseudonym and refuses to identify himself and his own line of work despite my repeated requests.

    I do not, as one writer asserts, believe that we are a few rungs above chimps on some evolutionary ladder, which, again, I emphasize repeatedly in my book. Nor do I solely accord chimps superiority ability in "nonthreatening" things like climbing trees: I go to some lengths to describe experiments that show chimps outperforming humans in short term memory tests. I also fully agree that all apes have great biological flexibility, and our environments have a huge impact on our behavior and health. And I would be aghast if anyone took from my arguments the idea that accurately assessing both similarities and differences will lead to cruelty toward either captive or wild apes.

    But flexible and similar as we are, there are fixed differences. We separated from a common ancestor with chimpanzees at least 5 million years ago. Evolution creates a great deal of diversity after millions of years, both by chance mutation and positive and negative selection. My overall point is that many people who emphasize the very profound similarities between us and our closest relatives ignore or downplay the very profound differences. They are two sides of the same coin, and I do believe there are sharp boundaries between us and them that, ultimately, clarify the important similarities.

    - Jon Cohen

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.