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.