Man is more than a beast

The primatologist Frans de Waal says we should get in touch with 'our inner ape'. Speak for yourself.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Science & Tech

These were the parting words of Frans de Waal, one of the world’s foremost primatologists, when we met to discuss his new book Our Inner Ape: The Past and Future of Human Nature: ‘I hope you don’t portray me as pessimistic.’

Our Inner Ape describes the behaviour of our two closest living relatives – the bonobo and the chimpanzee – exploring what they can tell us about ourselves. De Waal argues for human and ape equivalence, and, according to the world-renowned zoologist, Desmond Morris, ‘he provides us with a revealing picture of the inner ape inside each and every one of us’.

In the book, de Waal asserts that ‘humanity’s special place in the cosmos is one of abandoned claims and moving goalposts’. But nothing in Our Inner Ape – nor research and findings from the fields of primatology and zoology – persuade me to abandon my belief in human exceptionalism.

To abandon the belief in our unique capacity to solve problems through the application of science and reason means abandoning a belief in change. De Waal, however, does not believe his idea of human and ape equivalence is in any way fatalistic.

He recognises that human beings have had a lot of bad press of late. He writes that ‘of the millions of pages written over the centuries about human nature, none are as bleak as those of the last three decades – and none as wrong’. When the Western world took stock of what had happened in the Second World War, it was, de Waal says, ‘impossible to ignore the savagery that had been committed in the heart of Europe by otherwise civilised people. Comparisons with animals were ubiquitous’. The argument was that deep down we humans are violent and amoral.

But de Waal does not believe that humans are naturally all bad. He draws upon his research on bonobos to argue in his book that, ‘peaceful by nature, they belie the notion that ours is a purely bloodthirsty lineage’: ‘Bonobos make love, not war. They’re the hippies of the primate world.’ In his view: ‘To have two close relations with strikingly different societies is extraordinarily instructive. The power-hungry and brutal chimp contrasts with the peace-loving and erotic bonobo – a kind of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Our own nature is an uneasy marriage of the two.’ (1)

De Waal argues that humaneness is grounded in social instinct that we share with other animals. ‘This’, he says, ‘is obviously a more optimistic view than the one proclaiming that we “alone on Earth” can overcome our basic instinct. In the latter view, human decency is no more than a thin crust – something we invented rather than inherited.’

It may be hard to understand how something as elusive as human agency may have emerged in the course of evolution. But it did. And, yes, we ‘alone on Earth’ do have the potential to shape our destiny and improve our lot. As Karl Marx so astutely proclaimed: man makes his own history, but not necessarily in circumstances of his own choosing.

In the six million years since the human and ape lines first diverged, the behaviour and lifestyles of apes have hardly changed. Human behaviour, relationships, lifestyles and culture clearly have. We have been able to build upon the achievements of previous generations. In just the past century we have brought, through constant innovation, vast improvements to our lives: including better health, longer life expectancy, higher living standards and more sophisticated means of communication and transport.

Primatology may be able to give us some insight into our evolutionary past, and help us start answering the difficult question of how human consciousness emerged. But ape studies cannot tell us much about why we behave the way we do today and how we got as far as we have.

There is clearly a biological basis to the emergence of consciousness and language. But we are not born with the creative, flexible and imaginative thinking that characterises human beings. It emerges in the course of development: humans develop from helpless biological beings into conscious beings with a sense of self and an independence of thought. The evolution of the human genetic make-up is merely the precondition for our humanity.

There is no clear consensus on what is the biological basis to human consciousness. De Waal tells me that the key is ‘empathy: we are hardwired to connect with those around us and to resonate with them, also emotionally. It’s a fully automated process’.

Here de Waal may well be touching on the key biological components to the emergence of human insight and engagement. Peter Hobson, professor of developmental psychopathology and author of The Cradle of Thought: Exploring the Origins of Thinking, puts a persuasive case for human thought, language and self-awareness developing ‘in the cradle of emotional engagement between the infant and caregiver’ (2). Emotional engagement and communication, he argues, are the foundation on which creative symbolic thought develops.

It may be the case, as de Waal argues, that the great apes possess some rudimentary form of emotional engagement. But the limitations of this ‘empathy’ or emotional engagement becomes clear when exploring the emergence, and transformative nature, of engagement in young children.

Through reviewing an array of clinical and experimental studies, Hobson shows that even in early infancy children have a capacity to react to the emotions of others. This points to an innate desire to engage with fellow human beings. However, with development, that innate desire is transformed into something qualitatively different – that is, symbolic engagement or, in other words, language.

As Hobson writes: ‘At this point, [the child] leaves infancy behind. Empowered by language and other forms of symbolic functioning, she takes off into the realms of culture. The infant has been lifted out of the cradle of thought. Engagement with others has taught this soul to fly.’

It is when thought and speech come together that children’s thinking is raised to new heights and they start acquiring truly human characteristics. Language becomes a tool of thought allowing children increasingly to master their own behaviour. Apes never develop the ability to use language to regulate their own actions in the way that even toddlers are able to do.

The differences in language, tool-use, self-awareness and insight between apes and humans are vast. A human child, even as young as two years of age, is intellectually head and shoulders above any ape.

It is far from clear whether apes have rudimentary forms of human-like insight and engagement. But if apes did have the capacity for insight, would we not see evidence of this in the way they live their lives? Would we not see a generation-upon-generation growth in their abilities?

When I put this question to de Waal, he responds: ‘But the great apes live fine now, except for us eating up their habitat. They have less pressure to improve their lot. So the question is not “why don’t chimps use all these capacities?”, but “why would they?”. They live in an environment where there is less pressure on them to do that.’

Anyway, he says, ‘apes do have the same basic capacity for cultural transmission that human beings have. If we consider the issue of the accumulation of knowledge there are parallels between humans and the great apes’. I have visions of apes reading books, composing music or teaching algebra, but that’s not what’s being suggested. Instead the ‘accumulation of knowledge’ involves acquiring and passing on skills such as how to use sticks to fish for termites or stones to crack nuts.

The cultural, as opposed to genetic, transmission of behaviour, where actions are passed on through some kind of teaching, learning or observation, is used as evidence of apes’ higher order reasoning abilities.

A review by Andrew Whiten and his colleagues of a number of field studies reveals evidence of at least 39 local variations in chimp behavioural patterns, including tool-use, communication and grooming rituals – behaviours that are common in some communities and absent in others (3). So it seems that these animals are capable of learning new skills and of passing them on to their fellows.

But the question remains: what does this tell us about their mental capacities? The existence of cultural transmission is often taken as evidence that animals are capable of some form of social learning (such as imitation) and possibly even teaching. But there is in fact no evidence of apes being able to teach their young. Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Centre in Germany, points out that ‘nonhuman primates do not point to distal entities in the environment, they do not hold up objects for others to see and share, and they do not actively give or offer objects to other individuals. They also do not actively teach one another’ (4).

Reviewing the literature on primate behaviour, it emerges that there is no consensus among scientists as to whether apes are capable of the simplest form of social learning – imitation (5).

The fact that it takes chimps up to four years to acquire the necessary skills to select and adequately use tools to crack nuts implies that they are not capable of true imitation, never mind any form of teaching. Young chimps invest a lot of time and effort in attempts to crack nuts that are, after all, an important part of their diet. The slow rate of their development raises questions about their ability to reflect on what they and their fellow apes are doing.

Compare this to the human ability to teach new skills and ways of thinking and to learn from each other’s insights: this laid the foundation for the agricultural and industrial revolutions, the development of science and technology, and the constant transformations of our ways of living.

According to de Waal, society is merely a surface veneer. If one looks beneath the surface one will find that we are merely animals. He accuses me of being on a completely ‘different track’. ‘You are talking about the unique capacities of humans’, he mocks, ‘but genetically we are 98.5 per cent identical to chimps and bonobos, and mentally, socially and emotionally we are probably also 98.5 percent identical to chimps and bonobos. We love to emphasise that little difference that exists and cling to it and make a big deal out of it, but the similarities vastly outnumber the differences.’

Six million years of ape evolution may have resulted in the emergence of 39 local behavioural patterns in tool-use, communication and grooming rituals. But this has not moved them beyond their hand-to-mouth existence nor led to any significant changes in the way they live. Our lives have changed much more in just the past decade – in terms of the technology we use, how we communicate with each other, and how we form and sustain personal relationships.

To say that there is no substantial difference between cultural transmission among apes and humans is like saying there is no substantial difference between a glacier and a car – both move from A to B, albeit one a lot slower than the other. De Waal makes the same mistake in looking at everything from warfare (apparently, the conflict between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda can be explained on the basis of the same ‘switches’ that turn ‘chimpanzee group mates into each other’s deadliest foes’) to politics (the US constitution and the Magna Carta of 1215 can apparently be explained on the same basis as chimps’ ‘collective resistance against the overbearing alpha male’).

Considering the vast differences in the way we live, it is very difficult to sustain the argument that apes are ‘just like us’. What appears to be behind today’s fashionable view of ape and human equivalence is a denigration of human capacities and human ingenuity. The richness of human experience is trivialised because human experiences are lowered to, and equated with, those of animals.

I will carry on ‘making a big deal’ out of the vast differences that exist between humans and apes. Unless we hold on to the belief in our exceptional abilities we will never be able to envision or fight for a better future.

Our Inner Ape: The Past and Future of Human Nature is published by Riverhead Books, October 2005. Buy a copy of this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

(1) p5, Our Inner Ape: The Past and Future of Human Nature, Frans de Waal

(2) The Cradle of Thought: exploring the origins of thinking, Peter Hobson, Macmillan, 22 February 2002, p76

(3) Nature, Vol 399, 17 June 1999

(4) Michael Tomasello, ‘Primate Cognition: Introduction to the issue’, Cognitive Science Vol 24 (3) 2000, p358

(5) See a detailed review by Andrew Whiten, ‘Primate Culture and Social Learning’, Cognitive Science Vol 24 (3), 2000

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Topics Science & Tech


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