Just monkeying around with a camera

A BBC film ‘made’ by chimpanzees at Edinburgh Zoo only confirms how different humans and apes really are.

Stuart Derbyshire

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During a much-needed clean-out of my office this week, I was reminded that academia can be a brutal business.

A reviewer greeted a paper I submitted when I was a PhD student with the following comment: ‘This badly written manuscript first addresses an important and timely topic with confusing logic and sloppy scholarship, then describes the results of a poorly designed study… [and finally] goes way beyond its (almost) meaningless data with a confusing and woefully naive discussion.’ The reviewer summed up his or her thoughts as follows: ‘This is an embarrassing manuscript that insults the important topic it utterly fails to address.’ Harsh? Certainly. But also fair because the paper was crap.

A current PhD student, Betsy Herrelko from the University of Stirling, has provided chimps with a chimp-proof camera that they could carry around the chimpanzee habitat at Edinburgh Zoo (1). The logic of the project is confusing. On the one hand, it appears to be an effort at understanding how chimps naturally carry out tasks and how they ‘think’. It is difficult to know how or if chimpanzees ‘think’ through a task because they lack explicit expression of thought such as language. Research with chimps might provide intriguing insights into primitive modes of thought. On the other hand, however, it appears as if the researchers have already decided that chimps are capable of immensely thoughtful activities such as making a movie.

On top of the ‘Chimpcam’ that Herrelko provided was a live image of whatever the camera was pointing at. Apparently the chimps eventually began carrying the camera around the enclosure and BBC2 will air the resultant ‘movie’ tonight. There is a preview on the web (1).

The problem is that we can be absolutely certain that whatever the chimps were doing, they were clearly not making a movie. Making a movie is a highly technical, highly involved and highly cooperative process and there is little or no evidence of cooperation among chimpanzees living in the wild. Wild chimpanzees, for example, never point towards something of interest for the benefit of another chimpanzee (2).

Captive chimpanzees very occasionally point and beg the humans around them for food. But evidence that they are doing this to connect mentally with their human carers is undermined by the fact that chimpanzees will beg someone with a bucket on their head just as earnestly as someone who can see them (2). Based on the known limitations of chimpanzees, it is simply absurd to credit them with the necessary thought and planning to make a movie.

It is also obvious from the movie that the chimps were not engaging in a consciously creative exercise. The Chimpcam moves about randomly, it does not obviously point at any particular object or action, the chimps often lick and try to bite the lens, and at one point it appears the Chimpcam has been sat or rested on. Moreover, the featured 53 seconds of film were presumably edited out of many hundreds of hours of film. I doubt the chimps were involved in the editing. And then there is the added soundtrack, which provides an illusory sense of continuity and drama. I doubt the chimps were involved in adding the soundtrack either.

Making movies is an entirely modern and culturally-bound human activity and so handing chimpanzees a movie camera is a strange way to investigate chimpanzee thinking. Even if chimpanzees had extensive cognitive abilities, which they do not, their behaviour with a camera is not likely to reveal much about those abilities.

It might be the BBC, rather than Herrelko, but calling the random film captured by a troop of chimpanzees ‘movie making’ is confusing, sloppy, woefully naive and goes way beyond the data. It is also an insult to researchers trying to understand chimpanzees and to people who make real movies. Harsh? Certainly. But also fair because it should be blindingly obvious that chimps simply cannot make movies, not even crap ones.

Dr Stuart Derbyshire is senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Birmingham.

Previously on spiked

Helene Guldberg criticised claims made for human-like chimp behaviour. She also responded to Frans de Waal’s claim that we should get in touch with our ‘inner ape’ and declared that humans are superior to apes. Stuart Derbyshire argued that while animal behaviour can look intelligent, that doesn’t mean it is. Josie Appleton defended fur. James Panton stood up for animal research. Or read more at spiked issue Animals.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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