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Humans are unique – get used to it, or get therapy. Do NOT get a chimpanzee

In “Restating the case for human uniqueness,” in Spiked* (Issue 25, June 2009), managing editor Helene Guldberg reviews Not a Chimp: The Hunt to Find the Genes That Make Us Human by Jeremy Taylor (Oxford University Press 2009):

She notes that

Taylor sets out to argue that it is ‘as wrong as it is misguided’ to ‘exaggerate the narrowness of the gap between chimpanzees and ourselves’: ‘It plays into the hands of our natural propensity to anthropomorphise our pets and other animals, and even our inanimate possessions, and it has allowed us to distort what the science is trying to tell us.’ His aim is ‘to set the record straight and restore chimpanzees to arm’s length’.

Good idea that. Remember the horrific case of Travis the chimp? Travis would have been a fine chimp, left to himself in a natural environment. But he went on a rampage and horribly maimed and mutilated the employee of the owner of a towing company, who was keeping him. Her family are now suing for $50 million.

This is the tragedy of anthropomorphizing animals. They neither become people nor fit in with other animals of their kind. Travis was shot by a police officer. But had he lived, one may wonder whether he could even adapt to life in a troupe of chimpanzees, after a career in show business and later as a pet whose mistress thought he was like a son.

In the chapter titled ‘Povinelli’s Gauntlet’, Taylor outlines the fascinating work of the comparative cognitive psychologist Daniel Povinelli, who runs the Cognitive Evolution Group at the University of Louisiana. Povinelli is unequivocal in arguing that no test to date has reliably demonstrated that chimpanzees – or any other primate for that matter – have an understanding of the mental life of others or an understanding of causation in the physical world.

To investigate chimps’ so-called understanding of ‘folk psychology’, Povinelli tested whether chimps understood that their begging gestures will only be effective if the person they are begging from can see them. When one of two experimenters either wore a blindfold, held their hands over their eyes or wore a bucket over their head, the chimps showed no preference for whom they made their begging gestures to.

No surprise there. Chimpanzees do not usually perform as well as dogs in reading human gestures.

Even more interesting:

In order to demonstrate that far too much has been made of the tool-using abilities of chimpanzees in the wild, Taylor outlines recent discoveries showing that the tool-making of some birds equals, or in many cases betters, anything observed in chimpanzees. ‘In two species that parted company 280million years ago, performance is either very similar, or corvids might even have an edge. Bird brains, in specific contexts, are a match for chimp brains’, he writes. What this shows is that chimpanzees may not tell us that much more than corvids about the evolution of our unique genetic make-up, he argues.

Now that is a story that should be investigated more openly than it is. Why are some birds so smart, yet they have key brain differences from the animals that are supposed to be smart – mammals? Clearly, intelligence is not what we have assumed.

I will spoil no more for you; go here for more.

See also:

Dogs more like humans than chimpanzees are?

“Loving” chimpanzee eats its victims alive, new research shows

New assessment of ape language skills is dramatically scaled back

A defense of Apes r us – and insider look at the pygmy chimpanzee enthusiasts

Apes R Not Us, and we have to get used to it

*spiked is an independent online phenomenon dedicated to raising the horizons of humanity by waging a culture war of words against misanthropy, priggishness, prejudice, luddism, illiberalism and irrationalism in all their ancient and modern forms. spiked is endorsed by free-thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, and hated by the narrow-minded such as Torquemada and Stalin. Or it would be, if they were lucky enough to be around to read it.

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11 Responses to Humans are unique – get used to it, or get therapy. Do NOT get a chimpanzee

  1. 1

    Darwin said that the mental difference between apes and humans is a difference of degree, not of kind. You see, apes do build cathedrals, play chess, and compute quadratic residues — it’s just that they less of it than we do. Merely a difference of degree.

    Anyway, here is Paul Erhlich on the reasoning power of chimps (Erhlich and Holm, The Process of Evolution)

    “There is a considerable body of literature on the reasoning power of chimpanzees. On certain types of tests designed primarily to evaluate human reasoning power, some “chimps” score higher than many human adults. Indeed, as Harlow succinctly puts it, if man is defined as the possessor of mental abilities that occur in other animals only in the most rudimentary forms, if at all, we “must of necessity disenfranchise many millions . . . from the society of Homo sapiens.” Chimpanzees may lack culture not because of any great lack of reasoning power but because of some other factor that inhibited the development of speech or the regular utilization of tools, or the reduction of inter-male aggressiveness.”

  2. Hi Vladimir,

    Loved the humor in your post:

    You see, apes do build cathedrals, play chess, and compute quadratic residues — it’s just that they do less of it than we do. Merely a difference of degree.

    I was also greatly amused by the naivete of Paul Ehrlich’s claims about chimps. Doing a bit of digging, I discovered that the book he co-authored, The Process of Evolution, was written in 1963. Scientists now know a lot about chimps that they didn’t know back then. For instance, Ehrlich writes:

    Chimpanzees may lack culture not because of any great lack of reasoning power but because of some other factor that inhibited the development of speech or the regular utilization of tools, or the reduction of inter-male aggressiveness.

    According to a Ph.D. dissertation written by Christopher Gibbons entitled The Referentiality of Chimpanzee Vocal Signaling: Behavioral and Acoustic Analysis of Food Barks (Ohio State University, 2007),

    … more than 25 distinct vocalization types have been observed in wild groups, the most commonly occurring consist of screams, grunts, various ‘hoos’ and barks (Crockford & Boesch, 2003; Goodall, 1986). (p. 4)

    Gibbons’ thesis can be accessed here: http://www.ohiolink.edu/etd/se.....1173219994

    Let’s do the math. Three vocalizations would suffice to encode 25 x 25 x 25 = 15,625 distinct terms – quite enough for a language, if the chimpanzees had the linguistic wherewithal. But do they? Gibbons appears to think not, despite chimps’ documented capacity for functionally referential communication:

    Calls are described as functionally referential when there is no explicit intent on the part of the vocalizer to communicate, but due to the context specificity of their calls they do signal reliably to conspecifics (Marler, Evans & Hauser, 1992). Of course, fully referential communication, as with human language, involves not only intention on the part of the signaler to impart a meaningful representation, but also the expectation of that meaningfully encoded signal for interpretation by the receiver (p. 8).

    It is important to note that conclusions drawn with regard to the degree of referentiality ascribed to these food vocalizations do not assume explicit vocalizer involvement. As delineated earlier, food vocalizations have been shown to be largely automatic and involuntary, yet highly context specific (p. 57).

    As we strive to uncover the cognitive continuity between our closest living relatives and ourselves we cannot help but draw lines between the referential behavior reported in this study and the deep evolutionary roots of fully representational human language (pp. 59-60). [Emphases mine - VJT]

    Ehrlich was wrong about tools, too. We now know that chimps are quite good at making and using simple tools; what they appear to lack is a proper causal understanding of how they work. According to an article by Jesse M. Bering and Daniel J. Povinelli, entitled “Comparing Cognitive Development” in Primate Psychology, (edited by Dario Maestripieri, Harvard University Press, 2003) (see http://books.google.com/books?.....38;f=false ):

    …The initial round of nearly thirty studies, conducted over a five-year period, was centered on the widely celebrated ability of chimpanzees to make and use simple tools. Inspired largely by some work by Elisabetta Visalberghi and her colleagues, we asked not whether chimpanzees could learn to make and use tools, nor even the level of complexity that such tool use and construction might achieve, but whether they reason about more than the mere appearances of the objects as they make and use simple tools… Of particular interest to us was whether chimps delve into the unobserved causal structure of the objects and events they observe, and whether their understanding of the physical world is mediated by concepts about unobservable phenomena such as gravity, force, shape, physical connection, and mass – an understanding that seems robustly in place in human children by about three years of age, if not earlier (for a review, see Povinelli, 2000).

    The results of these studies consistently converged on a finding strikingly analogous to what we have uncovered about chimpanzees’ understanding of the social world: they are excellent at extracting from the statistical regularities about what objects do and how they behave, but appear to have little understanding that these unobservable regularities can be accounted for, or explained, in terms of unobservable causal forces….

    Thus, we have speculated that a core difference between humans and chimpanzees may be that humans have evolved a unique capacity to develop representations about unobservable causes – a difference that manifests itself equally in the two species’ understanding of the social and physical worlds (pp. 228-229). [Emphases mine - VJT.]

    Incidentally, Denyse is right: crows make better tools than chimps, as anyone who has followed the story of Betty the Crow will be aware. Readers who want more details on recent research can check out this link . Stay tuned!

  3. Denyse,

    You might be interested in reading an article by Wesley J. Smith in First Things, entitled “Human Exceptionalism Proved By the Human Mind” at http://www.firstthings.com/blo.....uman-mind/ . Here’s an extract, for curious readers:

    The September Scientific American has an interesting article about one of the things that marks human beings as exceptional–our mental abilities to think and conceive uniquely from all other animals, which the writer calls the “mind.”

    …In The Origin of the Mind … Harvard professor Mark Hauser identifies four unique attributes of the human mind not found in animals:

    “Generative computation,” that allows us to “create a virtual limitless variety of words, concepts and things.”
    “Promiscuous combination of ideas,” meaning the ability to mingle “different domains of knowledge,” e.g., art, sex, causality, etc.
    “Mental symbols” allow us to enjoy a “rich and complex system of communication.”
    “Abstract thought,” which, “permits contemplation of things beyond what we can see, hear, touch, taste or smell.”

    …These are differences in kind as well as quality, distinctions that make a huge difference in terms of our moral worth.

    Hauser doesn’t take it that far, of course, but the implications for human exceptionalism are inescapable. He writes:

    Still, for now we have little choice but to admit that our mind is different from that of even our closest primate relatives and that we do not know much about how that difference came to be. Could a chimpanzee think up an experiment to test humans? Could a chimpanzee imagine what it would be like for us to solve one of their problems? No and no. Although chimpanzees can see what we do, they cannot imagine what we think or feel because they lack the requisite machinery. Although chimpanzees and other animals appear to develop plans and consider both past experiences and future options, there is no evidence that they think in terms of counterfactuals – imagining worlds that have been against those that could be. We humans do this all the time and have done so since our distinctive genome gave birth to our distinctive minds. Our moral systems are premised on this mental capacity.

    Marc Hauser is a professor of psychology, human evolutionary biology, and organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University. Obviously the man is no friend of ID. His evolutionary perspective is clear throughout his essay, right up to the final paragraph. Now, if a Harvard Professor of human evolutionary biology says that humans are unique in their cognitive abilities, then I have no choice but to take him seriously.

    Hauser’s article is so good that I can’t resist including a few more choice quotes:

    Indeed, mounting evidence indicates that, in contrast to Darwin’s theory of a continuity of mind between humans and other species, a profound gap separates our intellect from the animal kind. This is not to say that our mental faculties sprang fully formed out of nowhere. Researchers have found some of the building blocks of human cognition in other species. But these building blocks make up only the cement footprint of the skyscraper that is the human mind….

    Although anthropologists disagree about exactly when the modern human mind took shape, it is clear from the archaeological record that a major transformation occurred during a relatively brief period of evolutionary history, starting approximately 800,000 years ago in the Paleolithic era and crescendoing around 45,000 to 50,000 years ago…

    What we can say with utmost confidence is that all people, from the hunter-gatherers on the African savanna to the traders on Wall Street, are born with the four ingredients of humaniqueness (Hauser’s term for “human uniqueness” – VJT). How these ingredients are added to the recipe for creating culture varies considerably from group to group, however…. No other animal exhibits such variation in lifestyle. Looked at in this way, a chimpanzee is a cultural nonstarter…

    One of our most basic tools, the No. 2 pencil, used by every test taker, illustrates the exceptional freedom of the human mind as compared with the limited scope of animal cognition. You hold the painted wood, write with the lead, and erase with the pink rubber held in place by a metal ring. Four different materials, each with a particular function, all wrapped up into a single tool. And although that tool was made for writing, it can also pin hair up into a bun, bookmark a page or stab an annoying insect. Animal tools, in contrast — such as the sticks chimps use to fish termites out from their mounds — are composed of a single material, designed for a single function and never used for other functions. None have the combinatorial properties of the pencil…

    [Other animals'] uses of symbols are unlike ours in five essential ways: they are triggered only by real objects or events, never imagined ones; they are restricted to the present; they are not part of a more abstract classification scheme, such as those that organize our words into nouns, verbs and adjectives; they are rarely combined with other symbols, and when they are, the combinations are limited to a string of two, with no rules; and they are fixed to particular contexts. (Emphases mine – VJT.)

    One wonders whether any apologies will be forthcoming from the gradualist camp. Somehow I doubt it.

  4. No one doubts that sometimes people make very poor choices about which animals to keep as house pets or that sometimes they pay a terrible price for such an error. Adult chimpanzees are notorious for being temperamental, unpredictable and extremely dangerous as they are far stronger than adult human beings. In the case cited, both Travis and Charla Nash were victims of a serious misjudgement.

    This has no bearing on how closely chimpanzees are related to human beings as a species.

    No one is questioning the fact that human beings and chimpanzees are different. Neither is there much doubt that if each lineage were traced back through time they would converge on a common ancestral species.

    What is at issue is the degree of difference and similarity and, as the papers quoted by vjtorley demonstrate, this is an ongoing investigation. Whether any of this research can be interpreted as bringing aid and comfort to the ID camp is questionable. Perhaps we should ask the authors.

    As for gradualism, a noted researcher in the field wrote as follows:

    … it is probable that the periods, during which each [species] underwent modification, though many and long as measured by years, have been short in comparison with the periods during which each remained in an unchanged condition.

  5. VJtorley @ 3:

    One wonders whether any apologies will be forthcoming from the gradualist camp. Somehow I doubt it.

    Very interesting posts, VJ. Just be clear about what you do and do not believe follows from these observations.

    Specifically, IIRC, you have elsewhere stated unequivocally that common descent has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt, and that it is similarly beyond reasonable doubt that chimpanzees and human beings shared a common ancestor some six million years ago (or so).

    It therefore follows from your own position that there is an unbroken chain of descent from an organism with cognitive characteristics very like that of chimpanzees to human beings and our astounding cognitive powers.

    It seems clear that that gap was bridged in a punctuated manner. For example, Homo erectus, while representing marked steps in the direction of humanity in many respects (such as the evolution of pair bonding and high parental investment in offspring, as well as fire tending), displayed a remarkably monotonous lack of cultural and behavioral evolution during its 1.8 million year run. Change dramatically accelerated in the run up to Homo sapiens – which is exactly what one would expect upon the evolutionary innovation and rapid refinement of a powerful new cognitive adaptation, such as the origination of referential, grammatically flexible, and intentionally cooperative speech and communication, with the attendant innovations in theory of mind.

    It is also worth pointing to the fact (pun intended…) that important current thinking is that the referential dimension of human speech had its origins not in the vocal behavior of our great ape ancestors, which, if it resembled that of other extant great apes, was likely indeed quite fixed and generally inflexible, but rather from gestural communication, which in extant great apes displays much greater flexibility and intentional content.

    See, for example, Michael Tomasello’s 2008 book The Origins of Human Communication for a book length treatment of these ideas.

  6. Hi Diffaxial.

    You are correct in assuming that I accept the common descent of humans and chimps, about 6 million years ago, although recent research (see here and here ) has caused me to have some doubts as to whether undirected natural processes alone were responsible for the relatively sudden appearance of human accelerated regions (HARs) in the human genome. Personally, it doesn’t bother me in the least if a perfectly natural undirected mechanism is found.

    While I accept common descent, I cannot accept a materialist account of human mental capacities. For a fairly comprehensive list (with links) to the best online philosophical and scientific arguments against materialism, please click here .

    As someone who rejects materialism, I would expect that the four features of the human mind identified by Marc Hauser should have appeared literally overnight, and at the same time. That’s a very bold, singular and falsifiable prediction. Hauser’s four features, as you will recall, were:

    (1) “Generative computation,” that allows us to “create a virtual limitless variety of words, concepts and things.”

    (2) “Promiscuous combination of ideas,” meaning the ability to mingle “different domains of knowledge,” e.g., art, sex, causality, etc.

    (3) “Mental symbols” allow us to enjoy a “rich and complex system of communication.”

    (4) “Abstract thought,” which, “permits contemplation of things beyond what we can see, hear, touch, taste or smell.”

    Inferences to the presence or absence of these abilities in prehistoric human beings based on the stone tools they made is highly problematic, as Professor Hauser (who unlike myself espouses a materialistic account) points out in his article. However, tools can tell us a lot, as this article shows. DNA analyses of Neanderthal man can also tell us whether this human being had HARs in its genome.

    In short, we live in exciting times. I would hope that we can narrow down the date when distinctively human mental abilities emerged in our ancestors, to an accuracy of plus or minus a few thousand years, over the next two or three decades.

  7. Vjtorely @ 6:

    As someone who rejects materialism, I would expect that the four features of the human mind identified by Marc Hauser should have appeared literally overnight, and at the same time. That’s a very bold, singular and falsifiable prediction.

    Do you mean literally “literally overnight” (within a literal 24 hour period) or figuratively “literally overnight?” (over a few thousand or tens of thousands of years). I assume you mean the latter. People often say “literally” for emphasis when they in fact mean figuratively.

    If figuratively overnight, then how long is overnight? A thousand years? Ten thousand years? Thirty thousand years?

    Also, help me sort out your position a bit. If you are comfortable with the notion that an entirely natural (unguided) mechanism may have resulted in this acceleration, yet are also committed to a “nonmaterialist” account of contemporary human mental capacities, do you also allow that an entirely natural mechanism may have resulted in the rapid acquisition or emergence of nonmaterial mental capacities? How might that work?

    Similarly, did Homo erectus display nonmaterial mental capacities, but less of them than human beings? Australopithicines still less? Or did one or both display entirely “material” minds (whatever that means), or no “minds” at all, with an entirely unique nonmaterial mentality appearing later to become the basis for human exceptionalism.

    That’s a very bold, singular and falsifiable prediction.

    Your prediction is bold, but not as powerful as you would like, particularly if you mean “figuratively overnight,” as you appear to allow that the rapid amping-up of human cognition may have occurred by natural (unguided) mechanisms, even if the result was a nonmaterial mind. Because you seem to allow that “natural mechanisms” (versus “designed,” I would assume) and “nonmaterial mind” are orthogonal hypotheses, it is not clear to me how the appearance of these abilities figuratively overnight has dispositive bearing upon the mode of causation. Further, the hypothesis is not really testable until you commit to a definition of “overnight.”

    Vis that definition, you’ll be interested in Steven Mithin’s 1999 book The Prehistory of the Mind, in which he posits that what occurred “overnight” was not the appearance of important new domains of cognition (he identifies “natural history intelligence,” “social intelligence,” and “technical intelligence” and an emerging capacity for language, which emerged more slowly and independently), but rather the acquisition of sufficient “cognitive fluidity” to combine and recombine these domains of intelligence.

    It is easy to think of the Middle/Upper Paleolithic transition as a cultural explosion, or a big bang – the origins of the universe of human culture. Indeed a ‘big bang’ is the shorthand description I will use in this chapter. Yet if we look a little more closely…we see that there is not so much a single big bang as a whole series of cultural sparks that occur at slightly different times in different parts of the world between 60,000 and 30,000 years ago. The colonization of Australia, for instance, seems to reflect a cultural spark which happened between 60,000 and 50,000 years ago, yet at this time all remained relatively quiet elsewhere in the world. In the Near East a cultural spark happened between 50,000 and 45,000 years ago when the Levallois technology was replaced by that of blade cores. The cultural spark in Europe seems not to have been until 40,000 years ago with the appearance of the first objects of art. Indeed, it is perhaps only after 30,000 years ago that we can be confident that the hectic pace of cultural change had begun in earnest throughout the globe.

    (Page 152).

  8. Obviously we may infer from these data that we share a common ancestor with crows that is more recent than our common ancestor with the Quadrumana.

  9. Diffaxial

    When I say “literally overnight” I mean literally overnight. I have no doubt that improvements in brain architecture occurred over a period of millions of years, but I would contend that at a critical point in evolutionary history, when the brains of our forebears became complex enough to be able to integrate information in the way that people need to in their everyday lives, our ancestors acquired an immaterial capacity to form abstract concepts – and in so doing, became true human beings. Thus my account of how human cognition arose is quite literally a Deus ex machina one. It unapologetically invokes what Dawkins and Dennett refer to as a “skyhook” explanation. Sometimes a skyhook is the only thing that will do the job. Nature can’t accomplish everything.

    Professor Alfred Freddoso mounts a vigorous defence of the notion that God creates each individual human soul in his article, Good News, Your Soul Hasn’t Quite Died Yet . Before you reject the notion out of hand, ask yourself this: if you had to choose between (a) accepting a naturalistic account of human origins, but at the cost of denying that human beings have free will; and (b) accepting a supernaturalistic account of the human soul, and in so doing, preserving your freedom, which would you choose?

    By the way, my Deus ex machina account makes one more testable prediction: no supermen will ever emerge at a future date in human history. The human brain is optimal, in the sense that one aspect of its functioning can be improved only at the expense of another. Although the first human being capable of forming abstract concepts may have had a brain that was in certain respects different from our own, it would not have been inferior to our own (e.g. it may have been somewhat slower at solving logic problems but better at conscious recall of information learned previously).

    In small populations, cultural innovation often tends to be slow. Thus it may take a while to figure out exactly when the capacity for abstract concepts emerged in our ancestors, as they may have sat on their potential for a while, until they multiplied in sufficient numbers for their amazing abilities to take off. (This may explain why the sudden burst of technological innovation in the late Paleolithic, about 50,000 years ago, came long after the emergence of Homo sapiens.) For the moment, the two dates I’m willing to entertain are 600,000 years ago (the date when Homo heidelbergensis emerged – a species believed to have been ancestral to both Neanderthal man and modern human beings) and 200,000 years ago (the date when modern Homo sapiens emerged, if the Neanderthals turn out to have lacked the capacity to form abstract concepts). Currently, I think the former date is more likely.

  10. angryoldfatman

    Crows are pretty clever, and I for one am very impressed by them. I don’t think they belong in our league, though. You might like to have a look at these articles:

    Crows use multitools, but do they plan ahead by Ewen Callaway in New Scientist, 5 August 2009.

    “Cognitive Processes Associated with Sequential Tool Use in New Caledonian Crows” by Joanna H. Wimpenny, Alex A. S. Weir, Lisa Clayton, Christian Rutz, Alex Kacelnik in PLoS One, 4(8): e6471. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006471 (August 2009) at http://www.plosone.org/article.....ne.0006471 . An excerpt:

    While the ability of subjects [i.e. crows - V.J.T.] to use three tools in sequence reveals a competence beyond that observed in any other species, our study also emphasises the importance of parsimony in comparative cognitive science: seemingly intelligent behaviour can be achieved without the involvement of high-level mental faculties, and detailed analyses are necessary before accepting claims for complex cognitive abilities.

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