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Column: Deprogram

A Sound Barrier

Why Chimps Aren’t Talking

by Denyse O’Leary

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 21

The multidisciplinary project of demonstrating that the human mind is conceptual clutter in the repertoire of science can be pursued from many angles. One of them is the attempt to show that chimpanzees act just like people. Science media these days feature no end of stories about the erasure of boundaries, both intellectual and moral, between chimps and humans.

Okay, some facts: It is true that chimps can learn to spring simple snare traps that are set for them without getting hurt.1 But does that really put them on a continuum with humans? One recalls Nim Chimpsky, of 1970s fame, the chimp that was raised from infancy as a human baby and even breastfed. The daughter of the surrogate mother explained in retrospect, “It was the seventies.”2 It was indeed, and celebrity “skeptic” Carl Sagan was confident even in the nineties that a chimpanzee would, with assistance, write a memoir arising from such an experiment.3

What happened? The experimenters hit a brick wall with Nim: “The language didn’t materialize.”4 Conjuring in Darwin’s name does not erase a brick wall.

Primates’ Competition

Not only is the boundary wall still brick, but the chimps are not alone on the other side. Dogs perform better on one kind of intelligence test than chimpanzees: “The task was to retrieve the object the experimenter wanted. To indicate which one she desired, the experimenter pointed imperatively to it and directly rewarded the subject for handing over the correct one.” In other words, dogs could understand finger pointing but chimps could not.5 Even though dogs do not have fingers but chimps do.

For that matter, grey parrots6 and ravens7 have been shown to solve puzzles that were formerly reserved for primates. Does that make them closer to humans than other birds are? As close as chimps are? If not, what is the point of studies that attempt to trace the evolution of human abilities by studying those of chimps? The possibility of independent origin of the tested types of intelligence is clearly demonstrated by clever birds, separated from us in evolution by hundreds of millions of years, or so we are told.

It is also true that chimps sometimes share food or “tools.” The researchers’ usual point, of course, is not that chimps behave communally but that their behavior demonstrates how sharing “could have come about in our own lineage.”8 But one study grudgingly reports that “humans actively share resources with one another to a much greater degree than do other great apes, and much human sharing is governed by social norms of fairness and equity.”9 Don’t we just know what the next target will be—to demonstrate (that is, conjure) evidence that chimpanzees also exhibit such social norms.

“Wall, I order you, in Darwin’s name, to crumble!”

We are already asked to suppose that there are chimpanzee “police,” though “more data are needed to test the generality of this hypothesis.”10 The authors of that study do stop short of identifying their claimed observations as the ultimate origin of the FBI and Interpol.

“Wall, . . .”

A Lingering Thought

The obvious question raised by the current research emphasis is so large that we tend to miss it (as an alternative to going mad?): If chimpanzees have the active mental life that researchers claim, why are they still screeching in the trees? No one offers to answer that question because, once asked, it breaks the spell for good.

Some might wonder: Do these fuzzy animal stories really do any actual harm? Well, last December, as atheist Patrick Green of Athens, Texas, was threatening to sue over a Nativity display in the local county courthouse, he developed a serious eye condition. The kindness that local Christians extended to him after he fell ill prompted him to become a Christian himself. He commented, “There’s been one lingering thought in the back of my head my entire life, and it’s one thought that I’ve never been able to reconcile, and that is the vast difference between all the animals and us.”11 For him, that was part of the solution; for others, it is an ongoing problem. 

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