All read – some reviewed – a work in progress …
The Chimpanzee & Me by Ben Garrod – 2019
Almost human: the story of Julius, the chimpanzee caught between two worlds by Alfred Fidjestøl – 2019
Mama’s last hug: animal emotions and what they tell us about ourselves by Frans de Waal – 2019
Chimpanzee rights by Kristen Andrews et al. – 2019
The new chimpanzee: a twenty-first-century portrait of our closest kin by Craig Stanford – 2018
Following Fifi: my adventures among wild chimpanzees: lessons from our closest relatives by John Crocker – 2017
Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? by Frans de Waal – 2016
Among chimpanzees: field notes from the race to save our endangered relatives by Nancy J. Merrick – 2014
The Bonobo and the atheist: in search of humanism among the primates by Frans de Waal – 2013
The song of the ape: understanding the languages of chimpanzees by Andrew Halloran – 2012
Chimpanzees of the lakeshore: natural history and culture at Mahale by Toshisada Nishida – 2012
Bonobo handshake: a memoir of love and adventure in the Congo by Vanessa Woods – 2010
Almost chimpanzee: redrawing the lines that separate us from them by Jon Cohen 2010
Among the great apes: adventures on the trail of our closest relatives by Paul Raffaele – 2010
Primates and philosophers: how morality evolved by Frans de Waal – 2006
In The chimpanzee & me, academic primatologist and broadcaster Ben Garrod relates his experiences with chimpanzees. The stories are bracketed by tales of the first chimp he fell in love with – Pasa from the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda – and cover the biology and plight of chimpanzees, mainly focussing on those from Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue and Protection (LCRP), a sanctuary established by Jenny and Jimmy Desmond.
“I saw something so profound in those eyes” – a typical response from those whose first encounters with chimps commit them to working for their survival. What is so wonderful about The chimpanzee & me is the respectful way Garrod talks about the chimps – they are all individuals with their own identities, personalities, temperaments and demeanours. He doesn’t downplay their power as wild animals – even describing and instance where he was potential chimp prey in a Ugandan forest. And he pulls no punches when talking about the problems facing the chimps as a species, all created by us: “a funny and sometimes selfish species” – chimps are being “extirpated, not lost. They’re being systematically killed for a whole host of reasons.”
Garrod describes the genetic and evolutionary closeness of humans and chimps, playfully suggesting we should be Pan sapiens or Pan troglodytes sapiens, or they should be Homo troglodytes. He addresses the arguments against such familial closeness and advises: “you may not be a monkey’s uncle (or aunt), you are a chimpanzee’s cousin.” He then turns to the threats to chimps, first covering habitat destruction. Merely a century ago their forests were abundant, but these places “that should have been safe” are dwindling and under constant threat.
Even if the destruction halts, there are challenges facing sanctuaries who aspire to one day return their charges to the wild. For many forest skills we might think are innate, are in fact learnt as part of a wild chimp community, where baby and juvenile chimps learn through experience, participation, imitation, communication and innovation. Enter ‘Chimp School’. Garrod advises the maximum class size six at a stretch – “Any more than that and you’re running around after the ones who would rather go and catch a butterfly, or who really need to climb a tree right now.”
Apart from habitat destruction, chimps are taken for the pet trade and bushmeat. Garrod is careful to explain the complexities of these horrendous practices – with the local perpetrators often just the lowest rung in large-scale international businesses – from local hunters to domestic consumers. And the statistics he recites for both the international trade in wild animals, and in their meat are horrific, as is the potential in such commerce for allowing the emergence of new zoonotic diseases. He talks of being part of a confiscation raid in Liberia, and his finding a chimp that had been chained to a tree for thirteen years – the length of time he had been working with chimps.
The results of both the decimation of populations, and the increasing isolation of remaining populations due to habitat destruction, is leading to problems of genetic diversity. He talks of a long history of abuse in Africa, where we destroyed communities and ways of life we never knew existed – he was talking about human communities, but this is also applicable to chimps. Perhaps the most difficult chapter to read is that about the use of chimps in medical research, he talks of the “out of sight, out mind” strategy of the West – locating its laboratories in countries where regulations aren’t as stringent, and the awful results. He chillingly describes going into a research facility in the Caribbean. And he sadly tells the story of Samantha in Liberia – and I dare you not to cry as you read. Garrod once again however points out the complexity – he is against animal testing but wouldn’t refuse using the resulting medical interventions when a loved one is concerned.
The chimpanzee & me includes an interview with Jane Goodall, and includes a great section on conservation strategies, and how these have changed over the years. He talks of ‘flagship’ and ‘umbrella’ species and posits that the chimpanzee is the benchmark of what humans are willing to save. He talks of how each conservation project must be locally focussed and how that makes each different – even two chimp conservation projects will differ according to the local situations. Not only must projects include local human communities, they must also be mindful of the needs and wants of the chimps: “… we should never look at something like intelligence from our perspective alone.”
The chimpanzee & me is a thorough overview of chimps, their uniqueness, their threats, and those working to save them. It is beautifully illustrated, mainly with colour photographs of the babies at LCRP. It is brutally honest about the dire situation that chimps are in, but also includes hopeful stories, such as the young climate activists winning their bid to reforest a sacred hill in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the “AK-47-wielding soldiers” who ended up helping them. A wonderful contribution to popular chimp literature.
Almost human is the biography of Julius, a chimpanzee who was born on Boxing Day 1979 in the Kristiansand Zoo, Norway, and who is now the alpha male of the zoo’s chimpanzee community. He was born to Sanne, similarly born in captivity and with no idea how to be a mother, so Julius was taken from the other chimps to save his life and was raised by the families of the zoo’s director (Edvard Moseid) and the zoo’s doctor (Billy Glad), with keeper Ǻse Gunn Mosvold being a major figure for Julius when he visited the zoo.
The foster families knew of the dangers of raising chimps among humans, but regardless of the families swapping Julius around and taking precautions such as frequently taking Julius back to the zoo, he was bound to bond to his ‘families’ and adopt behaviours that made him a misfit amongst his own kind. He is a perfect example of how, when chimps enter human society, their relationships with humans alter their chimp natures. Things sort of turned out OK for Julius, but only at the cost of considerable tragedy and loss of chimp lives. It is true he ended up better off than his half-brother Ola, who was sent to Sweden where he also became a star, but Ola ended up in a cement cage in a zoo in Thailand.
After taking him from the Kristiansand community, the plan was always to reintegrate him, but one thing the book makes clear is the difficulties of reintegrating chimps into captive communities, especially maturing males. The various attempts at reintegration included medicating other chimps to curb their behaviour, and even euthanising healthy adult males to maintain peace in the community. There is no question that Mosvold and Glad and their families cared deeply for Julius, but his story highlights the unnatural and cruel aspects of keeping chimps in captivity.
The juxtaposition of Julius’ difficulties with his public persona is skilfully done: “It was as if two versions of Julius now existed and had parted ways, each living out their own separate lives”: Julius the chimp who became the darling of Norwegian media, and of every Norwegian child growing up in the 1980s / Julius the chimp often left sobbing in isolation, who became ‘dysfunctional and dangerous’, and who epitomises the tragedy of captive chimpanzees.
While the challenges of Julius’ reintegration are described, there are the parallel press stories of birthday parties, painting successes, romance and marriages – anything that “made for good television”, plus the production of a range of Julius merchandise. Julius brought thousands to the zoo, including celebrities and royalty, and made lots of money for the commercial enterprise. And with this high exposure there are some genuinely scary moments, such as when Julius escapes into the public part of the zoo, putting people at risk – the zoo always maintains that all is well, but you read how closely they came to catastrophe.
There is a third story in Almost human, the terrible situation chimps now face in the wild, with poaching, habitat loss and exposure to human disease. Fidjestøl presents Jane Goodall’s view that many wild chimpanzees live in ruined natural conditions and in such constant fear of humans that they might be “better off in modern zoos”. Public zoos have come a long way, with some believing now they are the only hope for the preservation of some species, but what sort of enclosure can be designed that gets anywhere near an ideal wild environment?
The book seamlessly moves from Julius’ story to presenting research on chimp behaviour and ecology, both in captivity and in the wild, highlighting the complex experiences that chimps in captivity lose. It talks of research showing that some wild chimpanzee behaviours date back over 2000 years, and how such rich cultural traditions are in real danger of vanishing forever – cultural traditions to which chimps like Julius will never be exposed.
Almost human does not idealise either chimp life in the wild or in captivity, it doesn’t offer any answers to the conundrums of human/chimpanzee relations, but it does skilfully present the chimpanzee problem through the story of one chimp. And Julius’ story continues; earlier this year, after the book was published, Julius became seriously ill after a visitor purposely poisoned him by throwing him a water-bottle laced with narcotics, once again he survived. Almost human is a valuable addition to the growing body of popular works about chimpanzees.
In Mama’s last hug, primatologist Frans de Waal follows up his superb Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are, which dealt with animal intelligence, with an exploration of animal (including human) emotions. The title refers to an incident (the video of which went viral) where a chimpanzee in her final days, who has been refusing food, sees that the biologist who used to work with her has come to say goodbye: Mama breaks out into a wonderful smile, calls out to him and hugs him affectionately. Mama’s behaviour is immediately recognizable as an expression of emotions and feelings – yet for many years, zoology and human psychology has denied the presence of emotions and feelings in animals.
It is extraordinary (and de Waal makes the point often) that the study of animals to understand people has denied for animals two things that many people would think are integral to their own human identity. And even more amazing that emotions and feeling have often been deemed irrelevant in the study of human psychology! Arguing carefully for the separation of emotions and feeling, and for the deeply embedded and universal presence of emotions in all animals, de Waal makes a totally compelling argument.
What is so delightful about this book are the wonderful examples he has observed over the years, especially in apes and monkeys, of various emotional reactions. Many are altruistic, kind and peace-making, some are aggressive, angry and war-mongering, but all are immediately familiar to us. The book is nicely illustrated, both with photographic plates and with de Waal’s own illustrations. And there is a great analysis of the 2016 U.S. Election campaign that is pure chimpanzee! I really loved the complexity de Waal brings to the subject, the many faceted behaviours that both we and other animals enjoy, and the delaying and controlling that can be observed in other animals, which makes a mockery of the view of them as automatons that only exist in the moment. And de Waal also discusses the ethical responsibility we therefore have to our fellow beings.
I loved this book and I am sure many others will too!
One day, while volunteering at the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, I stood next to Boris, a sanctuary caregiver, and mentioned to Boris that Medina, the chimpanzee who was browsing on the other side of the fence, had something stuck on her back.
“Medina, what’s on your back?” asked Boris.
Medina stood up and spun around so we could see her back while craning over her own shoulder so she could also have a look.
This was one of many experiences I had while I was on Ngamba, witnessing chimpanzees demonstrating sophisticated cognitive awareness of, and engagement with, their surroundings. Prior to my stay there, I had been aware of ongoing efforts to gain legal rights for specific animals such as chimpanzees, to help with their protection. My experiences at Ngamba led to an increased interest in these efforts.
For those like me, with an interest in this topic but no legal training, an excellent book that lays out the arguments regarding giving chimpanzees legal personhood is Chimpanzee rights. This book is based on the amicus brief submitted to the New York Court of Appeals to support arguments towards granting two captive chimpanzees, Kiko and Tommy, the status of legal persons.
The book takes the reader through the various philosophical bases of concepts such a personhood, and legal standing. It shows the strengths and weaknesses of the various arguments and explains the crucial difference between biological personhood and legal personhood – explaining that at various times in history categories of human beings have not been given legal standing as persons – e.g. children, women and people of colour. This is not to equate any of these groups to non-human animals but to point out the non-biological basis of legal personhood.
It is a great book for those interested in the work to get legal standing for our non-human kin. Also of interest is the news posted on the NonHumanRights blog on June 25 this year, discussing the error that had been made in a court opinion regarding what was required for legal personhood. This error was based on a typo in the legal definition used in the opinion, taken from the 7th edition of Black’s Law Dictionary. The blog reported that this definition has now been corrected and reads “So far as legal theory is concerned, a person is any being whom the law regards as capable of rights or duties.”
An excellent overview of chimpanzee research.
From the publisher: “Recent discoveries about wild chimpanzees have dramatically reshaped our understanding of these great apes and their kinship with humans. We now know that chimpanzees not only have genomes similar to our own but also plot political coups, wage wars over territory, pass on cultural traditions to younger generations, and ruthlessly strategize for resources, including sexual partners. In The New Chimpanzee, Craig Stanford challenges us to let apes guide our inquiry into what it means to be human.
With wit and lucidity, Stanford explains what the past two decades of chimpanzee field research has taught us about the origins of human social behavior, the nature of aggression and communication, and the divergence of humans and apes from a common ancestor. Drawing on his extensive observations of chimpanzee behavior and social dynamics, Stanford adds to our knowledge of chimpanzees’ political intelligence, sexual power plays, violent ambition, cultural diversity, and adaptability.
The New Chimpanzee portrays a complex and even more humanlike ape than the one Jane Goodall popularized more than a half century ago. It also sounds an urgent call for the protection of our nearest relatives at a moment when their survival is at risk.”
From the publisher: “An exhilarating quest into a remote African forest to examine chimpanzees and understand the roots of human behavior.
As a young student, John Crocker embarked on the adventure of a lifetime, spending eight months in the Gombe forest working with Jane Goodall. He would follow families of wild chimpanzees from sunrise to sunset and learn the fundamental behavioral traits of these chimps as they raised their offspring.
One chimpanzee would captivate him. Her name was Fifi, and she displayed extraordinary patience and reassurance towards her infant, Freud. Upon returning home and becoming a doctor, Crocker found himself incorporating the lessons he learned from Fifi into his work as a father and physician. When he would witness his young patients rocketing around the exam room, he would picture Fifi’s patience and tacit approval of Freud’s uninhibited and joyful exploration.
Crocker shares how his time with our closet animal cousins help him better understand his patients with ADD, anxiety, and depression. These traits and others, so maligned today, are hardwired into our natural behavior and help chimpanzees protect their community, and raise their young, and survive. Upon his return to Gombe thirty-six years later with his own son, Crocker’s experience with the chimps comes full circle.
An illuminating book that will raise thought-provoking questions about the evolution of human behavior, the importance of patience, strong family bonds, and provide a greater understanding of what it means to be human.
One of my favourite books!
From the publisher: “What separates your mind from an animal’s? Maybe you think it’s your ability to design tools, your sense of self, or your grasp of past and future–all traits that have helped us define ourselves as the planet’s preeminent species. But in recent decades, these claims have eroded, or even been disproven outright, by a revolution in the study of animal cognition. Take the way octopuses use coconut shells as tools; elephants that classify humans by age, gender, and language; or Ayumu, the young male chimpanzee at Kyoto University whose flash memory puts that of humans to shame.
Based on research involving crows, dolphins, parrots, sheep, wasps, bats, whales, and of course chimpanzees and bonobos, Frans de Waal explores both the scope and the depth of animal intelligence. He offers a firsthand account of how science has stood traditional behaviorism on its head by revealing how smart animals really are, and how we’ve underestimated their abilities for too long. People often assume a cognitive ladder, from lower to higher forms, with our own intelligence at the top. But what if it is more like a bush, with cognition taking different forms that are often incomparable to ours? Would you presume yourself dumber than a squirrel because you’re less adept at recalling the locations of hundreds of buried acorns? Or would you judge your perception of your surroundings as more sophisticated than that of a echolocating bat?
De Waal reviews the rise and fall of the mechanistic view of animals and opens our minds to the idea that animal minds are far more intricate and complex than we have assumed. De Waal’s landmark work will convince you to rethink everything you thought you knew about animal–and human–intelligence.
From the publisher: “A former student and colleague of Jane Goodall shares stories of chimps and their heroes, and takes readers on a journey to save man’s closest relative.
Unbeknownst to much of the public, chimps are in trouble- censuses show them to be extinct in four African countries and nearly so in ten others. A large percentage of the remaining populations live in unprotected, increasingly fragmented forests.
When Nancy Merrick learned these startling facts in 2009, she decided it was past time to discover the extent to which chimpanzees are at risk across Africa and what can be done. Merrick had begun working with primates in 1972 as a young field assistant in Jane Goodall’s famous Gombe camp. Like the rest of the world at the time, she was swept up in the excitement of discovering the remarkable world of chimpanzees-their ability to fashion tools, their dazzling intelligence, and their complex relationships and societies. From that moment on, her human-centered worldview shifted, and she became a devoted advocate for our closest genetic relatives.
When Merrick returns to Africa decades later, she’s alarmed by how much has changed. Human activity, such as agriculture and logging, has encroached on natural habitats throughout equatorial Africa, endangering chimpanzees, gorillas, and bonobos. In an effort to understand what we can do to save great apes, Merrick connects with primatologists and conservationists who are trying to protect the last great forests. Visits to some of Africa’s parks, sanctuaries, and expanding agricultural areas reveal the urgency of the problems and the inspiration of the people leading the search for solutions. Along the way, Merrick demonstrates that the best hope for chimps and other great apes lies in connecting conservation to humanitarian efforts, ensuring a healthy future for animals and humans alike.
Among Chimpanzees is at once an inspiring chronicle of Merrick’s personal search to learn how chimps are faring across Africa and in captivity, a crucial eyewitness account of a very critical period in their existence, and a rousing call for us to join the efforts to be a voice for the chimpanzees, before it’s too late.
Where do our best impulses come from? Empathy, cooperation, compassion? Do they arise from the rational application of divine instructions or moral codes, or are they part of our animal heritage? In The bonobo and the atheist, de Waal continues his defence of the latter view: “Rather than having developed morality from scratch through rational reflection, we received a huge push in the rear from our background as social animals.”
In various publications and lectures, de Waal has brought forward evidence against what he calls the veneer theory of morality; that morality is a thin veneer over our brutish natures. This view would have it that although this veneer is thin, it is what saves us from being ‘brutes’ and is also what separates us from ‘the brutes.’ Part of the arguments around morality, whether those from a religious or secular point of view, is that humans are exceptional, somehow removed from the rest of nature.
The discomfort felt by humans at the idea of a continuity with animals is heightened when talking about the great apes. When Queen Victoria first saw an orangutan in the London Zoo, she declared it “frightful, and painfully and disagreeably human.” De Waal however describes chimp and bonobo behaviours (based on thousands of observations in captivity and the wild) that are recognisable and attractive to us. Chimps and bonobos appear to display gratitude, they have impulse control, they comfort one another, they behave as though regretful, and they have ‘eureka moments’ that not only help them solve puzzles to help themselves, but also to help others, and to work out ways to alleviate the pain and discomfort of others.
De Waal goes through all the arguments for morality and codes of ethics either descending from on high, or being a very late and very human phenomenon, and gently demolishes them. He points out how morality came before religion, how scientific arguments are often “less fact-driven than is widely assumed”, and how misunderstood and underestimated animals are when motives and behaviours are being discussed: “If people ask how chimpanzees can possibly be called empathic, knowing that they sometimes kill one another, my return question is always whether by the same token we shouldn’t abandon the whole notion of human empathy as well.”
De Waal has no time for evangelical atheism and, although an atheist himself, understands the community role that religion plays in our society: “The enemy of science is not religion” … “I consider dogmatism a far greater threat than religion per se”, and he means scientific as well as religious dogmatism. He sees the origins of ethical behaviour in humans deeply rooted in the one-on-one relationships between animals, and second order behaviours arising from ‘community concern.’
De Waal’s writing is accessible and his arguments clear. He is amazed by fellow scientists tying themselves in knots trying to explain away altruism in ourselves and other animals, and wonders if it is a male problem: “It is telling that not a single woman scientist that I know of has got carried away by the question of where altruism has come from.” He isn’t heavy handed in stating the obvious; when talking about bonobos, who only live in the Democratic Republic of Congo and among whom there have been “no confirmed reports of lethal aggression”, he just mentions in passing the difficulties of research there as “The DRC has only recently emerged from a bloody civil war that killed an estimated five million people.”
The bonobo and the atheist is full of interesting observations: The confusion people make between predation and aggression; the difference between the origin of a trait and its subsequent uses; the common comparisons made between human altruism and the behaviours of social insects rather than those of other mammalian societies; and, how when testing animals, researchers often assume the animal doesn’t understand the problem, when it is the researcher who doesn’t understand the animal.
The bonobo and the atheist is another accessible and enlightening book by Frans de Waal.
From the publisher: “An absorbing investigation of chimpanzee language and communication by a young primatologist.
While working as a zookeeper with a group of semi-wild chimpanzees living on an island, primatologist Andrew Halloran witnessed an event that would cause him to become fascinated with how chimpanzees communicate complex information and ideas to one another.
The group he was working with was in the middle of a yearlong power battle in which the older chimpanzees were being ousted in favor of a younger group. One day Andrew carelessly forgot to secure his rowboat at the mainland and looked up to see it floating over to the chimp island. In an orchestrated fashion, five ousted members of the chimp group quietly came from different parts of the island and boarded the boat. Without confusion, they sat in two perfect rows of two, with Higgy, the deposed alpha male, at the back, propelling and steering the boat to shore.
The incident occurred without screams or disorder and appeared to have been preplanned and communicated. Since this event, Andrew has extensively studied primate communication and, in particular, how this group of chimpanzees naturally communicated. What he found is that chimpanzees use a set of vocalizations every bit as complex as human language.
The Song of the Ape traces the individual histories of each of the five chimpanzees on the boat, some of whom came to the zoo after being wild-caught chimps raised as pets, circus performers, and lab chimps, and examines how these histories led to the common lexicon of the group.
Interspersed with these histories, the book details the long history of scientists attempting (and failing) to train apes to use human grammar and language, using the well-known and controversial examples of Koko the gorilla, Kanzi the bonobo, and Nim Chimsky the chimpanzee, all of whom supposedly were able to communicate with their human caretakers using sign language.
Ultimately, the book shows that while laboratories try in vain to teach human grammar to a chimpanzee, there is a living lexicon being passed down through the generations of each chimpanzee group in the wild. Halloran demonstrates what that lexicon looks like with twenty-five phrases he recorded, isolated, and interpreted while working with the chimps, and concludes that what is occurring in nature is far more fascinating and miraculous than anything that can be created in a laboratory.
The Song of the Ape is a lively, engaging, and personal account, with many moments of humor as well as the occasional heartbreak, and it will appeal to anyone who wants to listen in as our closest relatives converse.”
A wonderfully comprehensive documenting of Nishida’s work with the chimps of the Mahale Mountains, on the eastern shore of by Lake Tanganyika. Beautifully illustrated and full of great research and consideration of culture, documenting in detail the tool use that is unique to the area. The book is factual and particular, but Nihida’s love of his subjects shines through – he insists they make beds not nests at night. Nishida wrote and designed the book before sadly passing away before its publication.
From the publisher: “Chimpanzees are humanity’s closest living relations and are of enduring interest to a range of sciences, from anthropology to zoology. In the West, many know of the pioneering work of Jane Goodall, whose studies of these apes at Gombe in Tanzania are justly famous. Less well-known, but equally important, are the studies carried out by Toshisada Nishida on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika. Comparison between the two sites yields both notable similarities and startling contrasts. Nishida has written a comprehensive synthesis of his work on the behavior and ecology of the chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains. With topics ranging from individual development to population-specific behavioral patterns, it reveals the complexity of social life, from male struggles for dominant status to female travails in raising offspring. Richly illustrated, the author blends anecdotes with powerful data to explore the fascinating world of the chimpanzees of the lakeshore.”
An informative, honest and heart-warming book.
From the publisher: “A young woman follows her fiancé to war-torn Congo to study extremely endangered bonobo apes-who teach her a new truth about love and belonging.
In 2005, Vanessa Woods accepted a marriage proposal from a man she barely knew and agreed to join him on a research trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country reeling from a brutal decade-long war that had claimed the lives of millions. Settling in at a bonobo sanctuary in Congo’s capital, Vanessa and her fiancé entered the world of a rare ape with whom we share 98.7 percent of our DNA. She soon discovered that many of the inhabitants of the sanctuary-ape and human alike-are refugees from unspeakable violence, yet bonobos live in a peaceful society in which females are in charge, war is nonexistent, and sex is as common and friendly as a handshake.
A fascinating memoir of hope and adventure, Bonobo Handshake traces Vanessa’s self-discovery as she finds herself falling deeply in love with her husband, the apes, and her new surroundings while probing life’s greatest question: What ultimately makes us human? Courageous and extraordinary, this true story of revelation and transformation in a fragile corner of Africa is about looking past the differences between animals and ourselves, and finding in them the same extraordinary courage and will to survive. For Vanessa, it is about finding her own path as a writer and scientist, falling in love, and finding a home.
In 1925, the American psychologist and primatologist Robert Yerkes published his book Almost human, arguing that the similarities between humans and chimpanzees would make chimps good objects for scientific study. In Almost chimpanzee, Jon Cohen explores how different our two species are, and what that might mean for our relationship with chimps.
In 1863, in his Evidence as to man’s place in nature, Thomas Huxley asked “Is man so different from any of these Apes that he must form an order by himself?” Taxonomically chimpanzees were classified along with gorillas and orangutans as Pongids, while humans were classified as Hominids. With DNA analysis we now know that Huxley was right, humans are more closely related to chimpanzees than either species is to gorillas or orangutans. Much has been made of this close genetic relationship; a quick Internet search will throw up a range from 96% to 99% of DNA shared by chimps and humans – I own a t-shirt saying I am 98.7% chimpanzee.
Humans haven’t always been comfortable with having close chimpanzee relatives; as well as advocating for chimps to be used for research, in Almost human, Yerkes tried to counter the revulsion people felt for chimpanzees, the view that they were “inventions of the devil.” This negative view might have arisen in part from feelings similar to the “uncanny valley” phenomenon of robotics and virtual reality – humans being creeped out by beings that look imperfectly like us, but it was also related to the increasing acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the discomfort some felt with ‘just’ being part of the animal world in general and related to chimpanzees in particular.
Since Yerkes established his Primate Laboratory in the early 1920s, there have been many scientists and researchers who have argued for better treatment of chimpanzees in laboratories, in zoos, in captivity and in the wild, and against their use in invasive research. High profile authors such as Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal go further, advocating that chimps don’t just share our DNA, they share our ability to view the world with self-awareness, compassion, Machiavellian strategizing, and a sense of awe and wonder.
This emphasis on the similarities between chimps and humans has been a double-edged sword for the chimps; as well as a reason to treat them with special regard, the kinship between humans and chimps has been used as a rationale for invasive research for human benefit, keeping chimps as pets, displaying them in zoos and circuses and eating them to absorb their power or fecundity. The commodity value of chimps outside of their territories has on the one hand made them attractive for poaching, and on the other, according to Emily Otali, Field Director of the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, Uganda, made it difficult to enlist local support for chimp protection as: “People look at chimps as belonging to the white people.”
Cohen questions the narrative of ‘closeness’ and looks at many aspects of the human/chimpanzee relationship. He visits chimps in the wild, in labs, in sanctuaries, and talks to researchers in many disciplines in many countries. He states he has ‘no agenda’, and he talks of how valuable chimps are as research commodities, as well as presenting the views of those who believe that chimps deserve special regard. He describes the medical breakthroughs that have led from research on chimps but doesn’t shy away from the suffering that was endured during that research. And the suffering of chimps isn’t confined to those in captivity; his interview with Otali includes horrific descriptions of the snaring of chimps in Kibale.
Cohen includes a lot of detailed science; blood work, DNA, hybridisation, theories of evolutionary development, genetics, evolutionary theory, medical science experiments, space science experiments, morphology. And he discusses the chimpanzee language experiments and those looking at ‘theory of mind’ (i.e. the ability to infer the mental states of others). It is primarily in these areas where some researchers believe genetic and morphological similarities do not lead to ‘inner life’ similarities. In the words of Daniel Povinelli: “just because we look alike does not mean we think alike.”
Cohen criticises Goodall (at one point he refers to her as ‘Saint Jane’) for embellishing some stories to emphasise the inner life of chimps: “Goodall twists the facts to serve the moral of the story she wants to emphasise: more and more people are recognizing that chimpanzees are almost human, and they should be treated with similar respect, dignity and concern.” This is criticism of Goodall’s use of information to try and gain wide public support for chimpanzee conservation, not of her research. There is a wealth of research that would counter Cohen’s view in Almost chimpanzee that chimps don’t just lack a ‘theory of mind’, they have in fact ‘mindblindness’, such as people living with autism do who “have difficulty understanding the wants and beliefs of others.”
Cohen sides with the sceptics in discussions of the chimpanzee language experiments and ‘theory of mind’, and a large part of this scepticism hinges on a supposed lack of ability in chimps to teach. Psychologist David Premack is quoted as saying: “chimpanzees would not evolve a language for a simple reason: they do not teach one another, which is how human children develop vocabulary.” And in the context of ‘theory of mind’ Premack says: “Chimpanzee mothers do not recognize that their infants lack knowledge and cannot, therefore, crack nuts with rocks. … Therefore they do not teach them.”
Cohen mentions the inability to teach throughout the book: “chimpanzees do not teach each other anything.” At one point he does grudgingly allow “Could it be that there are [chimp] behaviors that lean towards instruction but do not qualify as teaching?” But chimpanzees do ‘learn’, de Waal in his 2019 book Mama’s last hug observes: “We know from a wealth of research that young chimps learn from their elders not only what to eat and what to avoid but also how to access hard-to-reach foods. They learn how to fish for termites, crack nuts, and collect honey from beehives” (p. 159). Cohen mentions Washoe, the first chimp to learn some American Sign Language (ASL) signs, but doesn’t discuss Loulis, her adopted son who learnt some ASL signs from Washoe. Learning by imitation is still transmission of knowledge and skill, employed by humans as well as chimpanzees.
In Almost chimpanzee, Cohen sets out to look at the differences between chimps and humans and ends up by being sceptical of chimps having a rich inner life, because that life is not the same as that experienced by humans. Most of the experiments on chimpanzees are aimed at learning more about humans or trying to gain benefit for our species, and therefore many of our judgements about them are based on comparisons with us and our human abilities. Chimps may not be ‘almost human’ but they are entirely chimpanzee, and that alone, not their similarity or ‘use’ to us, should be reason to protect them and allow them to flourish.
I think Cohen would agree that even though he sees a marked discontinuity between chimpanzees and humans, they still deserve special regard and protection. In a lovely touch he ends his book reflecting on his visits to Geza Teleki, a primatologist who was beyond caring if chimps were similar or dissimilar to us, he just wanted them left alone. Teleki’s life was changed one evening at Gombe National Park in Tanzania in the late 1960s, when he observed two chimps greet each other and sit together to watch the sunset (described in his essay They are us in The Great Ape Project (1993)): Teleki said “I had seen my species inside the skin of another.” Cohen quotes Teleki trying to put into words the experience of being in the presence of chimpanzees and how “… there is no animal anywhere in the world where I’ve experienced what I’ve experienced with a chimp.” Those who have felt this connection understand, and Cohen himself relates a similar experience he had when he was amongst chimpanzees in the wild and having the feeling that he was “almost a chimpanzee myself.”
Almost chimpanzee is an extensive overview of human/chimp relationships, however there are some omissions, particularly around research on chimpanzee culture. The book is a good addition to the growing body of popular work on chimpanzees, and the more information out there on these wonderful animals the better, as there is no getting away from the fact that, as Cohen says, “Humans will determine the fate of chimpanzees. Chimpanzees of course will have no say in the fate of humans.”
I struggled with the emphasis on ape brutality in this book – especially the descriptions of Mawa in the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary:
From the publisher: “The great apes—bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas—live in some of the most volatile regions on our planet, lands plagued by civil unrest, poverty, environmental degradation, and corrupt governments.
In Among the Great Apes, acclaimed nature journalist Paul Raffaele goes into the wild to see how our closest relatives are faring today. He takes us through isolated jungles and misty mountain forests, sharing wonderfully intimate observations of ape life paired with the most current research about their behavior.
Raffaele introduces us to leading conservationists and researchers working to save
and study the apes. But best of all, he gets up close to these amazing animals. As Raffaele moves from Borneo to the Congo, Rwanda, Cameroon, and Uganda in Among the Great Apes, he brings us to the natural habitats of all the species and subspecies of the great apes—a trip possible for perhaps the last time.”
From the publisher: Can virtuous behavior be explained by nature, and not by human rational choice? “It’s the animal in us,” we often hear when we’ve been bad. But why not when we’re good? Primates and Philosophers tackles this question by exploring the biological foundations of one of humanity’s most valued traits: morality.
In this provocative book, renowned primatologist Frans de Waal argues that modern-day evolutionary biology takes far too dim a view of the natural world, emphasizing our “selfish” genes and reinforcing our habit of labeling ethical behavior as humane and the less civilized as animalistic. Seeking the origin of human morality not in evolution but in human culture, science insists that we are moral by choice, not by nature.
Citing remarkable evidence based on his extensive research of primate behavior, de Waal attacks “Veneer Theory,” which posits morality as a thin overlay on an otherwise nasty nature. He explains how we evolved from a long line of animals that care for the weak and build cooperation with reciprocal transactions. Drawing on Darwin, recent scientific advances, and his extensive research of primate behavior, de Waal demonstrates a strong continuity between human and animal behavior. He probes issues such as anthropomorphism and human responsibilities toward animals. His compelling account of how human morality evolved out of mammalian society will fascinate anyone who has ever wondered about the origins and reach of human goodness.
Based on the Tanner Lectures de Waal delivered at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values in 2004, Primates and Philosophers includes responses by the philosophers Peter Singer, Christine M. Korsgaard, and Philip Kitcher and the science writer Robert Wright. They press de Waal to clarify the differences between humans and other animals, yielding a lively debate that will fascinate all those who wonder about the origins and reach of human goodness.