Thursday, July 07, 2011

All Too Human

The primate area at the zoo always disturbs me, and sometimes I actually refuse to go in and see the chimps and apes there.  They are just too human looking, and it makes me feel very uncomfortable to see them locked up for life. They are bored, and everything they do naturally is laughed at by humans who feel superior.  Well, I think our ancestors were very much like these apes, and we shouldn't feel so smug.  But for the grace of God, there go I and all of you as well.
With timing that never fails to amaze me, NOVA had a program just last night about Ape Genius, which addresses the question bothering me. Since apes share 98-99% of our DNA, why did we develop into humans, and they did not?  What makes us human? Recent research shows that apes may be more developed than we imagined before, with behavior and emotions very much like our own. The study included bonobos, an ape species living only in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the last great ape species to be discovered. Bonobos look more like humans than other apes, and display many behavioral similarities as well.
Different researchers studied mechanical aptitude, imitation, cooperation, social emotions, math/symbol skills, and communication in chimps and bonobos. When a peanut was placed at the bottom of a clear tube, I didn't come up with the answer, but the chimp filled the tube with water to float the peanut to the top. The chimps would watch as another chimp worked out the answer to a puzzle box, then imitate it to get the same reward. Teamwork and cooperation with each other didn't come naturally to the chimps, but they would cooperate with humans in the same situation.
The chimps in the study could gauge who is responsible for something done, determining intentions, as when another chimp stole the food. Bonobos helped each other at risk to themselves in defense of a dead bonobo which humans were trying to remove. A mother carried the body of her dead infant around for days. Grief? Sounds like it to me. Impulse control seemed to be a recurring theme.  The tests also studied human children's ability to control the desire for instant gratification. Greed and self interest is high on the chimp priorities when it comes to a dish of candy at least. But using symbols helped distance the ape from its impulses. One bonobo, in particular, performed a number of tasks based only on verbal requests from the human, understanding a sequence of actions to be performed in order, while displaying a large vocabulary.

Communication is a primary human trait however, which the apes did not do as well. Pointing to things, and the ability to almost mind read to understand which object is being pointed to is vital to human development, allowing us to use cooperative tools in ways other species do not.  Mothers and babies pay full attention to each other with shared goals and commitment, allowing them to learn.  In fact, one of the conclusions I made is that human desire to teach and learn is a big factor in making us human. So hurray for the teachers! All parents say they have a civilizing effect, and now we can see they have a humanizing effect a well.

1 comment:

Mary Howell Cromer said...

National Geographic had a great article on the Bonobos a couple of years ago, and they are really very neat creatures~