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We watched a repeat of a PBS show last night entitled Ape Genius. And I got to thinking, as I usually do, about what it is that makes us human.

Those who are against allowing access to abortion to those that choose it, always claim that it is axiomatic that “life begins at conception.” And in a sense I suppose they are right. When sperm enters egg, the process that will potentially result in a human being undoubtedly begins.

But is that human life? The Court has of course decided in Roe v Wade that a different definition should be used: viability outside the womb–when a fetus can exist on its own–breathe basically–then we have a legal human being.

In our early exploration of human origins, paleontologists came to the conclusion that what separated humans from animals was the making and using of tools. One human ancestor was even named as such–Homo Habilis–handy man. Today we know that other animals make and use tools, and so we can no longer define ourselves by that grouping.

Today we know that chimps make tools, they fashion “fishing poles” to gain termites, and they also fashion spears made from long narrow branches which they sharpen at one end and poke into tree hollows where their favorite food, Bush Babies, nest during the day. If the spear comes out bloody, they rip the tree open and get their meal.

One might conclude that humans can learn new skills and this is what makes them special. But most chimps can be shown a process involving several steps, and quickly follow suit. They can also figure out how to enlist the help of others, even humans to help them get a treat. They will co-operate in securing a food which neither can get alone.

Chimps are social beings, they play, they physically interact beyond that required for child rearing and sexual activity. They, like some other mammals grieve the loss of members of their group.

One bonobo chimp has a vocabulary of over three thousand words. You can direct her to locate, within sight or out of sight, various objects and place them in other places. Chimps can learn numbers and can “count”, and even come to learn the sequential aspect of counting.

One of the most fascinating tests I saw was where a box was presented and the “teacher” went through a number of steps, the last of which was to poke a stick into a hole and fish out a treat. Children and chimps did equally well in following the steps. Then the box was replaced by the same kind of box except that it was transparent. The teacher went through the same sequence of steps again.

But now things changed. The chimps realized that most of the steps had zero to do with the getting of the treat. They quickly abandoned all the steps except the last one. The children, however, even though they could clearly see that most of the steps were just “hocus pocus” and had nothing to do with getting to the treat, continued to do as they had been shown.

Were the chimps smarter?

It might seem so, but in fact, it showed the difference between chimp and human. Chimps don’t see themselves as teachers of new skills, nor do they see others as teachers. They merely mimic behaviors that lead to an end they wish. When they can see that parts of that mimicry are unnecessary, the stop wasting the time doing it.

Humans, on the other hand, recognize themselves as students, and they recognize adults as teachers. They do as instructed because they perceive their lesser position and the deference due the adult teacher. They in essence perceive that there may be reasons they don’t yet perceive, for doing what seem unnecessary steps.

Similarly, an ape may “learn” words and be able to identify symbols with words, but it is all a means to very specific ends. They follow instructions (anticipating rewards) or they “ask” for things–usually food. You can teach an ape to correctly identify a cloud or rain, but it will never ask you if you think the clouds look like an oncoming storm.

It, doesn’t, in other words, participate in a conversation. It does not really anticipate what you mean, seek clarification, or respond to your thoughts.

All of this gives us pause as we try to figure out when and why humans become something unique among the animal kingdom. The more we study chimps and other high-functioning mammals, the more winding the road to what separates us from them.

Most assuredly, it leads to the inescapable conclusion that evolution is the driving means by which life changed and adapted. So little, be it genetic or practically, separates us from some members of the mammal world. Yet the outcome of whatever small differences exist, is a mammoth gulf. No chimp has built a car or computer, let alone created knowing art.  

The philosopher calls us to “know ourselves”. And only when we truly do, will we, I fear, be able to see that our likeness as humans so far outstrips our otherness. Carl Sagan once hoped that seeing ourselves as the “little blue dot” would help confirm that idea upon the human psyche. Sadly that didn’t really happen. Perhaps our continued study of our nearest relatives may lead us to that. One can but hope.


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