And What of Humans?

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.


About these ads

12 comments on “And What of Humans?

  1. Ahab says:

    With regard to tool use, corvids (crows, ravens, and magpies) have been documented using tools, so the skill is by no means limited to primates. As for language, the world discovered that some parrots are capable of sizeable vocabularies, as demonstrated by the African gray parrot Alex. Alex did not just repeat words, but understood words related to color, shape, material, and food, and could use them in context.

    It seems that primates do not have a corner on tools or language, and that the animal kingdom is full of surprises. Still, we have yet to encounter beings such as ourselves that anticipate future events, understand abstract ideas, or have anywhere near human-level intelligence. I wonder if we’ll ever find such intelligent life among the stars — or if it will find us? I also wonder if, with our advancing technology, if we will ever create human-like artificial intelligence.

    • Sherry says:

      Yes there are many mammals and birds that use tools. I’m not sure of any that actually “make” the tools other than primates however. Otters and birds use stones to break shelled creatures open for instance. I suspect parrots are close to primates in terms of language understanding. It would appear so at least.

      I find it pretty darn hard to imagine a universe as large as the one we inhabit without assuming that other evolutionary roads have led to intelligence at least as high as ours, and certainly, in all probability, ones that have far surpassed us. Time will tell as they say.

  2. Sherry, I think your insight is superb as to the differences (in the box experiment) between teachers and students and mere treat-seekers. You helped me. I also wonder if a female chimp would ever be motivated to teach her kids what she ‘learned’ in the experiment – my guess is that the young would become onlookers who must grasp by hook or crook the series of steps, while she simply did what she needed to get the treat (whether for herself or for them it doesn’t matter). Important difference there between the kind of ‘modeling’ of food-search (which I notice birds also do with their young) and an actual teaching process.

    Human mind can do marvelous things with animals around the whole vector of food rewards. Ask a tiger trainer. These experimental animals are in a hothouse of reward-motivated procedure under the close monitoring of (may I say it?) superior beings. How that result is scientific or a model of evolutionary process I don’t know, but obviously you and I can learn from it – so it is worthwhile.

    By the way, I absolutely cannot read your text-color choice with the green marble backdrop – I have the latest Explorer I think, so you might consider modifications of format. I caught your artical on my WordPress blog surfer first, or I literally wouldn’t have seen it.

    • Oh never mind about the text-background comment – it seems my browser picked everything up when I submitted the comment.

    • Sherry says:

      I thought the program explained very well the difference between mimicry for reward and truly “learning”. It was an eye-opener.

      As to the format? I am really confused. The typed portion is black typeface on white background. Outside the columns, it is green. Perhaps you didn’t wait for it to download completely? I know that many websites are opaque to me when they first appear until the backgrounds and so forth are finally uploaded and then I get the true site.

      No one has ever had a problem so far as I know with this template.

      Let me know if you are still having problems. I’ll go check it out myself in a bit.

  3. . says:

    Traditionally, Hindus believe the soul enters the body when the baby kicks for the first time. It’s the reincarnated spirit saying “Oh no, not again!” and pitching a little fit. :D

    “Life begins at conception” is more philosophy than science, although the people who say it will never admit it.

  4. . says:

    When I posted it, the browser deleted my name and changed my link. I don’t know what’s going on


  5. Infidel753 says:

    If you look into the literature on this in depth, you’ll find plenty of instances in which chimpanzees engaged in conversations with humans which didn’t have any apparent practical aim — expressing interest in others’ feelings, for example. I also know of at least one case of a gorilla playing a joke.

    Washoe, the first chimpanzee to learn human sign language, systematically taught it to her adopted son Loulis, who thereby because the first non-human to be taught sign language by another non-human.

    Apes and elephants have created art; how can anyone know that it is not “knowing” art?

    The differences between humans and other apes are differences of degree — and the more we learn, the smaller those differences are shown to be.

    • Sherry says:

      I had not heard of seemingly meaningless conversations. I would be most interested to hear move about that. If so, then I guess the bar is moved once again. I find the more we are alike, the more I like it.

Tell me, what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s