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Is man no more than this? Consider him well: Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume:—Ha! here’s three of us are sophisticated!—Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.King Lear1
Similarity is the shadow of difference. Two things are similar by virtue of their difference from another; or different by virtue of one’s similarity to a third. So it is with individuals. A short man is different from a tall man, but two men seem similar if contrasted with a woman. So it is with species. A man and a woman may be very different, but by comparison with a chimpanzee, it is their similarities that strike the eye – the hairless skin, the upright stance, the prominent nose. A chimpanzee, in turn, is similar to a human being when contrasted with a dog: the face, the hands, the 32 teeth, and so on. And a dog is like a person to the extent that both are unlike a fish. Difference is the shadow of similarity.
Consider, then, the feelings of a naïve young man, as he stepped ashore in Tierra del Fuego on 18 December 1832 for his first encounter with what we would now call hunter-gatherers, or what he would call ‘man in a state of nature’. Better still, let him tell us the story:
It was without exception the most curious & interesting spectacle I ever beheld. I would not have believed how entire the difference between savage & civilized man is. It is much greater than between a wild & domesticated animal, in as much as in man there is greater power of improvement…I believe if the world was searched, no lower grade of man could be found.2
The effect on Charles Darwin was all the more shocking, because these were not the first Fuegian natives he had seen. He had shared a ship with three who had been transported to Britain, dressed in frocks and coats and taken to meet the king. To Darwin they were just as human as any other person. Yet here were their relatives, suddenly seeming so much less human. They reminded him of…well, of animals. A month later, on finding the camp site of a single Fuegian limpet hunter in an even more remote spot, he wrote in his diary: ‘We found the place where he had slept – it positively afforded no more protection than the form of a hare. How very little are the habits of such a being superior to those of an animal.’3 Suddenly, he is writing not just about difference (between civilised and savage man), but about similarity – the affinity between such a man and an animal. The Fuegian is so different from the Cambridge graduate that he begins to seem similar to an animal.
Six years after his encounter with the Fuegian natives, in the spring of 1838, Darwin visited London Zoo and there for the first time saw a great ape. It was an orang-utan named Jenny, and it was the second ape to be brought to the zoo. Its predecessor, Tommy, a chimpanzee, was exhibited at the zoo for a few months in 1835 before he died of tuberculosis. Jenny was acquired by the zoo in 1837, and like Tommy she caused a small sensation in London society. She seemed such a human animal, or was it such a beastly person? Apes posed uncomfortable questions about the distinction between people and animals, between reason and instinct. Jenny featured on the cover of the Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, where the editorial reassured readers that ‘extraordinary as the Orang may be compared with its fellows of the brute creation, still in nothing does it trench upon the moral or mental provinces of man’. Queen Victoria, who saw a different orang-utan at the zoo in 1842, begged to differ. She described it as ‘frightful and painfully and disagreeably human’.4
After his first encounter with Jenny in 1838, Darwin returned to the zoo twice more a few months later. He came armed with a mouth organ, some peppermint and a sprig of verbena. Jenny seemed to appreciate all three. She seemed ‘astonished beyond measure’ at her reflection in a mirror. He wrote in his notebook: ‘Let man visit Ouran-outang in domestication…see its intelligence…and then let him boast of his proud pre-eminence…Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble and I believe true to consider him created from animals.’ He was applying to animals what he had been taught to apply to geology: the uniformitarian principle that the forces shaping the landscape today are the same as those that shaped the distant past. Later that September, while reading Malthus’s essay on population, he had his sudden insight into what we now know as natural selection.
Jenny had played her part. When she took the mouth organ from him and placed it to her lips, she had helped him realise how high above the brute some animals could rise, just as the Fuegians had made him realise how low beneath civilisation some humans could sink. Was there a gap at all?
He was not the first person to think this way. Indeed, a Scottish judge, Lord Monboddo, had speculated in the 1790s that orang-utans could speak – if educated. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was only one of several Enlightenment philosophers who wondered if apes were not continuous with ‘savages’. But it was Darwin who changed the way human beings think of their own nature. Within his lifetime, he saw educated opinion come to accept that human bodies were those of just another ape modified by descent from a common ancestor.
But Darwin had less success in persuading his fellow human beings that the same argument could apply to the mind. His consistent view, from his earliest notebooks after reading David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature to his last book, about earthworms, was that there was similarity, rather than difference, between human and animal behaviour. He tried the same mirror test on his children that he had tried on Jenny. He continually speculated on the animal parallels and evolutionary origins of human emotions, gestures, motives and habits. As he stated plainly, the mind needed evolution as much as the body did.
But in this he was deserted by many of his supporters, the psychologist William James being a notable exception. Alfred Russel Wallace, for example, the co-discoverer of the principle of natural selection, argued that the human mind was too complex to be the product of natural selection. It must instead be a supernatural creation. Wallace’s reasoning was both attractive and logical. It was based on similarity and difference again. Wallace was remarkable for his time in being mostly devoid of racial prejudice. He had lived among natives of South America and South-East Asia and he thought of them as equals, morally if not always intellectually. This led him to the belief that all races of humanity had similar mental abilities, which puzzled him because it implied that in most ‘primitive’ societies, the great part of human intelligence went unused. What was the point of being able to read or do long division if you were going to spend all your life in a tropical jungle? Ergo, said Wallace, ‘some higher intelligence directed the process by which the human race was developed’.5
We now know that Wallace’s assumption was entirely right, where Darwin’s was wrong. The gap between the ‘lowest’ human and the ‘highest’ ape is enormous. Genealogically, we all descend from a very recent common ancestor who lived just 150,000 years ago, whereas the last common ancestor with a chimpanzee lived at least five million years ago. Genetically, the differences between a human being and a chimpanzee are at least ten times as numerous as those between the two most dissimilar human beings. But Wallace’s deduction from this assumption, that therefore the human mind required a different kind of explanation from the animal mind, is not warranted. Just because two animals are different does not mean they cannot also be similar.
René Descartes had decreed firmly in the seventeenth century that people were rational and animals were automata. ‘They act not from knowledge but from the disposition of their organs…Brutes not only have a smaller degree of reason than men, but are wholly lacking in it.’6 Darwin dented this Cartesian distinction for a while. Freed at last from the need to think of the human mind as a divine creation, some of Darwin’s contemporaries, the ‘instinctivists’, began to think of humans as automata driven by instinct; others, the ‘mentalists’, began to credit the animal brain with reason and thought.
The mentalist anthropomorphism reached its apogee in the work of the Victorian psychologist, George Romanes, who eulogised the intelligence of pets, such as dogs that could lift latches and cats that seemed to understand their masters. Romanes believed that the only explanation for their behaviour was conscious choice. He went on to argue that each species of animal had a mind just like the human one, only frozen at a stage equivalent to a child of a certain age. Therefore, a chimpanzee had the mind of a young teenager, while a dog was equivalent to a younger child, and so on.7
Ignorance of wild animals sustained this notion. So little was known about the behaviour of apes that it was easy to go on thinking of them as primitive versions of people, rather than sophisticated animals that were brilliantly good at being apes. Especially with the discovery of the seemingly fierce gorilla in 1847, encounters between human beings and wild apes were exclusively brief and violent. When apes were brought to zoos, they had little opportunity to show their repertoire of wild habits, and their keepers seemed to evince more interest in their ability to ‘ape’ human customs than in what came naturally to them. For instance, from the very first arrival of chimpanzees in Europe, there seems to have been an obsession with serving them tea. The great French naturalist, Georges Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, was one of the first ‘scientists’ to see a captive chimp in about 1790. What did he find worth remarking? That he watched it ‘take a cup and saucer and lay them on the table, put in sugar, pour out its tea, leave it to cool without drinking’.8 Thomas Bewick, a few years later, reported breathlessly that an ape ‘shewn in London some years ago was taught to sit at table, make use of a spoon or fork in eating its victuals’.9 And when Tommy and Jenny reached London Zoo in the 1830s, they were quickly taught to eat and drink at table for the benefit of a paying audience. The tradition of the chimpanzee tea party was born. By the 1920s it was a daily ritual at London Zoo, the chimps trained both to ape human customs and to break them: ‘there was the ever present danger that their table manners would become too polished.’10 The chimpanzee tea parties at zoos ran for 50 years. In 1956, the Brooke Bond company made the first of many hugely successful television commercials for its tea using a chimps’ tea party, and Tetley finally dropped its chimps’ tea party advertisements only in 2002. By 1960, human beings still knew more about chimps’ ability to learn tea-table manners than they did about how the animals behaved in the wild. No wonder apes were viewed as ridiculous apprentice people.
In psychology, mentalism was soon ridiculed and demolished. The early twentieth-century psychologist Edward Thorndike demonstrated that Romanes’s dogs invariably learned their clever tricks by accident. They did not understand how a door latch worked; they simply repeated any action that accidentally enabled them to open the door. In reaction to the credulity of mentalism, psychologists began to make the opposite assumption: that animal behaviour was unconscious, automatic and reflex. The assumption was soon a creed. The radical behaviourists who brushed aside the mentalists in the same decade as the Bolsheviks brushed aside the Mensheviks asserted brusquely that animals did not think, reflect or reason; they just responded to stimuli. It became heresy even to talk about animals having mental states, let alone to attribute human understanding to them. Soon, under Burrhus Skinner, the behaviourists would apply the same logic to human beings. After all, people do not just anthropomorphise animals, accuse toasters of perversity and thunderstorms of fury. They also anthropomorphise other people, crediting them with too much reason and too little habit. Try reasoning with a nicotine addict.
But since nobody took Skinner all that seriously on the subject of people, the behaviourists had unwittingly restored the distinction between the human and the animal mind to exactly where Descartes had placed it. Sociologists and anthropologists, with their emphasis on the peculiarly human attribute called culture, had outlawed all talk of human instinct. By the middle of the twentieth century, it was heresy to speak of animal minds, and heresy to speak of human instincts. Difference, not similarity, was all.
THE SIMIAN SOAP OPERA
That was all to change in 1960, when a young woman virtually untrained in science began to watch chimpanzees on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. As she later wrote:
How naïve I was. As I had not had an undergraduate science education I didn’t realise that animals were not supposed to have personalities, or to think, or to feel emotions or pain…Not knowing, I freely made use of all those forbidden terms and concepts in my initial attempts to describe, to the best of my ability, the amazing things I had observed at Gombe.11
As a result, Jane Goodall’s account of life among the chimps of Gombe reads like a soap opera about the Wars of the Roses written by Jane Austen – all conflict and character. We feel the ambition, the jealousy, the deception and the affection; we distinguish personalities; we sense motives; we cannot help but empathise:
Gradually, Evered’s confidence returned – partly, no doubt, because Figan was by no means always with his brother: Faben was still friendly with Humphrey, and Figan, wisely, steered clear of the powerful male. Moreover, even when the brothers were together, Faben did not always help Figan: sometimes he just sat and watched.12
Though few realised it until later, Goodall’s anthropomorphism had driven a stake through the heart of human exceptionalism. Apes were revealed not as blundering, primitive automata, who were bad at being people, but as beings with social lives as complex and subtle as ours. Either human beings must be more instinctive, or animals must be more conscious than we had previously suspected. The similarities, not the differences, were what caught the attention.
Of course, the news that Goodall had narrowed the Cartesian gap travelled very slowly across the divide between animal and human sciences. Even though the very purpose of Goodall’s study, as conceived by her mentor the anthropologist Louis Leakey, was to shed light on the behaviour of ancient human ancestors, anthropologists and sociologists were trained to ignore animal findings as irrelevant. When Desmond Morris spelled out the similarities in his book The Naked Ape in 1967, he was generally dismissed as a sensationalist by most students of humankind.
Defining human uniqueness had been a cottage industry for philosophers for centuries. Aristotle said man was a political animal. Descartes said we were the only creature that could reason. Marx said we alone were capable of conscious choice. Now only by heroically narrow definitions of these concepts could Goodall’s chimps be excluded.
St Augustine said we were the only creature to have sex for pleasure rather than procreation. (A reformed libertine should know.) Chimpanzees begged to differ, and their southern relatives, bonobos, were soon to blow the definition to smithereens. Bonobos have sex to celebrate a good meal, to end an argument or to cement a friendship. Since much of this sex is homosexual or with juveniles, procreation cannot even be an accidental side effect.
Then we thought we were the only species to make and use tools. One of the first things Jane Goodall observed was chimpanzees fashioning stalks of grass to extract termites, or crushing sponges of leaves to get drinking water. Leakey telegraphed her ecstatically: ‘Now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.’
Next we told ourselves that we alone had culture: the ability to transmit acquired habits from one generation to the next by imitation. But what are we to make of the chimpanzees of the Tai forest in West Africa, which for many generations have taught their young to crack nuts using wooden hammers on a rock anvil? Or the killer whales that have utterly different hunting traditions, calling patterns and social systems according to which population they belong to?13
We had assumed we were the only animal to wage war and to kill our fellows. But in 1974 the chimps of Gombe (and subsequently most other colonies studied in Africa) put paid to that theory by raiding silently into the territory of neighbouring troops, ambushing the males and beating them to death.
We still believed we were the only animal with language. But then we discovered monkeys have a vocabulary for referring to different predators and birds, while apes and parrots are capable of learning quite large lexicons of symbols. So far there is nothing to suggest that any other animal can acquire a true grasp of grammar and syntax, though the jury is still out for dolphins.
Some scientists believe that chimpanzees do not have a ‘theory of mind’: that is, they cannot imagine what another chimpanzee is thinking. If so, for example, they could not act upon the knowledge that another individual holds a false belief. But experiments are ambiguous. Chimps regularly engage in deception. In one case, a baby chimp pretended that he was being attacked by an adolescent in order to get his mother to allow him to suckle from her nipple.14 It certainly looks as if they are capable of imagining how other chimps think.
More recently, the argument that only human beings have subjectivity has been revived. The author Kenan Malik argues that ‘humans simply are not like other animals and to assume we are is irrational…Animals are objects of natural forces, not potential subjects of their own destiny.’ Malik’s point is that because we, uniquely, possess consciousness and agency, so we alone can break out of the prison of our heads and go beyond a solipsistic view of the world. Yet I would argue that consciousness and agency are not confined to human beings, any more than instinct is confined to non-human animals. See almost any passage of Goodall’s books for evidence. Even baboons have recently performed well enough at computer discrimination tasks to show they are capable of abstract reasoning.15
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Citation styles for Nature via Nurture
APA 6 Citation
Ridley, M. (2011). Nature via Nurture ([edition unavailable]). HarperCollins Publishers. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/669552/nature-via-nurture-genes-experience-and-what-makes-us-human-pdf (Original work published 2011)
Ridley, Matt. (2011) 2011. Nature via Nurture. [Edition unavailable]. HarperCollins Publishers. https://www.perlego.com/book/669552/nature-via-nurture-genes-experience-and-what-makes-us-human-pdf.
Ridley, M. (2011) Nature via Nurture. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins Publishers. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/669552/nature-via-nurture-genes-experience-and-what-makes-us-human-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Ridley, Matt. Nature via Nurture. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins Publishers, 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.