Chimpanzees Reflecting Humans?

There is a lesson to learn in watching other primates.  That is one of the  few points of general agreement in a debate about Wrangham's "Demonic  Male" theory.  But this should not be wholly the domain of  primatologists. The questions raised  should now be occupying anthropologists, psychologists,  archaeologists and maybe even historians.  Before we get too tied up  about whether the male genetic traits are responsible for a mode of  behaviour, let us not lose sight  of a far more valuable lesson to be learned.  There could be, in our close cousins, an opportunity to understand how our own ancestors crossed the line from being one of the many apes and rose to  the top of the food chain.  Furthermore, we may not be comfortable with where the chimpanzee example may lead but in gaining an insight into our own past, we will also gain a much broader perspective on the evolutionary potential of species and, perhaps, discard some of the narrow thinking on what defines an intelligent race.

One of the least endearing qualities of humanity is our arrogance.  On the one hand, it has led us to attempt things that have led to magnificent  achievement, to create masterpieces which otherwise might have never been more than daydreams.  But in our treatment of other species, it has often held us back from making discoveries as  early as we should. We have discarded behavioural data because we have been unwilling to admit what it suggests. We have put down anomalies as irrelevant, caused by  too close contact with ourselves, something we taught other animals to  do, committing the sin of "humanising" animals.  In so doing, we have denied a fundamental fact.  Evolution is a continuing process. We are not alone in making leaps and bounds in our development.  We have an enormous advantage over most  other animals which, combined with the right stimuli  have enabled us to rise above all others in technological  sophistication, at least.  I will return to the argument for equal  opportunity, later.

Let us focus, for the  moment on the studies of our nearest relative, the  chimpanzee.  Data from Gombe changed the view of the chimpanzee forever.  In less than thirty years, we have seen tribal warfare,  development of tools and sophisticated  communication, all measures that we have previously ascribed to the definition of a basic culture.  In effect, what we have  seen is the evolution of the chimpanzee. Whether the stimulus was caused by the presence of man is  irrelevant. What we may now be able to observe is how our earliest ancestors behaved and developed.  The question we should be considering is what further steps should we take to further this  research?  How far are we  willing to pursue the question How did we develop from ape to mankind?

What we have seen in the Gombe chimpanzees does offer a fascinating, if  uncomfortable insight into human behavioural development.  Let me offer, then,  some thoughts on the question that was asked as to why  they have shown these traits so starkly and why it is not a case of  "humanising" the subjects but observing behaviour that is consistent  with the way our ancestors surely behaved and humans, today, still behave.  William  Golding observed through "Lord of the Flies" that the agressive behaviour of the collective exceeds  that of normal circumstances and even more so without the presence of moderating factors, such as the female of the species. Interestingly,  that fits with research into the bonobons, a smaller chimpanzee which  exhibits signs of equality within the social structure or even female dominance.  Human history provides a wealth of evidence that given a strong and particularly aggressive male leader, a group will quickly  form around him whose attributes tend towards physical violence as a  means to resolve issues.  All the evidence also suggests that it is not intellectuals who have led us forward. In any playground in any school in the world, the physically strong, the bully, will intimidate and overrun the intellectual. In primitive tribal culture, physical prowess  is the foremost skill of the leader, followed by native cunning and the  ability to gather support from those who can enforce his methodology and decisions upon the majority.

I would suggest that the chimpanzee who was named "Frodo" by Dr Goodall, represents a typical tribal leader.  The best hunter, the strongest  male, the most ready to challenge even the humans present, "Frodo" took over control of the tribe and his style is one of the major  causes of the excessive agression demonstrated by this group.  However, if we were to place this group with any three others whose behaviour was more peaceful, inluding  the bonobos, I would suggest that the Gombe tribe would swiftly assimilate or eliminate the competition. Intellectual prowess, equality and pacifism did not give any human civilisation its  pre-eminence. It was the ability to wage war effectively. We have to face a fundamental truth about ourselves. We are not the product of the most inventive, thinking  ape. We are the product of the strongest and most aggressive ape.  This is not the only reason that I  would suggest for aggression in the Gombe chimpanzee but is one thought to consider.

Let us turn, briefly, to a term that I particularly dislike. "Humanising"  is used emotively by scientists who wish to dismiss the findings and  questions raised by comparison of chimpanzee (or any animal) to humans.  It suggests that, like the naming of animals and the way we talk to pets, we are seeing them as humans and trying to ascribe human behaviour to  instinct.  Turn this on its head.  How much of our own  behaviour is refined instinct? 

Recording the data on the chimpanzees and then asking the far wider question of  whether they have reached a higher rung on the  evolutionary ladder, behaving as our earliest ancestors  might have done,is not humanising them. It is recognising that there has been a change both in our perception of many animals as "dumb" and in recognising that we are  experiencing evolution of a species whose shared genetic code could enable them to become an uncomfortable rival, at least at  the level where we might have to recognise them as a people and not a  pack.

Another argument that has  been cited as some sort of negative in the debate is  that it is human pressure that has created this behaviour in the Gombe chimpanzee.  That may very well be true. Does it have a relevance to the argument about  evolution?  We are the result of a series of stimuli that challenged our ancestors with the basic premise "adapt or die". The advantage that enabled humanity to get to its position was genetic. We had the potential brain  function, ease of communication and suitable physical attributes to manipulate tools, to name some key ones.  It can be no  co-incidence that one of the great leaps forward in our evolution came  as the ice age drew to a close. What greater challenge had existed than so critical a  change to the environment?  Let's face the facts. Neanderthals could  have given rise to dominant species of today but they did not do so. Our ancestors wiped them out. It wasn't a case of outthinking them. It was a case of combining aggression and better use of weapons. For all we know, the Neanderthal might have been our intellectual and philosophical superior.

If the presence of humans triggered  the change in the Gombe chimpanzee, that is merely a  form of evolutionary stimuli at work. The same can be said for the environmental pressures placed on the group by felling and proximity of  refugee camps. 

More importantly, in comparing the behavioural traits that make their evolution uncomfortably close to our own, the aggression may  well be fueled by these circumstances. We know that if you place too many humans in close confines, the accepted social behaviour and structure begins to break  down. For example, where whole families have been constrained to living in a single flat or worse, a single room, the behaviour of the  alpha-male often descends into the most basic instinctive behaviour. Breeding with all available females, even his own offspring has been recorded on numerous  occasions. Abuse of the rest of the family, display of unacceptable aggression, even resulting in serious  injuries to others in the group is commonplace.  When a community becomes overcrowded and conditions deteriorate, so also does social behaviour. We learned it about tower blocks and tenements. We know it is a prevalent condition of life in shanty towns and slums.

The first stage is aggression to one another. Given leaders, the aggression turns on those who have the space and the resources. We return to our  instinct to seize what we need at the behest of others. So, too, have the Gombe chimpanzees. In fact, they even had a civil war over land rights and leadership.   Competition is a natural state for all animals and we all react to it.  The difference is this. A group  of lions may fight over pride territory. They will fight other lions and they may drive off other predators to protect their  food sources.  We pre-emptively attack even when we have resources in order to gain quality as well  as quantity. We have ambition.

Perhaps we should  re-evaluate "Frodo's" attack on a human child in that light.  He has already declared his view on humanity as competition through his  treatment of Dr Goodall. In some ways, that behaviour looks more like a conscious decision than basic instinct. After all, the chimpanzees were being fed more than  sufficiently and his tribe had control of enough territory for their  instinctive purposes. One further  theory, which has not, as far as I am aware, been discussed, is the possibility that something in the fermenting fruit or other foodstuff of chimpanzees is having the same effect as alcohol in humans. If you wish to observe heightened aggression and demonic male type behaviour, watch a crowd of younger men spill out of any public house on a Saturday night when they've had too much to drink.

We share 99% of our genetic base with the chimpanzee. What,  then, is it that differentiates humans? Why do we not see chimpanzees driving past us to work, sitting on the train with the morning broadsheet or introducing our favourite television shows?

I would like to return to what I call "equal opportunity".  In essence, all animals have had a potential to evolve and reach the top of the food chain.  Some have advantages over others that have allowed them to go further, faster.  It would be  impossible to say whether there were less, more or approximately the same number of stimuli required for one species to progress faster than another although it is almost certain that those with higher brain capacity would gain the  advantage.  We know that evolution is not a slow, gradual process. Change and adaptation can occur very quickly. If we looked to the traits that are used to classify orders and families, we should be able, in time, to pick out which of those are the key attributes. There are some  characteristics that give one animal an advantage over another in moving farther up the evolutionary ladder, given the same stimulus. Almost certainly two of those would be the  brain capacity and digits with which to manipulate what Nature makes available. Where we are limiting our thinking is to insist  that unless an animal acts in a human manner, right down to use of  speech, that it has not advanced to a level where it could, potentially cross that line from pack to tribe and develop a culture.

In the case of the chimpanzee, we first held up the belief that the other  primates were animals because they could not use tools and  had no meaningful communication in the way that man can speak.  The first myth was swept away at least thirty years ago when the broader zoological community finally stopped discounting what was going on in front of observers' eyes and recognised that  the chimpanzee was capable of creating and using simple tools. At first, there was an attempt to redefine the tool as requiring fashioning, not simply picking up an object. This was necessary because it had also been pointed out  that sea otters break open shells using a rock placed upon their chest. Other animals were also capable of such rudimentary  tool use. Some birds were observed using sticks and grasses to obtain insects from holes.  But what  has continually been denied, is that any other animal has a sophisticated language capable of differentiating meaning at a granular level, in the way that the human has and does do.

Until very recently. The computer has allowed  us to develop software that can record, accurately, the speech patterns of animals. In tests, Chimpanzees, replayed calls which were recorded when certain types of food were provided, were able to accurately identify from four  slides, which fruit was being referred to by the  recorded sound.  This has opened up a whole range of potential tests to find out what other information, the Chimpanzee is capable of expressing.  It proves that there is a level of sophistication to chimpanzee speech.

The only reason that we have ignored this possibility, previously, is  because Chimpanzees calls do not sound like human speech. Narrow thinking will continue to hold back research if  we insist that only human behaviour is evidence of  culture.  Maybe there is a link between those who place artificial  limits on the research criteria and use the word "humanising".  We could depart, at this point, into a debate on whether we have ignored other forms of speech  because they don't sound like our own. We know very little, for instance, about cetacean sound patterns and what meanings they may have. It is very likely that they would be complex enough to be classified as speech, given the  brain capacity of whales and dolphins.

It seems that we must either reclassify what defines culture and sub-culture or we must accept that by our definition, we have found evidence that we are not the only civilised race on the  planet.

That being so, what are the next steps?  A moral question that will be raised is how far is it reasonable to go in the pursuit of science. In any study whether  of human tribal cultures, today or research into  Chimpanzees in Gombe, human intervention could be unnaturally causing  stress to the culture it is trying to understand. However, as I have  stated, earlier, if this is so, then maybe  we accept that is how other evolutionary change was  forced in the past. However, if we really wanted to find out how our  ancestors moved to the next stage, we need to create a controlled  experiment where we can observe the chimpanzees without being physically present. Using modern technology, that should be very simple. The other issue would not be so easy. We would need to relocate three or four tribes to one  island in order to isolate them from  further human competition. There, we could create challenges, observing the behaviour of our subjects and, in particular, the dominance of any one group. Given the use of tools to open shells  and obtain other food, the Gombe  chimpanzees are close to man's most important discovery, the weapon. It would not be surprising to see them take that step in  the near future if circumstances demanded. It is no accident that more  inventions have been created  during warfare than any other times in our history. And if the Gombe contingent were one of the subject groups and if, as I would predict, they not only became the dominant ones but took further  steps on the ladder, does this mean that if man should depart,  chimpanzees are waiting in the wings to inherit the earth?  Or does it point to a more obvious conclusion about our own past?  We are already living on the Planet of the Apes.


With thanks to:

  • Dr Jane Goodall
  • Prof Robert Sussman
  • Prof Richard Wrangham
  • Prof Sarah Boysen
  • John Horgan
  • & Sylvander

For the stimulation that produced this essay.

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