Friday, February 1, 2013

Chimpanzee Culture Club

Studies that compare human and chimpanzee behavior and psychology continue to arouse opposition in the academy, not to mention in the larger political and religious cultures.  Most of that opposition aims at one direction of the comparison: the attempt to understand human beings on the hypothesis that they are, after all, apes.  In that case the argument goes that human culture is so diverse and rich that people are not, for any practical purpose, apes.  The standard social science model would restrict explanations of social or psychological facts about human beings to other social and psychological facts, excluding any explanations that rely on biology and especially explanations that seek cross-specific causation. 
The opposition works the other way.  If it is a sin to interpret humans as apes so also it is a sin to anthropomorphize apes.  Attributing culture to chimpanzees is seen as such a case of anthropomorphizing.  According to this view, culture is an essential human property and must be safely protected against incursions by our biological relatives.  Hardcore psychologists and hardcore anthropologists are contemptuous of any attributions of culture to chimpanzees. 
W. G. Runciman is contemptuous of their contempt in his review of Christopher Boesch’s book Wild Cultures: A Comparison between Chimpanzees and Human Cultures.  Here is a summary of his view:
Whether the latter-day counterparts of indignant Victorian clerics like it or not, chimpanzees are like us in ways that both religious and secular opinions had ruled out a priori for centuries.  The complacent assumptions that only humans can fashion tools, teach learn from one another, form sustainable alliances and cooperate in joint activity in pursuit of a common purpose are by now as outdated as pre-Copernican astronomy. 
This statement is scathing but not, I think, unwarranted.  There is something decidedly Victorian about those defenders of human uniqueness who are worried that the animal people will come into the parlor and ruin the carpet. 
It is a good idea to be wary of anthropomorphizing the apes. 
There is, admittedly, a risk of over-interpreting observations of other species in terms of human character types.  It may be mistaken, however tempting, to pick out among the chimpanzees the cheating spouses, the ambitious politicians, the willy pranksters, the importunate beggars, the inconsolable mourners, the unselfish mothers, and the loyal friends whom we know so well from among ourselves. 
I would add: yes, but it is not always mistaken and sometimes it is dead spot on.  All science since Plato rests on the assumption that the laws governing both human perception and human logic reflect the laws governing nature.  This is true of biology as it is of physics.  When two chimpanzees form an alliance in order to depose an alpha male and the latter’s testicles end up on the enclosure floor, that is politics.  It would be anthropomorphizing, perhaps, to assume that the chimpanzees can view the event as we do, standing back and abstracting from the situation.  However, the logic of the event is exactly the same as that which governs every palace coup where naked apes occupy the palace.  Someone who doubts this has the burden of proof on his side. 
Hardcore psychologists criticize human-chimpanzee comparisons that are not subject to the conditions of the controlled experiment.  Runciman points out the limitation involved in that standard. 
Boesch has some telling criticisms to make of experiments made on chimpanzees removed from their natural habitats.  There are skills and capacities that are not going to be elicited under the inhibiting constraints of a wholly alien environment.  If a chimpanzee fails to cooperate with a human subject or an unknown fellow chimpanzee in a laboratory experiment, that is no proof that of an inability to cooperate with a known associate in the wild. 
That seems right.  The nature of a species is context specific.  Experiments comparing chimpanzee cooperation with human cooperation (for example, those lead by Michael Tomasello, may tell us a lot.  They are limited by the fact that children playing games with an experimenter are acting in their native habitat whereas the chimpanzees are not. 
I think that the academic opposition to the integration of the human sciences and biology in general is a fading cause.  Research is going to bury it sooner rather than later.  I also think that this is no loss for human dignity.  I agree with Aristotle that human beings represent something fundamentally new on earth, compared to the other organisms.  What is unique about humans and most worthy of celebrating can be seen clearly only in comparison.  We should make every effort to learn what we can about our heritage while there are still chimpanzees around to make the comparison possible. 

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