Friday, August 15, 2008

Apes are humans too...

Well...close enough. Anthropologist Barbara King has an opinion piece in Washington Times responding to an earlier article (by La Valle) against the Spanish efforts to grant human rights to apes (also see here and here):

La Valle argued that the Spanish Parliament should not award human rights to apes, as it is considering. He opened with a throwaway line about monkeys in the circus -- and made his first mistake. First of all, monkeys' bodies are smaller than those of apes, their thinking is less complex and they are more distantly related to humans. But a far more serious error was La Valle's assertion that apes are "irrational, amoral."

In an echo of 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes' dualism, La Valle invoked a strict dividing line between humans, who reason, and animals that rely on "instinctual, inherited knowledge of how to survive." It's clear that La Valle hasn't spent much time with apes lately -- or looking into any of the major findings by primate scientists over the past two or three decades. In expressing reasoning and empathy, Binti Jua was not unique; nor was her behavior an artifact of zoo life. Wild chimpanzees plan ahead and carry tools to work sites, where they crack open hard-shelled nuts with wood and stone hammers. They choose sides thoughtfully in ongoing competitions for status and reward friends' loyalties while exacting revenge on their enemies. When close companions suffer wounds or injuries, wild chimpanzees groom and care for them. (This compassion by chimpanzees, it must be said, is at times matched by their outright cruelty to each other. What species does that remind you of?)

Plus, these primates may provide crucial information about origins of morality and may be even religious thinking:

The apes that I have described, and many more that my fellow primatologists write about, are neither irrational nor amoral. The zoologist and ethologist Frans de Waal has argued that the origins of morality can be found in our primate cousins, and my own anthropological work suggests that the evolutionary roots of today's human religiosity can be found in the ape world.

Read the full article here. At the beginning of her article, she mentions an incident of a gorilla saving a human boy:

A toddler falls over a railing, 24 feet down, into the gorilla enclosure of the Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago. There he lies, unconscious, among seven apes, some with poundage and power exceeding that of an adult man. As one of them approaches the boy, onlookers tense. But Binti Jua, an 8-year-old female gorilla, picks up the boy, and, carrying him along with her own infant, gently hands him over to zoo staff.

Well here is a grainy video of the incident (with an overdramatized commentary and music), and the picture of Binti Jua and her daughter, Koola (from 1996):