The message of the ape
This attitude reached its apogee in the early seventeenth century when the French philosopher Réné Descartes proclaimed that it was purely the intellectual faculty that bestowed personhood on the human being (cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am) and that not only the intellect but even awareness and sensation were unique to humans. All other animals were unfeeling automata, essentially machines made of flesh and blood. If you beat a dog and the dog howls, it is not really suffering; the noise is purely a mechanical reaction, like the noise a drum makes when you beat it. It was the ultimate philosophy of disconnection – man was a supernatural entity, and all of nature, all that was not man, was a vast, mindless mechanism.
But the European Age of Exploration had already begun, and it was not long after Descartes that the existence of apes began to impinge on the European mind. In 1661 Samuel Pepys described a strange animal (probably a chimpanzee) which had been brought back from Africa and put on display in London. Though in appearance it resembled "a great baboon", Pepys said, it was "so much like a man in most things that.....I do believe it already understands much English; and I am of the mind that it might be taught to speak or make signs."
The first scientific dissection of a chimpanzee was carried out in England in 1699 by the prominent anatomist Edward Tyson. Tyson was startled to find that the internal anatomy and organs of the creature were essentially the same as those of a human being, not like the various animals with which Europeans were familiar. He was particularly struck by how humanlike the brain was. Being a good Cartesian and Christian, Tyson ignored the plain evidence in front of his eyes and firmly declared that the chimpanzee was just another mindless, senseless automaton, and that God for some unfathomable reason had chosen to replicate the anatomical basis for thought and perhaps even language in a creature which nevertheless was utterly devoid of those things. Nevertheless one imagines that even then, a century and a half before Darwin’s revelations, at least a dark suspicion of the truth must have begun to creep into Tyson’s mind.
It was not until the 1960s that humans began to observe and study apes systematically, with the beginning of the kind of patient, painstaking observation of wild apes exemplified by Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, and the first attempts to teach apes the sign language used by deaf people. Goodall discovered that wild chimpanzees live in groups with subtle and complex social interactions, and that they use and even make tools; the sign language experiments established that all the great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans) can learn, use, and understand true language with grammar and syntax, even if on a lower level of complexity than what humans can handle. A common experience of most of the researchers involved in both types of study was the realization that the apes they were studying were persons, even if not human – that dealing with an ape is more like dealing with another human being than it is like dealing with a dog or monkey. (Most of the language researchers have had at least one or two amusing experiences of being outwitted by their own research subjects, who devised startlingly crafty deceptions to gain access to places or things that were supposed to be off limits to them.) Indeed most of these individuals, realizing that these "animals" threatened with extinction in the wild and being used in medical experiments in the West were essentially "people", became passionately committed to defending them against both kinds of threats, with their own scientific research taking a back seat.
The Cartesian mind-set has not gone down without a fight. The ape sign-language research was tenaciously attacked by linguists; the field of linguistics was (and to some extent still is) dominated by a dogmatic doctrine that language is of very recent origin (no more than twenty or thirty thousand years old) and represents an innate capacity unique to humans alone; the ability of animals whose common ancestor with humans lay millions of years in the past to use true language obviously rendered this belief untenable, but rather than scrap a hypothesis which had been shown to be inconsistent with the facts, many linguists attacked the facts in order to save the hypothesis, in a manner very similar to that of creationists and pseudoscientists in general. At first they claimed that ape sign language was mere mindless rote behavior (a possibility which some of the early, poorly-designed experiments had indeed failed to exclude); when it became undeniable that apes were, in fact, using their sign language to communicate with humans and each other, they resorted to absurdly convoluted re-definitions of "language" in order to exclude what the apes were doing. Such amusing but infuriating behavior is chronicled in Sue Savage-Rumbaugh’s 1994 book Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind. In fact, Pepys’s supposition has been vindicated; many apes who have had long exposure to spoken human language have learned to understand it fairly well, though the anatomy of their throats prevents them from speaking it. As Frans de Waal has pointed out, people who still refuse to accept the realities of ape intelligence are almost invariably people with no extensive actual experience of dealing with apes in person.
It is now known that wild chimpanzees also communicate with meaningful gestures to a limited extent, and that these gestures must be learned rather than innate, since different communities use different gestures to express the same meaning. Wild chimpanzee gestures do not qualify as true language, since they are used in isolation rather than within grammatical structures. But they do provide a clue as to what the first precursors of language among the earliest hominids may have been like.
To anyone who has learned about the minds of apes, the myth of human uniqueness is unsustainable. The final blow against it has come from genetics, with the discovery that about 98.4% of the DNA of humans, chimpanzees, and bonobos is identical; only 1.6% shows any differences. Gorillas are somewhat less close relatives, with 97.7% of their DNA being identical to that of the human-chimpanzee-bonobo group and 2.3% showing differences. Even in the most genetically-distant great ape, the orangutan, 96.4% of the DNA is identical to that of humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas; just 3.6% is different. The genetic difference between a human and an orangutan is smaller than the genetic difference between an African elephant and an Indian elephant. A startling example of the closeness of the relationship is that apes have the same blood types (A, B, O, etc.) as humans, with chimpanzee and bonobo blood being so much like our own that a human could safely receive a blood transfusion from a chimpanzee or bonobo of the right blood type (gorilla and orangutan blood is not quite similar enough for this to work). Indeed, if we apply the same criteria of classification to our own species that we apply to all other species, we must classify humans as the fifth member of the great ape group, not as a separate category.
The apes remind us of what we really are. They are us, stripped of all our pretensions. Just by existing, they create a message for us which we need to hear, even if we don’t want to. After all, man is still unique in one respect: he is the only animal foolish enough to imagine that he has a soul. But after you spend enough time studying apes, you realize the real point is not that they are so much like us, but that we are so much like them.
Finally, the apes represent the fulfillment, in an unexpected form, of an old dream. Based on the current state of our knowledge of astronomy, biology, and evolution, it now seems almost certain that complex life is unique to Earth and does not exist elsewhere in the universe. There are no Martians, Klingons, Wookies, Kzinti, or what have you waiting out there to meet us (or eat us). But still, we are not alone in the universe. Our own planet has brought forth not just one intelligent species, but five, even if we are somewhat the most intelligent among them. The interspecies dialogue has already begun, not with radio waves beamed into the unhearing emptiness and darkness, but face to face, with sign language.