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Great ape world

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Congo novel

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Great apes teach each other. Is that possible? Yes, perfectly possible. Conspecific teaching occurs among great apes (Hominidae). This had been a longstanding question among researchers. Washoe, the first chimpanzee in history to learn sign language, taught American Sign Language to her offspring. Language-skilled primates freely taught other animals in captivity; for that matter, apes would teach people, signing slowly and repeatedly until the stupid uneducated human person got the point.

So it is possible for a simian tradition of language and behavior to be carried on for generations. Great apes can create and use tools too. Chimpanzees are capable of elaborate tool use, of which one example is “termite fishing”. Chimps would make a twig, carefully bending it to their specifications, and then spend hours over a termite mound, fishing with the stick to catch succulent grubs.

Human observers labeled this activity “primitive tool use” until they tried it themselves. It turned out that making a satisfactory twig and catching termites was not primitive at all; at least it proved to be beyond the ability of people who tried to duplicate it. Human fishermen quit, with a new respect for the chimpanzees, and a new observation–humans now noticed that younger chimps spent days watching their elders make sticks and twirl them in the mound. Young chimps literally learned how to do it, and the learning process extended over a period of years.

This began to look suspiciously like culture; the apprenticeship of young Benjamin Franklin, printer, was not so different from the apprenticeship of young Chimpanzee, termite fisher. Both learned their skills over a period of years by observing their elders; both made mistakes on the way to ultimate success.

Yet manufactured stone tools implied a quantum jump beyond twigs and termites. The privileged position of stone tools as the special province of mankind might have remained sacrosanct were it not for a single iconoclastic researcher. In 1971, the British scientist R.V.S. Wright decided to teach an ape to make stone tools. His pupil was a five-year-old orangutan named Abang in the Bristol zoo. Wright presented Abang with a box containing food, bound with a rope; he showed Abang how to cut the rope with a flint chip to get the food. Abang got the point in an hour.

Wright then showed Abang how to make a stone chip by striking a pebble against a flint core. This was a more difficult lesson; over a period of weeks, Abang required a total of three hours to learn to grasp the flint core between his toes, strike a sharp chip, cut the rope, and get the food.

The point of the experiment was not that apes used stone tools, but that the ability to make stone tools was literally within their grasp. Wright’s experiment was one more reason to think that humans were not as unique as they had previously imagined themselves to be. In 1964, chimpanzee kidneys were successfully transplanted into people; blood transfusions between chimps and people were also possible.

In 1975, the mathematician S.L. Berensky reviewed the literature on primate language and reached a startling conclusion. “There is no doubt that non-human primates are far superior in intelligence to mankind.” In Berensky’s mind, “The salient question–which every human visitor to the zoo intuitively asks–is, who is behind the bars? Who is caged, and who is free? On both sides of the bars primates can be observed making faces at each other. It is too facile to say that mankind is superior because he has made the zoo. We impose our special horror of barred captivity–a form of punishment among our species–and assume that other primates feel as we do.”

Berensky likened non-human primates to foreign ambassadors. “Apes have for centuries managed to get along with humans, as ambassadors from their species. In recent years, they have even learned to communicate with humans using sign language (and iPads). But it is a one-sided diplomatic exchange; no human has attempted to live in ape society, to master their language and customs, to eat their food, to live as they do. The apes have learned to talk to us, but we have never learned to talk to them. Who, then, should be judged the greater intellect?”

Berensky added a prediction. “The time will come when circumstances may force some humans to communicate with a non-human primate society on its own terms. Only then humans will become aware of their complacent egotism with regard to other animals.” Read Congo by Michael Crichton for more illumination. THE END