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Monday, August 18, 2014

Different and Yet Similar: The Human Struggle to Classify

Bow is a chimpanzee who has been raised by a human. He is still a chimpanzee, and nothing about his upbringing is ever going to change that biological fact. People sometimes ask me: "You do realize he's not human, right?" Well, duh! Do you think I would have gone to all this trouble if I thought he was human? I appreciate the differences between us. When I adopted a chimpanzee, I already had a human child. I am not trying to change Bow into something he is not. But at the same time, none of us really know for sure what it means to be a chimpanzee or what it means to be human, unless we allow ourselves to live in situations that permit those differences to stand out.


Bow often walks on two feet, even when about to start displaying
Some behaviors that Bow engages in are decidedly hardwired. Others are obviously enculturated. And then there are those things that fall somewhere in between, where it is hard to say, because both humans and chimpanzees do that.

There are many voices raised today with the admonition to keep humans separate from chimpanzees. The reasons that are given are sometimes humanitarian. Isn't it awful to keep someone from his own kind?Wouldn't it be terrible if by isolating Bow from other chimpanzees too long, he might not learn how to socialize with others and will lose out on the opportunity to belong to a group?

Paradoxically, while there is some validity to this concern, it is based on the fact that chimpanzees don't come pre-wired to "behave like chimpanzees". There is such a thing as chimpanzee culture. There are even different kinds of chimpanzee cultures, just as humans from one cultural group find it very hard, after the critical period, or even before it, to learn how to fit into another human group which is very different from their own.

I have personally had that experience. I have written about it, in a fictional account.

Ping and the Snirkelly People

Language is learned.  Culture is learned. Removed from a human group before acquiring these things, humans do not behave the way we think humans "naturally" would. Put a human in a place where they speak a language he does not know, and that human might seem "stupid" to everyone there. Perfectly intelligent and linguistically normal children have been diagnosed with learning disabilities and sent to special education classes, just because they did not speak the local language. If there were a scientific way for educators to be able to tell "stupid" from foreign, this would not ever happen. But there is no way, without knowing the circumstances of the child and  the child's history.  You can't tell by looking, because most of the things we take for granted as part of our legacy as human beings are really only cultural artifacts. 

 In fact, there are cultures in which many of the things we have been told are hard-wired in humans are not present. There is no language acquisition device. There is no grammar built into our brains. We can't take infinite recursivity for granted. Some people can do more of that than others. Just as some people are better at math, some are better at grammar. And then there are those who have no math and very little grammar. 

Take the Pirahã people. When Daniel Everett first came among them, they had no numbers in the language and could not count. They didn't make things. The used canoes made by other people, but when a canoe wore out, they never tried to make one of their own. They just waited till they got a new one made by someone else. The Pirahã are not cognitively impaired. They have perfectly normal human brains. They didn't count, not because they couldn't learn how to count. They did not count because that concept did not happen to historically exist in their language and culture. 

Now, I find that to be fascinating, and it just goes to show that we don't know what about us is that way because we are human, and what is there because of a historical accident that has nothing to do with our species affiliation or genetics. 

How can we find out what is "natural" chimpanzee behavior? Well, we can observe them in their habitats. We can observe them in social groups of their own kind in zoos and other institutions. But we will never know what is truly chimpanzee behavior -- the thing that is hard-wired and cannot help but happen -- until we have also observed them when they are part of our own social group. 

There are a lot of people in universities, in institutions of higher learning, in state legislatures and in other governmental units in both the Federal and State government who have staked their reputations on what those differences are. There are linguists who have made a career of telling everyone that language is hard-wired in humans, and that certain features of language occur in every known human language and culture.

What do these people do when a piece of evidence shows up that contradicts their published theory? Do they change the theory? Or do they destroy the evidence? When Daniel Everett published his findings on the Pirahã people, the government of Brazil immediately took over and forced all the Pirahã children to go to school, so that no evidence of a language where there are no numbers will remain.

Can chimpanzees use human language? There are people who have staked their reputation on the idea that they can't. As a result, funding for this kind of research has been cut off, and there is a political movement to keep chimpanzees and humans from living together. 

I normally don't write about this here on my blog, but a question on my previous post made me realize that this a fight that is largely invisible to the public. Often the same primatologist or anthropologist who makes a career in public out of telling cute stories about apes will be protecting his or her turf when it comes to anybody who actually lives with an ape doing the same. They will distinguish their work as being somewhat more scientific because they distance themselves from their subjects. And that is how an expert on animal grief might feel free to censure a colleague who reports on the actual grief of an ape.

In my own case, I am interested not only in the language use that Bow has with me and others in our family, but also in seeing how he might use language to communicate with other chimpanzees. So I welcome a situation for Bow to socialize with others of his own kind, and I would love for both Bow and me to eventually be accepted into an academic program that allowed this kind of human and chimpanzee interaction. 

There is so much that we still don't know about chimpanzees -- and also about humans -- that we could learn from allowing Bow to communicate with other chimpanzees freely, while continuing to live among humans. We don't know what the limits are to the communicative function of chimpanzees. We don't know what tools they have inborn and what they learn by enculturation. I want to find out, and Bow deserves the chance to communicate with others in his own way. 

Unfortunately, in the current political climate, I might be forced to start a university of my own before there actually exists such an academic program. But, the next time you read a tweet that disparages someone who lives with a gorilla for sharing what the gorilla said, then you will at least know what kind of thinking is behind that very human behavior of protecting one's turf. 


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