Elaine Meinel Supkis
Chimpanzees are our closest relatives since homosapiens killed off any of the other hominids in the past. The discovery that chimpanzees can think like humans and socialize like humans has amazed researchers for years. I think the most interesting things about chimpanzees is how they are more similar to us when young but after seven years of age, they are quite different. Why is this?
The new consensus framed discussions in March at a symposium, “The Mind of the Chimpanzee,” at the Lincoln Park Zoo here. More than 300 primatologists and other scientists reviewed accumulating knowledge of chimps’ cognitive abilities.
After one session, Frans de Waal of Emory University said that as recently as a decade ago there was still no firm consensus on many of the social relationships of chimps. “You don’t hear any debate now,” he said.
In his own studies at the Yerkes Primate Research Center at Emory, Dr. de Waal found that chimps as social animals have had to constrain and alter their behavior in various ways, as have humans. It is a part of ape inheritance, he said, and in the case of humans, the basis for morality. The provocative interpretation was advanced in his recent book, “Primates and Philosophers.”
All animals are smarter than we think they are. Try outwitting a chipmunk, for example. Rats are notorious for being able to figure out ways of getting into our food, for example. Heck, cockroaches are relentless in their quests for what they want! Try thwarting them!
Rat traps work only for a while and if a rat observes another rat getting caught in a trap, it will not only avoid it but communicate the danger to its young in one way or another. Migrating birds or butterflies have fabulous abilities and memories and bees can not only judge their navigation by the sun and landmarks, they can tell other bees in their colony where things are outside using the sun's position as a guide!
I have known monkeys and they are curious creatures and will watch whatever I did with greatest care. For example, Little Elmo, an infamous spider monkey, saw a lady apply fingernail polish to her fingernails. Fascinated by the bright red color which is like fruits, he waited until she was gone, opened the door to his locked cage, went to where she put the polish, unscrewed the top and dabbed it all over his hands.
Poor creature! It was sticky and when he tried to lick it off, it tasted bad, so he got really mad and ran around the bedroom, screaming, climbing the curtains which he used as a towel only it didn't work so he slapped his hands on the ceiling and then tore up a pillow.
His tiny hand prints decorated everything. Chimpanzees which people try to socialize end up the same way: like out of control teenagers, they can't resist wrecking everything. They start of friendly and curious and if you say, 'No touch,' they understand and won't touch until you leave the room. Then a thousand devils won't stop them from prying open things, poking at things and tearing things apart.
Which leads me to suspect there is a strong primate/monkey gene at work within humans which is why we are so destructive. Unlike all other creatures in our family tree, we don't make temporary beds at night, we build elaborate living structures more like bees or termites or meerkats and prarie dogs.
The dark paths in our own minds are echoed in other primates. Researchers have keep chimpanzees in tiny cages and tortured them hideously at the Yale Primate labs to the point that when I was studying psychology, I got in a huge fight with the department at the University of Arizona back in 1968 (I fight all the time) when I had to sit through these hideous, Nazi movies made there showing how they studied ape mental processes by...unmentionable experiments.
Finally, when Jane Goodall decided to save all these poor chimps and gorillas, she went to that den of evil and begged the torturers to please stop it and finally, slowly, after 30 years, they changed their behavior enough to spare our nearest relatives the horrors inflicted on earlier victims.
Tetsuro Matsuzawa, a Kyoto primatologist, described a young chimp watching as numbers 1 through 9 flashed on the computer screen at random positions. Then the numbers disappeared in no more than a second. White squares remained where the numbers had been. The chimp casually but swiftly pressed the squares, calling back the numbers in ascending order — 1, 2, 3, etc.
The test was repeated several times, with the numbers and squares in different places. The chimp, which had months of training accompanied by promised food rewards, almost never failed to remember where the numbers had been. The video included scenes of a human failing the test, seldom recalling more than one or two numbers, if any.
This little tidbit was included in this article in order to amuse humans. We are so dumb. Actually, a horse or a pigeon or a bumble bee would have done just as well because this was simply an example of the sort of operant training. If a human was trained the same method for the same length of time, the human would be just as good as a pigeon or chimpanzee.
Animals of all sorts have amazing learning abilities. This is due to Mother Nature's iron rules of survival. But unlike some of the lower species of animals with smaller brains, humans and apes as well as some other large-brain, top of the feeding scale creatures like elephants and whales, there is a point where the ability to learn collapses.
“What we’ve learned is that manipulation of objects begins around 1 year of age,” Dr. Biro said. “If it involves two or three objects, as in cracking nuts, that happens at 3 ½ to 5 years. If it is not learned by 6 or 7, it will never be acquired.”
The amazing thing about humans is not only that we have extended childhoods, we mature later than chimps by quite a few years, but we also have much longer learning curves. Some humans can learn all their lives. Others stop much earlier. But this seems to be a major mutation in our species. The gene that turns on and off various other genes connected with the capacity and desire to learn in the brain now obviously never shuts down in many humans.
Unlike our nearest relatives who learn everything they seemingly need to know by the time they can reproduce, humans who could keep on learning new things killed off or overwhelmed (most likely, eaten or used as bait) other human types that couldn't keep up with the technological arms race. The ones who figured out how to put a chipped rock onto a stick did better than ones who were content to use any old stick. The ones who could teach their young how to take a stick, attach a twisted intestine to it and bend it so it was very taut and then use another stick with a stone tied to the tip and three feathers on the back---they were our ancestors.
The ability to constantly fiddle with details of various items and to talk about these alterations and to fine-tune things over and over again is the path humans took. Apes took the easier road whereby they had to get some simple skills with temporary tools, a rock, a stick, to be used only for a short while or if it were a rock used over and over again, once the user died, the rock was forgotten.
Remembering how to do many things, where many things are and how to explain new things is what set us apart. Prying apart boxes is easy. Manufacturing a box is somewhat harder. Some birds build very elaborate nests and in the monkey/ape lines, none of them could build anything nearly as good as a simple weaver-bird's nest until humans came along.
I used to raise and sell weaver birds. Delighful creatures! They carefully examine the nesting material I provided. They were like little carpenters: each string or straw had to be looked over carefully. Then it was carefully woven into the growing nests which hung like sacks from the limbs of the tree inside their aviary. They put a lot of thought into their nest building. Yet all looked nearly identical for the work was programmed into their brains and it evolved very slowly thanks to predators eating the eggs and babies of unsuccessful nests.
The human art of weaving grew slowly and became more and more elaborate over the eons. Thanks to industrialization, it is rapidly dying. As a former sheep owner who knows weavers, the process of raising sheep, shearing their wool, carding it, spinning it into threads, building a loom and then using the shuttles and other components. And various looms are of varying levels of complication. Each evolved over thousands of years! All disappearing like snow in a heat-wave.
If civilization were to collapse, this could possibly totally disappear. Ditto many other ancient skills such as how to find good rocks and chip them into tools and weapons. I used to do this for fun. It is very difficult!