Just a little interesting thing I noticed about this New Scientist article about Kanzi, a bonobo who has, over the course of 30+ years working with humans, learned to do…something. In fact, he’s learned to do a vast number of things, but it’s hard to say what he knows, because people keep tripping over the language used to describe what he knows. The question appears to be whether, when an ape, say, uses matches as a tool to start a fire (and then cooks a marshmallow on a stick over it), the ape is using matches as a tool to start a fire, or if it is imitating the uniquely human ability to use matches as a tool to start a fire, without actually having that ability itself.
Apparently the scientists have taught Kanzi how to make stone tools which resemble those made by our ancestors. And here he is in a video, spontaneously making one and then using it to open a log in which some food is hidden. The New Scientist article duly reports upon this ape which can make and use primitive tools which closely resemble early human tools, but ends with a lot of not-entirely-impartial reassurance that this tool-using ape is not really a big deal, because Kanzi was taught by humans to perform this task, and “whether the behaviour could arise in nature is unclear”. Why does it matter whether apes can make stone tools?
One of Jane Goodall’s most controversial discoveries about chimpanzees (cousins to the bonobo, and also apes) was that they made and used (not stone, but plant based) tools. This disquieted people because humans had been using “use of tools” as one of the distinguishing characteristics which “set man apart from the animals“. This begs the question Why does man need to be set apart from the animals? but I digress.
The discovery was made almost fifty years ago, but we have not yet gotten over this issue. Look at how worried the New Scientist article is about implying that apes can use tools, or behave even the least little bit like humans! “Since these animals are raised in unusual environments where they frequently interact with humans, their cases may be too singular to extrapolate their talents to their brethren.” I might say they were being cautious about not extrapolating things from the original research which are not strictly true, but when the same publication wrote an article about how scientists have produced a substance which temporarily halts reproductive ability in male mice, it did not use a title like “Scientists Temporarily Halt Reproductive Ability in Male Mice”; it announced “First Non-Hormonal Male ‘Pill’ Prevents Pregnancy“! Clearly this is not a publication unduly worried about implying possibly misleading things through overenthusiastic interpretation of research results.
Likewise, the title of the Kanzi article is the somewhat sensationalist “Bonobo Genius Makes Stone Tools Like Early Humans Did” — an assertion which the rest of the article then goes on to state, then almost flat-out deny — and there, again, is the bias. How do we know Kanzi is a genius bonobo? Apes are hard to keep in captivity — our sample size in this particular research is two bonobos. Kanzi could be a genius, unusual bonobo…but is it not more statistically likely that he is somewhere under the “average” part of the bonobo bell curve? Why is it so important that he be exceptional?
The more we relate animal behavior to human behavior, the more we blur the line between human and animal, the less we are able to think of ourselves as something other than animal. This causes problems on multiple levels:
“Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”
– Dr. Louis Leakey
Contrast the New Scientist article with articles from the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail, both of which serve a more animal-friendly clientele. No mention of how this behavior may not occur in the wild (Do wild bonobos need stone tools? Is there evolutionary pressure for such a talent?), just a lot of admiration (and, alas, reference to that bedeviled “baby chimp feeding a baby tiger” photo which really needs to stop getting passed around). In fact, both of these articles actively paint pictures in which Kanzi is replicating the first steps of the human journey towards tool use and civilization. What an interesting contrast of style!