Report to an Academy
Bild der Wissenschaft, July 2007
A Report to an Academy
On Being an Ape and Becoming a Human (based loosely on F. Kafka)
By Sascha Karberg
Esteemed Gentlemen of the Academy!
You have done me the honor of inviting me to give your Academy an account of the life I led as an ape. In this sense, unfortunately, I cannot comply with your request. Nearly 13 million years separate me from pure apeness – a time span that may seem a mere glimpse on the calendar of evolution, but endlessly long to gallop through, as your species, the Homo sapiens, and mine, Pan troglodytes (commonly known as chimpanzee), have done together for quite a distance. To put it plainly, much as I like expressing myself in images: your apeness, gentlemen, insofar as something of that kind lies behind you, cannot be farther removed from you than mine is from me. Let me demonstrate by the means of your science – since you might disbelieve the simple words of a chimpanzee – that on the path from being an ape to becoming a human I stand closer to you than you dare to believe.
So, to a lesser extent, I can perhaps meet your demand, and indeed I do so with the greatest pleasure, knowing that some among you doubt my abilities and tend to place me next to rabbits, mice or rats on the scale of intelligence, cultural or social consciousness, a scale in which you place yourself on top as a matter of course. But how overwhelming and not to be ignored is the burden of proof that we, living in zoological gardens like here in Leipzig, managed to produce in carefully designed experiments during all those years that we lived in peaceful interaction with your likes. You are all well aware of the accounts on my conspecific's artistic feats: We bring down the house by piling up boxes or joining sticks in order to reach bananas placed at a distance. But the applause doesn't flatter us, since it only shows Homo sapiens surprise when bearing witness to us displaying unexpected intelligence. But this is not about artistic talents. Here in Pongoland at Leipzig Zoo my chimpanzee tribe experiments with researchers of neighboring Max- Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-Eva) to find answers to the question of which abilities are exclusively human and which are characteristic of apes and monkeys, too. What ability of mine could I tell you about so that you might conclude it is exclusively human? Not a very long time ago, a philosopher on a conference of anthropologist's asserted that the ability to plan future needs was a human capacity never to have been achieved by any animal. In the audience there sat Josep Call of MPI-Eva. He stepped forward to ask the philosopher what would happen if chimpanzees, bonobos, or orang-utans were also capable of thinking ahead. The philosopher didn't want to bother to even think about what according to his opinion was impossible. But Call had something in mind when asking the question because he had the results of the experiments – that I had the honor to participate in – laying on the table. He had piloted me into a special room, a room I'd call play cage, if I may, because the word experimental chamber would not do justice to the voluntary and diverting character of the games. In the play cage many useful and less useful tools were laid out, I could use them to fish for delicious sweet grapes placed in a strange gadget. But once the first grapes were eaten I was locked up in the neighboring cage and had to watch Call removing all the tools from the room with the gadget. I then was allowed to return to the gadget, but without tools I was unable to reach the grapes. After an hour's waiting that seemed endless to me Call handed me the tools again but I had barely entered the first grape into my mouth when he again pushed me into the neighboring room. But this time I played it smart and took the appropriate tools with me as a precaution. When Call had removed the leftover tools I was allowed to return to the grape gadget - and I triumphed, this time providing the tools necessary to get to the grapes. Another time I had to keep the tools all night long in order to get to the sweets the day after. A few weeks later I heard Call enthusiastically talking into the microphones of journalists: "It is the first time that a non-human animal has proved the capability
of planning ahead." At least as far as apes living in captivity are concerned, I have to add. Because in nature such phenomena had been observed before.
I am proud to introduce to you the results of Christophe Boesch of Eva-Institute, whose research spans several decades. When my conspecifics go out hunting they usually drive their prey, mostly red colobos monkeys, in a certain direction. Boesch observed it several times in the Tai National Park at the Ivory Coast. But one day, in the midst of hunting the two oldest apes, Brutus and Falstaff, ran past the scientist. Shortly afterwards they reappeared behind him in the trees and obstructed the passage of the escaping monkeys. Brutus and Falstaff had anticipated the escape path of their prey. In Gombe National Park my conspecifics also go hunting, but they still lack a likewise complicated coordination. And in the primary forest of Tai Park only the old chimpanzees that are around 30 years old display anticipatory hunting behaviour. Brutus and Falstaff needed around 20 years to acquire this ability.
Honored members of the Academy, may I remind you that the remaining hunting cultures of species have to invest a similar amount of time in acquiring an efficient hunting behavior. On average your likes yields the best hunting results at the age of 40. It has been proven in experiments that chimpanzees are capable of cooperation and systematically look for an appropriate partner if they are to solve a task that can only be handled in pairs. Now I have had to learn that a human audience is less surprised about the coordination but more about the fact that the anticipating animals usually don't get the catch in the end. Quite obviously no-one expects me to be a cooperative and altruistic creature that serves a community unreservedly. And I have to admit that not all my conspecifics display a similarly keen sense of altruism. Eagerly hunting Gombe-chimpanzees often go away empty-handed when it comes to distributing the prey. Tai- chimpanzees however appreciate the intelligence and the effort of the hunter, the hunters get three times the amount of meet than non-hunters. Anticipating hunters like Brutus and Falstaff get the biggest share. Hence, cooperative and altruistic behavior, the effort for the hunting success is rewarded by the group. The Tai-chimpanzees possess a set of social rules that their Gombe fellows lack. The Gombe also limit the care for injuries on their closest relatives in the tribe, whereas in Tai, where there are more leopards, the willingness to help defies the boundaries of kinship. The wounds of each tribe member are being cared for days and weeks. Is it an inner urge, a genetic coincidence that drives Tai-chimpanzees to be more cooperative than Gombe- chimpanzees?
Dear Sirs, in cooperation with Michael Tomasello I managed to prove experimentally that chimpanzees are in fact capable of being helpful, what is called "reciprocal altruism" in the language of biologists. There is but one constraint that may not seem too foreign to humans either: One day when I was in the play cage I had to cooperate with a fellow ape to get to a portion of food. Only by commonly pulling on both ends of a rope could be move a board with one portion for each of us to come within reach. I was even allowed to choose from my tribe a partner I considered most apt for the task. As long as both of us got the same amount of food everything went fine. But when Tomasello put nine bananas into my feeder on the board and only one into my partner's he all of a sudden wasn't willing to support me any more. I got angry but I could convince some fellows of lower rank to help me. The higher-ranking I did not dare to criticize. Dear members, I see you smiling in front of me. But even humans are well familiar with weighing cost and effort of an altruistic deed. Chimpanzees and humans alike are always happy to help when the effort is small. But a beggar seldom finds a 50 Euro bill in his hat. A human being at least tries to gain reputation for any altruistic gift. If a chimpanzee grooms the fur of a higher-ranking fellow he is rewarded by gaining a mighty friend. To consciously help others means to be able to differentiate between oneself and the others, to develop a self-consciousness. Even in the Bible self-recognition marks the beginning of the legend of the creation of mankind, in this case the perception of one's nakedness. Well, that's something we chimpanzees are lacking – the
nakedness, not the basic self-consciousness. Just like humans we are capable of recognizing ourselves in the mirror. We do have a concept of the self – and of the other. Which means, the prerequisite for empathy and the ability to give comfort to others exists. Only the ability to differentiate between oneself and the other makes it possible to enter into the world of thought and emotion of another being.
Michael Tomasello as well does not deny me and other apes a self-consciousness of our own, especially since he conducted an experiment, that in the beginning was a little unpleasant for myself. I was sent into the play cage together with my resolute fellow Unioro. At first, he who lives in a Zoo in Switzerland tried to put on display Swiss neutrality. But after a while he realized and made me understand by a few unpleasant slaps in the face that he is the stronger guy and ranks higher than myself. Ever since I haven't been able to be first at the feeder! But Tomasello helped me a little bit. When Unioro wasn't watching he placed the food in a way that only I could see it. Imagine my heart beating when I got the delicacy and hastily ate it without Unioro noticing. I had escaped another beating but I was still starving. Tomasello wanted to help me for a second time. But he made an annoying mistake: He hid the food but did so in such a clumsy way that Unioro couldn't but notice. He couldn't reach the fruit though, but anyway, I didn't dare to serve myself without Unioro having eaten beforehand. Later on, when I was relaxing in the beautiful open-air enclosure of Pongoland I heard Tomasello on the visitor's platform. He explained the experiment to his colleagues saying that it proved how chimpanzees not only were capable of imagining another individual's point of view of a situation, that is, what they can see and cannot see. And that we chimpanzees can imagine what our fellow might know according to his point of view. Yes, and that is how I managed to deceive Unioro, I thought contentedly. We are capable of putting ourselves in our fellow ape's position and of developing a theory on their world of thoughts. "Theory of Mind" is what the American Tomasello calls it.
How exactly it works is still unknown. We apes do recognize ourselves in the mirror, that's why humans attribute to us a certain amount of self-confidence. But then again: if humans paint dots on the foreheads of their one or two-year-old children or place a ridiculous hat on their heads, they know about the effect, and react either angry or proud. That would leave us chimpanzees cold, we don't care about our image in the face of others. Researchers like Tomasello interprete this self- confidence that seems all so familiar to me as a shortcoming: We didn't have any sense of the social dimension of self-awareness, they say. But even though there are a few differences, "it is not true that chimpanzees have only a few abilities and we have plenty. It is a difference in quality", says Michael Tomasello. Cultural transmission creates something new from biological conditions, deriving from abilities that basically all apes possess. Only culture converts a basic ability like knowing where to find food into something as complex as algebra. If we measure the success of a species by looking at the number of their individuals, then it is out of the question what mostly promoted the development of mankind: the cultural and social invention of agriculture. With the advancement of farming and breeding the population increased dramatically. No researcher would ever make the genes responsible for this development. The new organization of social life served to strengthen the natural abilities of cooperation, social learning, imitation, and communication. I may ask therefore, are the abilities of my species sufficient to reach what makes man stand above nature, his culture? If cultural ability means the capability to create a new behavior or a tool and to transfer this to other group members, then it is long proven that man is not the only creature capable of culture. Christophe Boesch has in the meantime examined twelve chimpanzee populations, and all of them have their own tradition of making use of tools. One should not be talking of chimpanzees, but of Tai-, Gombe- or Mahale-chimpanzees, Boesch says. Just as one talks about Japanese, Russian or German culture. My cousins living in Tai National Park each day spend two hours cracking nuts with the help of two or three stones that serve as ambos, clamp, and hammer. They use sticks made fit for the job to poke for insects under barks. Quite a unique behavior altogether! Even Michael Tomasello has by now accepted Christophe Boesches
interpretation that we chimpanzees do have something like culture. But human culture, I admit, is something different nevertheless. With you humans, one innovation follows the other, hundreds of thousands single improvements eventually lead up to goods as complex as cars. This only works out because each individual idea is made accessible to the whole tribe be means of language, learning and imitation abilities that ourlikes can only marvel at admiringly. Tomasello once invented the image of a car jack that serves to heave the society to a higher level due to an individual's innovation. Humans are somehow pooling their individual abilities. According to Tomasello, our species lacks this car jack effect. I have to admit, if one of my fellow apes develops something really new, the others have to wait and see if one among us recognizes its advantages and starts to imitate it. If humans invent something really innovative, they have to apply for a patent so that their idea isn't claimed by others. We chimpanzees, on the other hand, haven't been able to further develop our cultural abilities for millions of years.
But anyway, dear members of the Academy, let's be fair. Humans have taken a long time to develop the first cultural innovations. The famed hand ax may be one complex innovation that we apes haven't (yet ?) managed to bring forth. But this form remained unchanged for – believe it or not – 1,8 million years. This means, that cultural evolution hasn't been so fast with humans neither. And although chimpanzees living in freedom have only been observed for 40 years, Boesch did discover the emergence of innovative ideas during that period. For instance, my fellow apes in Mahale wildlife sanctuary like to chew small pieces off leaves. It is called "leaf-clipping" and its aim is not to feed oneself but to produce a sound. Just like one of the favorite pastime of human teenagers in the 1950s – chewing gum and letting bubbles burst – the sound of the Mahale apes aims at attracting the attention of a sexually active female. It is an abstract social convention, and indeed, the females know its meaning, and react accordingly. In Guinea, on the other hand, it is an invitation to play, in Gombe and Tai it has other meanings. On January 1st, 1994, Boesche observed an innovation: A Tai male had produced leaf-clipping in a totally different context, that is, shortly before he went to sleep. Maybe due to the fact that it was a high-ranking male, around 40 percent of the group within a month took to imitating the leaf-clipping method.
Dear members of the Academy, you might understand what I mean, if you'd for a second thought about your fellow man who started sucking on lollipops after seeing Lt. Kojak doing so in the famous TV-series. Another, more useful advancement of already transmitted behavior can be observed when looking at the way by which Tai-chimpanzees crack a nut. Many, maybe all chimpanzee cultures have methods of cutting fruit with a hard peel, but only in Tai National Park three stones are used. There is one stone to beat on the nut, another one serving as a kind of ambos to reinforce the effect of the strike, and a third one to stabilize the perhaps shaky ambos. This means there are two innovations that advance the basic behavior. In Bossu and Guinea the apes do use an ambos stone, but no-one has so far come up with the idea of using a small stabilizer.
So, dear members of the Academy, you cannot simply exclude the possibility that my species is capable of cultural development. I am not saying that this ability is as strong and rich as in humans. Many researchers hold the opinion that the human ability of cultural development is not only based on transmitted customs, not even on the extraordinary discipline in dealing with cognitive resources that the apes also possess. They deem it likely that a biological adaptation with few but decisive changes make the difference. 98.7 percent of my genome are identical with yours, gentlemen. Only 1.3 percent distinguish our two species from each other. Of course, with the 3.3 billion components that make up our genome that means there are still 39 million differences, among these however very few serve to actually change the genes. Your researchers found out that during the latest stage of evolution human brain cells underwent a bigger change than ours concerning the implementation of genetic information: Whereas the implementation of liver genes in the evolution of man and ape advanced at a similar pace, the number of genes changing their
activity in the human brain exceeds that of chimpanzees by four times. Did this awaken the sense of culture in the human brain? I admit it is hesitantly that I follow this line of thought. Because with each "human" cognitive ability found in my species the question is turned into a reproach: "Why Pan troglodytes doesn't use his abilities for the sake of similar cultural achievements as man does?" I like to shift the responsibility on to the few differences in genetic design that deprives us of the ability to speak so virtuosic, to imitate perfectly, and to divine the thoughts of others. A design that bars us from being human. But let's not think to mechanistically. Humaneness, and cultural ability are not simply a matter of genes, because especially with us primates culture and nature are intrinsically linked. A human child may be fitted with the prerequisites for language, culture, and intelligence. But on a lonely island lacking the cultural and social structures of teaching and learning it wouldn't survive. The same holds true for my kind but you – or your conspecifics, to say the least – force a great many of us to vegetate alone and without their culture. Intelligent life means not only Darwin, not only mutation and selection but also a good piece of Lamarck: Cultural evolution means to pass on via social learning what one has gathered and experienced to one's own and the next generation – irrespective of genes.
But how could the evolution of both our species have proceeded? Dear gentlemen, please keep in mind that we chimpanzees are your closest relatives but not your ancestors. No, both species during the course of time have adapted to the needs of their ecological niche, thereby advancing – or sometimes loosing – certain abilities. For just as man looks down upon the spiritual shortcomings of apes, we have reason to be amused by many but one human deficiency. How many times have I seen artists in a vaudeville act tampering with the trapeze. They were swinging and swaying, then jumping, sliding into each others arms. Then one was carrying the other, holding her hair with his jaw. No building would withstand the laughter of apes watching such a scene. No, we only share the same roots, nothing else. The cognitive abilities of our forefathers must have been very different. From a group of more talented imitators later became the humans, the others became chimpanzees or bonobos. About two million years ago, the early humans began producing stone tools. Apparently, for the survival of their genes it proved an advantage to teach their children the complicated technique of manufacturing those tools, for the offspring had a better chance of survival. During that period, man also brought his abilities for imitation and social learning to perfection. But at that point development must have come to a halt for hundreds of thousands of years. According to Tomasello, it was only when man realized the potential of cooperation in a group around 250,000 years ago that the development took its path that seems so familiar now. Although Darwin's evolutionary mechanisms of mutation and selection only bears effects on an individual scale man might be the best example for the assumption that a group of cooperation individuals has a selective benefit when compared to a population of loners. This holds true for humans even more than for chimpanzees. We mostly think it too cumbersome to guide our offspring's – let alone if not-related – hands when exercising, or to patiently correct mistakes. We are no teachers. Human culture on the other hand provides a contrived teaching system to transmit not only simple behavioral rules and workmanship but also abstract, general knowledge on the world.
Dear members of the Academy, let me recapitulate: It is not only intelligence that supports the bridge between ape and human. If it were, we would have long ago caught up with you. All too long have you been searching for the answer to the riddle of your incarnation scrutinizing the billions of neurons in your brain. Surely, the mechanism for your remarkable ability to imitate is to be found somewhere in there. Not the faintest detail of a movement evades your attention. You are real copying-machines. But still you have forgotten that collective teaching and learning is indispensable in order to engrave each maybe trivial idea into the common memory of your tribe. Whereas we always have to start anew, our elders having taken their experiences and skills with them to the grave for millions of years, you kept building up on past experience. The social memory is your secret of success.
Now that you know about my skills, gentlemen, my question to you – and I shall conclude by asking this: Have I become a little bit more human, maybe even worthy of becoming a member of the human species, Homo troglodytes? Or do you even feel closer to us apes? Do you recognize us as a mirror of the foundations of your humaneness? Time may not be ripe yet to extend the human rights to chimpanzees, bonobos, orang-utans, and gorillas? I should feel honored if my remarks might inspire you – to your own of interest – to use the influence of your high-ranking position in human society to defend the rights of chimpanzees living in freedom. If this were the case, I had – at any rate – achieved what I wanted to achieve. You shouldn’t say it wasn’t worth the effort. In any case, I don’t want any man’s judgment. I only want to expand knowledge. I simply report. Even to you, esteemed gentlemen of the Academy, I have only made a report.