Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Chimps, Humans, and Social Life

One year, the final essay question for my course "History of Science and the Origins of Race" was one inspired by my simultaneous reading about the Hobbit (Homo floresiensis) find and Karel Capek's War with the Newts. The question was essentially this: Since it seems that modern humans and Homo floresiensis coexisted, imagine if we were to discover some populations of Homo floresiensis and discuss some of the social, scientific, and political implications of such a discovery. Do we grant them human rights, or do we enslave them, experiment on them, or perhaps do we keep them in "reserves" or sanctuaries? Of course, areas reserved for them as sanctuaries from us.
In Capek's 1936 book, intelligent newts are discovered on an island. First we trade with them, then we enslave them, and of course they revolt against us and chase us from the seas. It is great satire and quite funny as well as raising serious questions.

The responses to my essay question were really quite good. It seemed to encourage the students to think about what it means to "human" and the separation between species. Because a portion of the course was given over to the discussion of the classification of human variety, they were by then familiar with the Polygenic theory of human origins, which held that the different types of humans, organized by their "racial" characteristics, had originated in five different places on the globe and at five different times. Africans, being the most recently created, were therefore the most socially and physically primitive. It was the theory that first established the importance of American natural historians and the theory that Darwin was arguing against in the Origin of Species (notice the singular "Origin" of the title). In the Descent of Man, Darwin actually states that if his work has done anything, he hopes it is that the Polygenic theory would now die an silent and unnoticed death. A feat his work accomplished.

So when I read the story today in the New York Times ---Pet Chimp Is Killed After Mauling Woman--- about the events in Connecticut, I could not help but be reminded. What if "Travis" the chimp had survived? How would it have been treated? Should it have been put down as a wild animal? But it had lived all its life as a human. The story in the Times and the one on the BBC World Service refer to his many human-like behaviors, the unexpected attack from a chimp that had never displayed any aggression, his appearances in commercials, the use by his human of xanex to attempt to calm him, his being treated for lyme disease, that Travis dressed himself, and that Travis fled the scene and returned to his bed to die of his wounds.
There is no doubt that it is a terrible story all around and the woman who was attacked is in critical condition, but it does raise many issues beyond whether primates should be kept as pets.

I was also reminded of these studies and observations that have emerged over the past few years:

The first, Ancient Chimps 'used stone tools' notes that while "Chimpanzees were first observed using stone tools in the 19th century. Julio Mercader and colleagues found stone tools at the Noulo site in Ivory Coast" that are 4,300 years old.
The second, gorillas are observed using tools such as a stick to help them judge the depth of a stream while they are making their crossing. Wild Gorillas Seen to Use Tools One of the gorillas is pictured here.

The third, and one that reminded me of the events in Connecticut, when a group of construction workers entered the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Sierra Leone they were attacked by a group of chimps led by their male "Bruno." One worker was killed and the others were badly injured. More than twenty chimps along with Bruno escaped, but were tracked down and returned to the sanctuary. The WorldService story has a picture of Bruno snacking on some fruit. Police hunt Leone 'killer chimps'

And finally this one, which is to me a bit more chilling, though I am not sure why I find it so. Perhaps because it is one thing to use a tool and another to use a weapon..... well, perhaps. Chimpanzees 'hunt using spears' Anyway, females seem to be taking the lead in developing the use of spears. This is a picture of one of the spears.

The news stories contain the links to the actual journal articles.
Recently, Spain has extended some basic human rights to primates and the EU is set to follow the example: When Human Rights Extend to Nonhumans

If you like, go to the Great Ape Project page and sign on to the Declaration on Great Apes