A brilliant new book cuts through all the media-oriented research about ‘clever chimps' using tools, doing maths and feeling human emotions, and reminds us that, in truth, there is nothing remotely human about non-human primates.
Not a Chimp: The Hunt to Find the Genes That Make Us Human is a refreshing defence of human uniqueness. ‘We are a truly exceptional primate with minds that are genuinely discontinuous to other animals', Jeremy Taylor writes.
Taylor sets out to argue that it is ‘as wrong as it is misguided' to ‘exaggerate the narrowness of the gap between chimpanzees and ourselves': ‘It plays into the hands of our natural propensity to anthropomorphise our pets and other animals, and even our inanimate possessions, and it has allowed us to distort what the science is trying to tell us.' His aim is ‘to set the record straight and restore chimpanzees to arm's length'.
You can read my full review of Taylor's book here.
So what do human beings have that apes do not? In his fascinating book The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, the developmental and comparative psychologist Michael Tomasello puts a persuasive case that the central difference between us and apes is our ability to understand other human beings as intentional beings like ourselves.
This theory suggests that there would come a stage in children's early development when their knowledge and understanding of the physical world - in relation to things like space, quantity and causality - would be very similar to those of our nearest primate relatives: the great apes. But their skills in ‘social-cultural cognition' - such as social learning and communication - would already be distinctly human.
To test this hypothesis, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany gave a battery of tests to a large number of chimpanzees, orang-utans and human two-year-olds. They found that the young children who had been walking and talking for about a year performed at a similar level to chimpanzees on tasks of physical cognition - such as judging space and quantities and understanding causality - but outstripped both chimpanzees and orang-utans on tasks of social cognition, such as understanding the intentions of others and learning through imitation.
In one of the social learning tests, the experimenter showed the apes and human children how to open a plastic tube in order to retrieve a reward inside. The children watched the experimenter and imitated the solution. The apes, on the other hand, tried to smash open the tube, or used their teeth to pull its contents out. Some scientists argue that even by one year of age, children's performance on imitation tasks goes way beyond that of apes: they are already able to appreciate that other beings have intentions and also that they have particular goals.
Young children's imitation is clearly guided by an understanding of other people's goals and intentions. Their imitation may or may not involve matching the actions of another person to achieve a particular goal, depending on whether they perceive that person's action as having been intentional or unintentional. It is this understanding of other beings as having intentions which, according to Tomasello, ‘forms the basis for children's initial entry into the world of culture'.
The cognitive and linguistic abilities of the great apes have never surpassed those of a two-year-old child. Today's increasingly shrill claims that apes and other animals are ‘just like us' reveals the degraded view some people have of human beings. The sentimentalised view of animals is very often coupled with a nightmarish vision of human destructiveness. That is why, in my forthcoming book Just Another Ape?, I will focus on the differences between human beings and apes - in order to show just how exceptional human beings really are.
Her next book, Just Another Ape? will be published in 2010 by Imprint Academic. Visit Helene's website here.