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You look like a monkey…

March 30, 2011


Barbary macaque (Macaca sylvanus)

It has recently been reported that Barbary macaques have been observed to recognize family members from photographs shown to them by researchers. Scientists have once again chipped away at our sense of humanity’s unique and special status. Much research in primatology and animal cognition has shown that behaviours and abilities we thought of as belonging only to humans are in fact shared with other primates and sometimes with more distantly related animals. This kind of research is fascinating for the light it sheds on human evolution and human nature but seems also to present philosophical problems to many people.

I would like to use the concept of Copernican Revolutions which will be familiar to some of you. With his rearrangement of the solar system, Copernicus shifted the earth from the centre of the universe, a position it had occupied for thousands of years, and replaced it with the sun. This was the first in a series of astronomical discoveries which progressively humbled humanity’s sense of being at the centre of everything. It became clear that our solar system is not at the centre of our galaxy, that the sun is only one of billions of similar stars, that our galaxy is only one of billions of galaxies and that the nature of the universe means that it is meaningless to describe any one point in space-time as the ‘centre’. Many physicists would now argue that our universe is only one of a multitude of universes. Science has made us smaller and smaller and less and less significant.

A few decades before Copernicus published his life’s work another discovery had undermined European complacency when Columbus returned from the ‘New World’. The theological problems posed by the existence of intelligent alien life (would aliens have souls and in what sense would Christ’s redemption apply to them?) remain an issue for contemporary Christians but it is often forgotten that this has already happened. The discovery of people and civilisations in what would come to be called the Americas, rocked Christendom for precisely these reasons. Debates were had across Europe over whether these newly discovered people were even human (i.e. in possession of immortal souls) and if so, how a just God could place them in a position where knowledge of the gospel had been impossible. (Interestingly I was told by a Mormon that the revelation of Joseph Smith deals with precisely this issue.)  The realisation that we (i.e. Europeans) were not alone and the consequent questioning of assumptions was a contributory factor to the upheaval of the Reformation.

Since then many discoveries have continued this sense of displacement and uncertainty and forced us to question our sense of our own importance. Darwin showed that not only were we not specially created, we were not even specially evolved. Instead we were one of many contingent outcomes of a blind, ateleological, algorithmic process. Freud suggested that our free will was a rationalisation of uncontrollable subconscious drives while B.F. Skinner argued that we were simply following our training. Anthropology showed that there are many ways of living and that the things we took for self-evident truths were simply cultural biases. Genetics reduced the difference between us and chimpanzees to only a few per cent of DNA. Research into primates has revealed that much of what we considered uniquely human (linguistic ability, social organisation, culture, tool use) can be observed in our near relatives. We have come a long way since Hamlet could describe ‘man’ in these terms: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god – the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!” (II, ii, 293-297)

It is striking how many of the discoveries listed above have been received with anger and opposition. It is hardly necessary to detail the trouble that Copernicus and Darwin caused. When it comes to the monkeys and apes there is a particularly noticeable phenomenon. When apes have been taught to communicate through sign language, for example, and display the linguistic abilities of a young child sceptics have been quick to defend human difference. Behaviour which would be praised in their own children is assumed to be qualitatively different when performed by non-human primates. Assertions with no supporting evidence are made that these animals are simply engaging in primitive mimicry or instinctual behaviour rather than the ‘noble’ reasoning of humans. (There may indeed be such a difference but my point is that we must use research to find and define it rather than simply assuming it.) It is interesting to see that the same attitude applies to artificial intelligence research. Philosophical arguments which seek to deny that computers could be ‘like us’ seem to rely more and more on the idea that there is an indefinable difference between our thinking and their thinking.

There is currently controversy over whether or not chimpanzees have theory of mind (the ability to see the world from another’s perspective) although interestingly it has been suggested that crows show evidence of it. I recently asked a primatologist about this and he said that theory of mind probably exists along a continuum with some animals having a small amount, others more and so on. This might explain apparently contradictory results in chimpanzee research. It seems to me that most if not all of our attributes will turn out to be at the end of such continua. It is often thought that there was a particular moment when hominids made the leap to humans and various theories as to what it was that precipitated it. I think it makes more sense to see the process as the gradual acquiring of various cognitive and anatomical attributes which at some point reached a kind of critical mass. It was not the invention of language, or music, or tools, but the combination of these various things which allowed us to become human.

This all rather begs the question of what we mean by ‘human’. And this is why these ideas have caused such violent opposition. The special place of humanity is a common cultural belief around the world, reflected in creation myths, for instance. An evolutionary past in which distinguishing between members of in-groups and out-groups was important for survival may have left us predisposed to overvalue our own species and so undervalue others. It is almost redundant to point out that this has had dire consequences for many of the species with which we share the planet. Understanding our true place in the world and the paradigm shift which must occur in our own consciousness is surely a prerequisite for living in the natural world rather than in opposition to it.


From → Philosophy, Science

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