When wild chimps adopt

Sometimes I don’t choose a topic about which to write. Sometimes, a conjunction of the planets presents a topic, all dressed up and ready to go.

The usual cause of a self-generating topic is an unintended alignment of material, a grouping of articles or news reports or book chapters that comes together on its own and both suggests a subject and supplies the content.

It happened again the other day, when I encountered three overlapping articles in quick succession.

Putting together some of the key ideas of these articles yields an interesting set of views on animal rights, the animalness of human nature, the humanness of animal nature, and the movement of our culture away from a certain kind of closeness with other animals.

The first article was “Breeding Contempt,” an editorial published November 24th by Nature. In the editorial, we learn that despite a longstanding ban on breeding chimps in captivity for research purposes — a ban that had its origins in fiscal concerns, not animal rights — at least 137 chimps have been born in the last decade in supposedly non-breeding research facilities. With typical academic detachment, the editorial makes passing reference to the fact that “today the moratorium carries increasing moral weight, as public opposition to chimp research has grown and the United States has become one of only two nations that supports such work.” Nature is not advocating an end to chimp experimentation. Rather, it’s main concern is the impact of poor moratorium compliance on public opinion and the supply of grant money.

Of course, the big reason that there are only two nations left that support using chimpanzees as larger and hairier fruit flies is that public opinion has shifted dramatically toward recognition of our kinship with higher primates like chimps, orangutans, and gorillas.

Next was “Our Animals, Ourselves,” by Justin E. H. Smith, published November 27th by The Chronicle Review. For Smith, a philosophy professor at Concordia University in Montreal, an increasing feeling of connection to other animals would not be something new but rather a return to the way earlier human societies related to nature in general and large predators in particular.

In his article for The Chronicle Review, Smith observes that “animal rights, should there be such things, are now thought to flow from neuropsychological features and behavioral aptitudes: recognizing oneself in the mirror, running through mazes, stacking blocks to reach a banana.”

The experimental approach is new, but the question of our relationship to other animals is not:

But what is forgotten here is that the animals are being tested for re-admission to a community from which they were previously expelled, and not because they were judged to lack the minimum requirements for the granting of rights. They were expelled because they are hairy brutes, and we learned to be ashamed of thinking of them as our kin. This shame only increased when Darwin confirmed our kinship, thus telling us something Paleolithic hunters already knew full well.

In a summary that echoes recent discussion here about the human need to feel “other” and “superior” to “lower animals,” Smith writes:

Before and after Darwin, the specter of the animal in man has been compensated by a hierarchical scheme that separates our angelic nature from our merely circumstantial, and hopefully temporary, beastly one. And we find more or less the same separation in medieval Christian theology, Romantic nature poetry, or current cognitive science: All of it aims to distinguish the merely animal in us from the properly human.

This was not always so, Smith argues:

Human beings lived in a single community with animals, a community that included animals as actors and as persons. In that world, animals and human beings made up a single socio-natural reality. They killed one another, yes, but this killing had nothing in common with the industrial slaughter of domestic animals we practice today: Then, unlike now, animals were killed not because they were excluded from the community, but because they were key members of it. Animals gave themselves for the sake of the continual regeneration of the social and natural order, and in return were revered and treated as kin.

Smith summarizes our purposeful distancing from the animal world by noting the transformation of the animal to the brute in our myths and folklore:

The hairy beast in the cavern, the bear that does unspeakable things to the maiden it abducts, the wolf that dresses up as a grandmother in order to eat/rape Little Red Riding Hood: These are the ne plus ultra of enmity, the very opposite of community.

While Smith may be correct that, just as there are some who resist the growing evidence that our animal brains create minds not that unlike the minds of our primate cousins, there are some whose aim is to use the latest behaviour studies and neuroscience to justify and reinforce our superiority. It doesn’t require Bible sanction for “dominion” to help keep a psychologically necessary distance between ourselves and the brutes. As he notes:

Since the 19th century, science has colluded with morality, always allowing some trivial marker of human uniqueness or other to function as a token for entry into the privileged moral universe of human beings. “They don’t have syntax, so we can eat them,” is how Richard Sorabji brilliantly reduces this collusion to absurdity.

One wonders what the editorial board at Nature would say about a total ban on chimpanzee experiments, on the basis that the captive animals feel and suffer and even think in ways too close to our own for us to continue to justify their being treated like so many lab rats? (How much lab rats themselves feel and suffer and think is of course a relevant concern, but it’s outside the scope of this article.)

This discussion brings us naturally to the third article, “Altruism in Forest Chimpanzees: The Case for Adoption,”  a 2010 study published by PLOSOne and briefly referenced in another article I read shortly after the first two. In the abstract, the study’s authors provide the relevant context:

[E]xperimental studies on captive chimpanzees … showed that individuals were limited in the ways they shared or cooperated with others. This dichotomy between humans and chimpanzees was proposed to indicate an important difference between the two species, and one study concluded that ‘‘chimpanzees are indifferent to the welfare of unrelated group members.’’

This evidence would seem to confirm that chimpanzees lack some essential “human factor.” One interpretation of these studies has been that non-human primates lack a “theory of mind” and have an “inability to think about others’ minds and therefore understand that others might need or could profit from help.” Of course, that this view bolsters the kin-selection explanation of group behaviour is an added bonus for the theory’s supporters. Yet the authors of the study are certain enough of their results to make the direct statement that “chimpanzees are sensitive to the welfare of unrelated group members.”

The researchers spent 17 years studying a troop of wild chimpanzees, and their observations are at odds with the captive studies. They observed 18 cases of adoption, which they note is “a highly costly behavior.” Male and female chimpanzees adopted in equal numbers, but it’s the behaviour of the males that is most striking, due to its variance from expected parenting patterns. None of the male chimps who adopted had previously shown such strong parenting behaviour, and only one adopting parent was clearly identifiable as being the biological father of the adopted infant.

Consistent observations of potentially altruistic behaviors in different populations of wild chimpanzees have been reported in such different domains as food sharing, regular use of coalitions, cooperative hunting and border patrolling.

What makes the difference? The study suggests that the wild troop, living in an area with a large population of leopards and other predators, exhibits that “altruism is not hard wired and will be directed specifically towards individuals that profit significantly from this act.” Thus, the study proposes:

By guaranteeing that all individuals have a safe environment and access to food, captive situations might not mimic situations in which the welfare of others is an issue. Altruism in the case of adoption in forest chimpanzees seems to be the outcome of the specific socio-ecological conditions faced.

Research facilities in the U. S. use chimpanzees as experimental tools. Our dominant religious and philosophical traditions insist on a self-defining gap between humans and other animals. More and more neuroscience is demonstrating the structural and functional similarities between our brains and those of the other higher primates. And more and more behaviour studies like this one emphasize the capacity of other animals to feel and think and act in ways very similar to the ways we feel and think and act.

Putting all of this together in the way I’m suggesting may make some people uneasy, but our relationship to other animals is a topic that’s not going away. It’s certain that it’s only going to get more complicated, and more interesting.


One thought on “When wild chimps adopt

  1. The focus remains with humans and the fear that identifying with the brutes will sanction brute behaviour. Will the courts allow a new defence: my brain made me do it? And as usual following the money would see large amounts at risk if our present cultural attitudes had to change.

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