Monkeys mourning? Don’t make me laugh

A handful of chimp mothers carrying around their dead babies is not evidence of ‘human-like’ qualities.

‘Chimps “feel death like humans”’, the BBC reported this week. And according to Scientific American: ‘Like tool use and self-awareness, distinct grief and mourning might be just one more thing we share with our closest living relatives.’

These claims are based on two studies published in the journal Current Biology earlier this week. In the first study, University of Stirling researchers watched how three chimpanzees at Blair Drummond Safari Park reacted to the death of an elderly female named Pansy. ‘For weeks afterwards it was uncannily quiet in the enclosure and the chimpanzees’ appetites diminished. They were clearly grieving’, said Alasdair Gillies, head keeper at the safari park and co-author of the paper.

In the second study, two chimpanzee mothers were observed after the sudden death of their infants. A respiratory virus had swept through a small colony of chimpanzees in Bossou, Guinea in 2003, killing five chimpanzees, including the two infants. The next morning researchers found that the mothers were going about their business as normal, foraging and travelling with the colony, while carrying the corpses of their dead infants on their backs. One mother carried the dried out corpse of her infant for almost three weeks and the other for more than two months.

The University of Oxford biologist and lead author of the journal article, Dora Biro, suggested that the chimp mothers’ behaviour may show an awareness of the death of their infants. Keeping the corpse close to them may have been their way of dealing with an unbearable loss, in the same way human beings sometimes cannot let go after the death of a loved one.

But equally, their behaviour may be explained in evolutionary terms indicating a ‘very, very strong bond’ between chimpanzee mothers and chimpanzee infants ‘because chimpanzee primates are born completely helpless, like humans’. In fact, Biro is honest in admitting that we cannot actually say what was going on inside the mothers’ heads and whether they had any understanding that their infants had died.

And yet these two studies – describing the behaviour of a handful of chimps – have been widely reported as suggesting that apes are more like humans than we might previously have thought. James Anderson, who led the University of Stirling research team, said: ‘Several phenomena have at one time or another been considered as setting humans apart from other species: reasoning ability, language ability, tool use, cultural variation and self-awareness, for example. But science has provided strong evidence that the boundaries between us and other species are nowhere near to being as clearly defined as many people used to think.’

In my opinion, the opposite is in fact the case. As I argue in my forthcoming book Just Another Ape?, science has provided strong evidence that the boundaries between us and other species are in fact vast.

The problem is that not only journalism but increasingly science writing as well is littered with anthropomorphism – the attribution of human characteristics to animals. This can be very deceptive. Admittedly it is difficult for human beings not to ascribe human emotions and human motivations to animal behaviour, because it is the only way we make sense of the actions of our fellow humans. But it is precisely for this reason that we need to ensure that our presumptions are properly tested.

It is sloppy thinking simply to apply human characteristics and motives to animals. Take the question of grief and mourning. There is no evidence that chimpanzees have an understanding of death. They have no rituals surrounding death. The evidence of human burials not long after the birth of Homo sapiens around 100,000 years ago is the first indication of any species having an awareness of death.

Many scientists reject any notion that animals and human beings are profoundly different. To do so, some scientists seem to fear, would give ammunition to creationists and spiritualists. The science editor of the Daily Mail, Michael Hanlon, argues that it is impossible for human beings to be unique among the animal kingdom: ‘That the brains of mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians and even fish share common structures and genetic backgrounds suggests quite strongly that our self-awareness is almost certainly not unique. Because not to draw this conclusion would be to assume something very strange indeed, something along the Cartesian lines – that somehow, at some point in the evolution of Homo sapiens, and Homo sapiens alone, something magical invaded our skulls in the Pleistocene and set up home.’ (1)

But we do not need to turn to spiritual or ‘magical’ explanations in order to understand that the difference between human beings and other animals is a fundamental one rather than one of degree. As I argue in Just Another Ape?, some fascinating theories have been put forward over the past decade that go quite far in explaining the emergence, through evolution, of uniquely powerful human abilities. We don’t know how or when, but there must have been some gene mutation or mutations tens of thousands of years ago that endowed us with the unique ability to participate in a collective cognition. In other words, because we, as individuals, are able to draw on the collective knowledge of humanity – in a way no other animal can draw on the achievements of their fellows or of previous generations – our individual abilities go way beyond what evolution has endowed us with. We are no longer constrained by our biology.

As Derek Penn and his colleagues at the Cognitive Evolution Group at the University of Louisiana and the UCLA Reasoning Lab argue: ‘Human animals – and no other – build fires and wheels, diagnose each other’s illnesses, communicate using symbols, navigate with maps, risk their lives for ideals, collaborate with each other, explain the world in terms of hypothetical causes, punish strangers for breaking rules, imagine impossible scenarios, and teach each other how to do all of the above.’ (2)

Unless we hold on to the belief in our exceptional abilities we will never be able to envision or build a better future – in which case, we might as well be monkeys.

First published on spiked 29 April 2010