Saturday, October 13, 2012

Chimps-R-Us it ain't!

Chimpanzee lovers everywhere are familiar with the t-shirt motif “98% chimp.” It simply and aptly points out the close genetic relationships between humans and chimps. We delight in seeing pictures of chimps enjoying the toys that we played with, or having a birthday party, or acting out in ways that seem surprisingly and lovingly human. With that background, I picked up the book Almost Chimpanzee: Searching for What Makes Us Human, in Rainforests, Labs, Sanctuaries, and Zoos, by Jon Cohen, expecting to be outraged and offended. As someone who looks into an ape’s eyes and sees a spark of humanity looking back, I knew the book’s premise – examining the differences between chimpanzees and humans, rather than the similarities – would cause me no end of aggravation.

Instead, I found myself drawn further and deeper into the science that Cohen presents.

“Goodall was pursuing noble and worthwhile goals, and indeed she, along with Yerkes and other pioneering chimpanzee researchers, deserves much credit for making people more aware of the intelligence, social needs, and emotional depth of our closest cousins,” Cohen writes. “But I think the need to emphasize our similarities has abated.”

Ah, I can imagine my friends’ exclamations of disagreement, even as I write this. Before I read the book, I would have added my own exclamations. (In fact, I probably did at some point.) But hear me out…

I wasn’t totally converted to all of Cohen’s positions (I will never support the use of chimpanzees in research, for instance, and he hints that he favors some research as long as it is approached with high standards of compassion), but the book challenged many of my convictions. That is a good thing, since sound policies in chimp care and conservation require us to consider the depths of scientific inquiry. That deeper examination, compliments of Almost Chimpanzee, reveals differences between chimpanzees and humans that are just as exquisite and profound as our similarities.

I admit that it took me longer than usual to read this book. It is so crammed full of scientific explanations and research findings that I sometimes got loss in the nomenclature. Just when I felt like I was going to drown in unfamiliar terminology, however, Cohen comes through with a story or an interview that illuminates the point of his discussion. In that, he made the science understandable to a non-scientific reader like me.

Cohen covers a wide range of subjects, from brain functions to language to genetics and evolution. On every topic, I learned something new. This was especially true with his discussion of research relating to language. I knew I was skeptical of claims about Kanzi and Koko and other apes involved in language research, but I didn't know why. Cohen introduces the reader to the FOXP2 gene mutation, and he leads us down the path of discovery to how it draws the line between communication and language. He brings in Tetsuro Matsuzawa, who studies both wild and captive chimpanzees, to explain the difference between ape language research and his cognitive research. “Everyone admits that apes have primitive language at the word level. No one doubts that,” Matsuzawa tells Cohen. But, Cohen explains, “the greater claims made by ape language research never persuaded Matsuzawa and most others in the field, because it is not good science. ‘If you do ape language research, you cannot easily repeat what you have found, but I can always repeat my findings in front of you,’ he said.”

Throughout the book, I found facts that startled me (wild chimps have an average life expectancy of only thirteen years!) and answers that had eluded me for years (do female chimpanzees experience menopause?). As the daughter of a Detroit Zoo chimp trainer, I was grateful for his insights into the evolution of the Detroit Zoo, from its status in the 1950s and 60s as chimp show opportunist to their thoughtful (though in some ways very sadly and I would say stupidly mistaken) development of a zoo-appropriate chimpanzee exhibit.

Cohen’s history of chimpanzee research policy in the U.S. is also quite helpful, especially as he dispassionately explains which groups did what, without the self-promotion that one often finds on organization websites.

Above all, I found Cohen’s objective treatment of various sides of thorny issues quite exhilarating. His description of scientist Richard Wrangham is also an apt description of Cohen’s approach to this book. “He behaves, in short, like a scientist – curious, skeptical, intellectually honest, welcoming of criticism, and bound by data… [He] is an unusually humble cook of hearty food for thought…”

I strongly recommend Almost Chimpanzee: Searching for What Makes Us Human, in Rainforests, Labs, Sanctuaries, and Zoos. It is a must read for any ape advocate who wants to explore a plethora of ideas not usually discussed by advocacy groups. It helped me understand the scientific basis for the relationships between chimpanzees and humans, and for the differences that make both of us special. Most especially, it introduced me to a new appreciation for the science that will fill the analytical holes my emotions and assumptions often covered over.

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