Thursday, April 30, 2015

New book reveals amazing details about the Iowa bonobos, other apes, and the researchers who exploit them

“He and his colleagues wrote about the evolution of morality deep in the primate order, about how empathy is alive and well among the apes, and had very effectively shown that humans and bonobos and chimps and orangutans are almost the same in capacities to think and feel. Yet they gleaned their insights mainly by studying apes imprisoned for life in places no one wanted to show me.”

Exactly! Finally, someone understands what has been bothering me about Frans de Waal for the last several years. In a newly released book, SMARTS, author/journalist Elaine Dewar looked behind de Waal’s public facade, and has the guts to call him out.

Even better, she’s looked into the unpaid taxes, court records, and “research” history of the Great Ape Trust / Iowa Primate Learning Center / Bonobo Hope / Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative, and has uncovered details behind the shenanigans that have made them a laughingstock. The fights over ownership of the bonobos, the dysfunction as the ever-changing board of directors keeps kicking Sue Savage-Rumbaugh out of the picture, the continuing funding debacle, and the legal “scorched earth” strategy (promised by Savage-Rumbaugh’s attorney) is so much worse than I imagined.

Five weeks ago, Dewar asked if I’d like to read an advance copy of SMARTS. Sure, I said. And promptly forgot about it. Then I got an email from someone working on the book project, who asked about a photo of Savage-Rumbaugh and Kanzi. Whoa! It was the first I learned that Dewar was reporting on the Iowa bonobos. Then my email correspondent threw in a line about how Dewar mentioned the Chimp Trainer’s Daughter blog. I hate to admit my own shallowness, but you know I had to read the book.

Remember those advertisements, “come for the (X), stay for the (Y)?” That describes my reading of SMARTS. I came to read what she had to say about my blog and the ape research, and I stayed for the whole book. You will too.

With a breezy but meticulous writing style, and just enough sass to make you smile, Elaine reports on her interviews of some of the world’s most creative minds in science and technology, as she searches for the meaning of “intelligence.” Some of what she learns (okay, a lot of it) is more than I can understand, as she goes into deep discussions on animal, plant, and artificial life. Even though I may not understand the chemical processes and algorithms, however, I understood what she was getting at. As I sit here in my cozy home, with smart machines making my life a lot easier than I could have imagined just a decade ago, people are pursuing ideas that are literally changing the world. I’m tempted to call them whacko ideas – slime that thinks? plants that plan? technology that evolves independent of humans? – but governments and industries are investing big bucks in pursuing the implications for non-human intelligence. And the public is completely unaware – unless they read SMARTS.

After reporting on a multitude of thinkers – I especially enjoyed learning more about Alan Turing and his vision into the future – Dewar brings us back to the bonobos in Iowa, where the newly installed researchers are moving beyond the trite language studies. The plan is to subject Kanzi and the others to testing that “map[s] ape brains and hunts for gene polymorphisms in chimps — 'animal models' as he [ACCI director of research Jared Taglialatela] calls them — that might lead to therapies ‘for disorders of the social brain’ in humans.”

Dewar reports on the Nonhuman Rights Project strategy to get the State of New York to recognize the rights of apes, and brings up a salient point that I had missed in my previous posts about Savage-Rumbaugh. Dewar found that the bonobo researcher has filed an affidavit in support of the habeas corpus petitions.

“It seemed so odd to me that Savage-Rumbaugh should have argued so eloquently that apes held in a research facility are legal persons entitled to liberty,” Dewar writes, with a nod to the obvious hypocrisy: that Savage-Rumbaugh has been fighting for many years to hold her bonobos in a research facility, denying them the same opportunity for sanctuary that she is advocating in the case of the research chimpanzees.

This book shines a critical light on the use of apes in research, not by hyperbole but by using the words and deeds of de Waal, Savage-Rumbaugh and others. I’d love to go into more detail, but, really, you need to read it as part of a comprehensive and insightful exploration of ideas that are shaping the world without our knowledge. That would be the SMART thing to do.

Where to buy:
At Amazon: SMARTS
At Amazon.UK: SMARTS
Gateway to European Amazon sites

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