Tuesday, April 17, 2007

(More) Chimpanzees! Robbie's Week 3 "New and Hot"

"Profile of Chimpanzee" from Richard Lydekker's 1893 Royal Natural History. Vol. 1 (via Wikimedia).

In the same vein as Kate's new and hot, a recent article in the New York Times titled "Almost Human, and Sometimes Smarter" discusses Chimpanzee culture, behavior, and cognition.

Based on a March conference called "Mind of the Chimpanzee," the article (and the conference) revolve around the consensus that chimps have emotions and culture. I'm not sure that chimp culture is as universally accepted as the NYT article makes it seem (this is hotly debated by prominent anthropologists), but behavioral research on chimps has some pretty profound evolutionary implications.

If chimps show precursors to behaviors that are prototypically human, like tool use, then this is a way to think about the development of human culture and behavior: "Their behavior and intelligence, scientists say, may offer insights into the abilities of early human ancestors like Australopithecus afarensis, the apelike 'Lucy' species that thrived more than three million years ago. A more urgent motivation for the research, primatologists say, is that these are sentient beings and the closest living relatives of humans, and their survival is threatened."

A far greater implication unmentioned in the article is that if humans evolved our reliance on culture, and consequently our vast cultural variability, then the bright line difference that many people perceive between humans and animals becomes significantly grayer. The growing evidence for a link between humans, our closest evolutionary relatives, and other animals should be used to make a moral argument for species protection, but it must also be used as evidence for the very real evolutionary history of our species.

If humans are not distinct from apes and lie with them on an evolutionary gradient of derived traits, perhaps our heightened awareness of our place in our evolutionary lineage may lead to a greater humility on the part of our species. Our ancestors could have easily taken a different path, and we too could have evolved to be incredibly chimp-like, sitting in the forest using rocks to open nuts. What's important, though, is that there's nothing wrong with that -- we're not the end product of evolution. Chimpanzees are still here too; in many ways, their continued existence makes them as much of an evolutionary success as we are.

I spotted this hand-made sticker on the blue emergency pole outside of the Stanford Post Office.

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