Apes R Not Us

Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe

by Jane Goodall
Houghton Mifflin, 268 pp., $21.95

Almost Human: A Journey into the World of Baboons

by Shirley C. Strum, foreword by George B. Schaller
Norton, 294 pp., $12.95 (paper)

How Monkeys See the World: Inside the Mind of Another Species

by Dorothy L. Cheney, by Robert M. Seyfarth
University of Chicago Press, 377 pp., $24.95

Language and Species

by Derek Bickerton
University of Chicago Press, 297 pp., $24.95

Uniquely Human: The Evolution of Speech, Thought, and Selfless Behavior

by Philip Lieberman
Harvard University Press, 210 pp., $27.95

At the end of his analysis of the logical shortcomings of Cartesian dualism—of the belief that what we call “mind” is some kind of entity that is distinct from our overt actions—Gilbert Ryle observed that those who are skeptical about the view that there is “a ghost in the machine” are not by implication degrading man to the level of a machine. Man, he wrote, “might after all, be a sort of animal, namely, a higher mammal.” But, he then added, “there has yet to be ventured the hazardous leap to the hypothesis that perhaps he is a man.”

That the leap has not yet been successfully negotiated is clear from much that is still being written. Gilbert Ryle’s book may well therefore continue to have the influence in academic circles that it had when it first appeared. I mention it here because it is referred to in passing by one of the books—that by Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth—which form the subject of this review, and because the issues it discusses cast a shadow over all of them.

In the years since the publication of Ryle’s book a vast literature has grown up whose authors, with varying degrees of scholarship, have tried to persuade us that there is much to be learned about our “minds,” our behavior, and our origins by studying the ways of animals, and particularly those of apes and monkeys, with whom we are jointly classified in the zoological Order Primates. Some have tried to persuade us that human behavior basically accords with the ways that monkeys and apes are presumed to behave in the wild. Several have sought to show that apes, even if they cannot speak, have the ability to learn American Sign Language (ASL). Some go even further and tell us that by studying the way apes and monkeys spend their days we can learn not only about our own evolutionary past, but also how better to order our present troubled international relations. But despite all that has been written, the gulf between man and beast remains as wide as ever. The question is whether it is ever likely to be narrowed through study of our poor relations.

Jane Goodall’s book Through a Window belongs to the first category of primatological literature. It is some thirty years since she started to become known for her accounts of her life with chimpanzees in the Gombe National Park on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika. Clearly it is also an artificial wilderness, since the area around her beach-house, storehouses, and student cottages is furnished with numbers of feeding-boxes to which the chimpanzees and baboons in the park have free access.

The first accounts that she gave of her adventurous career not surprisingly encouraged many young graduate …

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Letters

Apes and Us: An Exchange October 10, 1991