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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.”1

That the leap has not yet been successfully negotiated is clear from much that is still being written.2 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.3 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 Chimpanzees

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.4 Today, from what she tells us, Gombe is not far from being a large open zoo for three groups of chimpanzees, numbering in all about 160 animals.5 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 students to join her, usually for a few months at a time, at what is now called the Gombe Stream Research Centre. In addition, she employs Tanzanian helpers, and it would seem that at moments she must have had a team of as many as twenty helpers—one to every three or four of the Gombe chimpanzees, who must soon have learned that not only had they nothing to fear from their human companions, but that the latter were also their providers. The chimps’ relations with the baboons were also unnaturally close. One of the many excellent illustrations in Ms. Goodall’s book shows a male baboon copulating with a female chimpanzee. While much may therefore have been learned about the apes in the Gombe Park, one can hardly suppose that the circumstances were those that apply to chimpanzees living in what could be regarded as a “natural” environment.

Ms. Goodall had not had a university education before she was sent into the wild by Louis Leakey in the hope that by providing “a better understanding of the behavior of our closest relatives” she would at the same time provide “a new window onto our own past.” After a year and a half in Kenya she was admitted to Cambridge University6 as a Ph.D. student, returning to Africa in the mid-Sixties, as she puts it, “with at least some of the trappings of a scientist.” After her helpers had been taught to tell one chimpanzee from another, their job was to follow one or more of the animals through the day, noting what they did. By 1972 Ms. Goodall was away much of the time—for three months of the year she was lecturing at Stanford—and, as she says, when in Kenya she spent only “very short periods with the chimpanzees.” The picture that she now paints of her thirty-year odyssey, while built upon the observations she herself made in her first few years in Africa, is thus to a significant extent based upon the reports that she was provided by students and Tanzanian helpers. 7

I have followed Ms. Goodall’s accounts of chimpanzee behavior ever since I first heard her speak about the animal’s feeding habits at a symposium on Primates that was held in London in 1962. This was the first serious account that she gave of her time in the Gombe reserve, 8 and dealt with what she had learned in the previous fifteen months about the animal’s social behavior and feeding habits. She reported that the chimpanzee, while essentially a vegetarian, also ate insects, and that it sometimes used a blade of grass or a twig to winkle termites out of their mounds. On three occasions she had also seen a male chimpanzee eating a freshly killed small mammal—the first time a baby bush pig—while other chimpanzees looked on without being allowed to partake of the feast.

Since then her accounts of chimpanzees have not been consistent. About half of her new book is devoted to descriptions of the behavior of individual animals. The remainder takes up particular issues, such as “power,” the changes in group structure, fighting—and sex, of which there is a fair amount throughout the book.

Goodall had at first described the chimpanzee as an animal that lived peacefully in groups in which females were subordinate to the males, and in which any physically mature male could mate with any sexually receptive female. It then turned out that the males did not enjoy equal rights to the females, but lived in accordance with a hierarchical scale, with the most dominant animal having first pick at food or female. A few years later it turned out that the animal was not as peaceful as she had first assumed, but a creature that on occasion fought and killed its fellows—and sometimes even a baboon. More significant, she found that a male or female that had wandered from its fellows might be set upon by other chimpanzees, and that territorial fights—she calls them wars—occurred between groups of male chimpanzees of different bands.9 Today, while still extolling the loving relationship that mothers have with their young, she tells of some of them killing and eating their own babies.

She writes that the dominant male of a group may retain his “power” for several years before being ousted by a fellow mature male. His prior right to females as they come into full heat10—and solicit attention—and with whom they may form temporary “consort” relationships, does not however preclude the females from being mounted by “lower-ranking” males when the overlord male’s attention is elsewhere. She tells of one instance, when the dominant male’s attention was elsewhere, when three other males “sneaked” the opportunity to mount his female, all in the space of a few minutes.

Ms. Goodall in her more recent work tends to emphasize the exception at the expense of the usual. In her new book she multiplies the number of meat-eating episodes almost to the point at which the chimpanzee seems to be transformed from an essentially frugivorous animal into a hunter and omnivore. She also contradicts herself. Her story of the first occasion that she witnessed meat eating had a male taking a baby bush pig into a tree and consuming it by himself. Now she describes it as sharing it with a female. And while she reaffirms that in general chimpanzees neither share food nor help one another, she simultaneously leaves the impression that they do so frequently. She even has two or three chimpanzees cooperating in hunting a monkey as it moved through the trees. Her much-quoted observation about the animal using blades of grass or twigs to winkle out termites is re-emphasized out of all proportion.11 She tells us that when she reported it to Louis Leakey, he responded in a telegram saying that what she had seen meant that “now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans”—a statement that could only have been made by someone who was both unaware of the fact that there are several animal species that normally use stones and her objects for a variety of natural purposes, and that there are other characteristics besides using objects as tools that apply to the definition of Man.

A large part of her story is based on anecdote—“We must,” she says, “continue to collect anecdotes and, slowly, compile life histories.” As an example, she tells us, but without providing any evidence, that chimpanzees have been known to seize and eat human infants.12 Jane Goodall is also overwhelmingly anthropomorphic. She not only knows what chimpanzees have in their “minds” when they do the things they do, but also what their emotions are when they do them. “I have seldom found it difficult,” she writes, “to record facts in an orderly manner even during times of powerful emotional involvement.” “I can imagine, to some extent,” she goes on to say, “the pleasure of a female chimpanzee during the act of procreation,” by which she clearly implies copulation, since she goes on to say, “The feelings of her male partner are beyond my knowledge—as are those of the human male in the same context.” When a chimpanzee is gazing at trees through which colobus monkeys are moving, she knows that what they have in mind is the thought of a tasty bit of meat.

Without any reference to authority, Ms. Goodall asserts that “similarities in the structure of the brain and central nervous system have led to the emergence of similar intellectual abilities, sensitivities and emotions in our two species.” “If only we could however briefly see the world through the eyes of a chimpanzee,” she writes, “what a lot we should learn.” But even if it were possible to see the world in this way, Ms. Goodall does not tell us what we should expect to learn. My response to this particular suggestion would be that we would learn nothing meaningful to us as human beings. “The window into our own past” that Ms. Goodall set out to open is still shut, if indeed it exists even metaphorically. She ends her book with a statement of regret about the commercial and scientific exploitation of monkeys and apes, and a plea for their conservation.

  1. 1

    Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (London: Hutchinson’s University Library, 1949).

  2. 2

    See, for example, Oliver Sacks’s “Neurology and the Soul,” The New York Review, November 22, 1990, and the various commentaries on J. R. Searle’s article “Consciousness, Explanatory Inversion or Cognitive Science,” in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 13, No. 4 (1990).

  3. 3

    Frans de Waal, Peacemaking Among Primates (Harvard University Press, 1989).

  4. 4

    The park is a narrow strip of rugged land some ten miles long, and in places two miles wide, with its landward side enclosed by villages and its shoreline dotted with the huts of a thousand fishermen.

  5. 5

    In her early writings, the number that she gave for the population varied between fifty and a hundred.

  6. 6

    She writes that she was fortunate to be admitted to Cambridge, and “wanted to get my PhD, if only for the sake of Louis Leakey and the other people who had written letters in support of my admission.”

  7. 7

    Visits to the Gombe Park also had their dangers. One young girl was killed when she fell down a cliff, and four were abducted by marauders from Zaire and had later to be ransomed.

  8. 8

    Jane Goodall, “Feeding Behaviour of Wild Chimpanzees,” The Primates, Symposium No. 10, (London: The Zoological Society, 1962), pp. 39–48.

  9. 9

    One would guess from what she now writes, averaging in Gombe up to about fifty.

  10. 10

    While females are most receptive sexually when in heat, mating may take place at any time, even during pregnancy.

  11. 11

    During the first five years of my career as a scientist, spent as prosector to the Zoological Society of London, I got to “know” many captive chimpanzees. A mature female with whom I often played was in the habit of picking up a piece of straw in order to “manicure”—I can think of no better word—my nails. It never occurred to me to regard her as a tool user, any more than I felt an “empathy” with her when I offered her my head so that she could “groom” my hair.

  12. 12

    Years ago the same tale used to be told about baboons in South Africa, but again, there was no hard evidence behind it. The cynical explanation was that the story had been invented to cover the human crime of infanticide.

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