Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Commuting Chimpanzees..............

Last evening I watched an interesting "scientific" programme on BBC2. It was called "Chimps are People too". Its presenter Danny Wallace set out to show that as humans and chimps share 99.4 % of their genetic make up, they are too close to treat differently- hence Chimps are people too !?

For the record, I disagree. However it was amusing to see the reactions of some "eminent" scientists as he lobbied for this view at a scientific reception. Some entered into philosophical debate while a few fundamentalist type scientists reacted in horror to this attack on "classification" and scientific principles.

There were some more sympathetic scientists and the majority of the film was spent with them. He also visited some trained chimps near Hollywood where there were some dark allegations of cruelty in the training methods.

Most interesting was a near cousin of the chimps, the bonobos, which were looked after by a female scientist near Atlanta Georgia. The most able of these were able to cook themselves a pot noodle using a saucepan and gas burners. They had also been trained to use a special computer so could actually have a short "conversation" with Danny Wallace using this.

These are clearly very intelligent animals but not humans. Genetically they are only 0.6% different from us but that is an important 0.6%. One geneticist said the disappearance of a particular gene had allowed the human skull to expand mean its brain was 3 times bigger than a chimp. Chimps have some form of language but it is not as rich as ours.

However the ultimate evidence again human status seemed to be their attitude to each other. While they were able to cooperate for mutual benefit and in an experiment one chimp unlocked another chimp to help with a rope that pulled in bananas, the same chimp did not release the other chimp when he could get the bananas independently.

In short Chimps are not human because they have no moral concern for the welfare of fellow chimps (apart from their own offspring). A chimp will quite happily eat 2 bananas in full view of another chimp that it could unlock and share with. Although appealing in many ways, Chimps are ultimately selfish and cooperate only when there is an obvious gain from doing so. Chimps are not kind and do not practise altruism.

I was happy with this conclusion until I got to the train this morning. Then I witnessed the usual free for all as the doors opened and people rushed for seats. Suddenly I realised the programme could have had the wrong approach. While it said "Chimps are People too", a short commute in London would raise the possibility "People are Chimps too"?!

These chimps read newspapers and listen to I-pods but they are grimly happy to sit while others stand. They push each other out of the way to get out of the train. Occasionally an alpha male cries out in anger when someone invades his space too much.These chimps, like all chimps, can cope with automatic ticket barriers but as commuting chimps no one is bothered about the others and hardly anyone looks at or speaks to each other.

Railway worker chimps man (or "chimp"?) the barriers at the station and grunt as they let someone whose ticket doesn't work, through the barrier.London can make us all chimps sometimes but then someone falls over and a few of us rediscover our humanity as we try and help.In a way our daily commutes are little more than learned exercises that could easily be done by Chimpanzees. Maybe some of our jobs could be performed by Chimps too? (I've certainly met a couple working as real estate agents before !)

London, like most big cities, can be hard and uncaring sometimes. We loose something of our humanity and forget about others. To the visitor it can be daunting. I remember how a New Zealand colleague in my previous job said how on his first visit to London it took him 15 minutes to get out of Oxford Circus underground station because he had never moved in such a crowded confined space before. The local chimps were obviously oblivious to the visitor's plight and kept on moving as a fast flowing torrent, with the newcomer sticking close to the walls of the station.

Now I certainly believe that none of us are really chimps even if sometimes we act like it. However the next time you commute, try to remember that you are 0.6% different from a chimpanzee. And it's rude not to share your bananas with hungry neighbours !


SimonHolyHoses said...

Luis! That's a brilliant post!

I love bonobos. They have quite a few human characteristics and behaviour patterns.

I especially appreciated the bit where you said that perhaps all humans are chimps. Very very true!

We've said on Holyhoses a number of times that we are just stick-banging chimps who need rules and institutions put in place to maintain the illusion that we are not.

It's quite true that as well as affording rights to animals, we'd do well to extend that generosity to the rest of mankind.

Luis said...

Simon- glad you enjoyed it. I appreciate your comments.

I'm sympathetic to your view on us as stick banging chimps- at least in quite a few cases :-)