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08 February 2013

c is for Chimpanzees

Two species of primates conduct organized warfare. Humans, and "chimps."

By "chimps" I mean common chimpanzees, not their close cousins the bonobos.

In a sense, looking at chimps, if we could do so as a species, might be akin to seeing ourselves in a fun-house mirror: Our differing appearances belie our internal consistency.

Yeah, physically there's a lot of differences. But in ethnographic terms? Not so much.  The cultures of our species have more overlap then deviation. We both experience the range of "human" emotions - joy, fear, anger, hate, love, humor, etc. Their body language mimics ours in their shaken angry fists and their tender, loving kisses. They pass cultural learning to their next generations, thus developing regional behaviors not shared among the species as a whole.

It seems that in popular culture, chimps are more feared than liked. We're moderately aware of their capacity for violence - a rival to our own, no doubt - but we don't tend to notice that chimps, as people, are more rounded than that. They're more developed in their personalities than we would give them credit for.

In laboratory testing, Chimps recognized themselves in the mirror; they recognized that they were seeing themselves, not a different chimp. Theory of mind has long been held as an exclusively human trait; we presumed no other animals could have the same level of awareness or cognition that we do.

This is the lesson of the Chimps, as I see it: don't be fooled by the plain or off-putting appearance of another being. This is about empathy and perspective. So often we see someone or something and form an instant, two-dimensional idea of who or what they are; there's no shame in this, it's how our brains work. The shame is in allowing ourselves to believe that the little we saw in that sketch of the person, is all there is to them. Remember: what we see is only the surface, and people hide far more on the inside than the tip hides of an iceberg. This concept extends to ourselves, our theory of mind: the thoughts that occupy your time right now, are not all that defines you. Know your holistic self; know who you are seeing when you look in the mirror.


Jane Goodall on Chimps (2007)

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