Our planet of the apes

Not only do we share most of our DNA with chimps we also share enlarged planun temporales
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The Independent Culture
THE LABORATORY was secret, of course, sited on the top floor of a tall office block that was not, on the control panel of the lift, credited with existence. Ostensibly concerned with research into robotics, the laboratory in fact housed a burgeoning colony of monkeys. The idea was that scientists could pinpoint the simple processes by which monkeys developed problem-solving strategies, and reproduce them in machines. The robot was not hugely impressive, but the monkeys were.

They would spend an hour or so each day at their specially adapted workstations, hitting symbols which, when completed in the correct order, would earn them some nuts. I could, I discovered with some relief, complete the more simple sequences as easily as the monkeys, but as the puzzles advanced I suffered the humiliating experience of inferiority to a lower-order primate. The research project is long gone now, but the wonder of seeing the monkeys so deftly and surely manipulating the machines is something that I'm sure will remain for ever with everyone concerned with the project.

The scenario sounds similar to the set-up overseen by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and her husband, Duane, at Georgia University's Language Research Centre, though far less complex. The couple released research last week which introduces Panbanisha, a pygmy chimpanzee who is, says Savage-Rumbaugh, the best language expert she has reared. Using a lexigram - a computer screen like those used in the Edinburgh robotics laboratory - the ape can make crude responses to human speech. This demonstration of its comprehension may represent another advance in our understanding of our closest relatives, and perhaps even in their understanding of us.

But it is a poignant discovery - or just a poignant proof, really, for it has long been obvious to those who wish to believe it that chimpanzees are intelligent beings with whom we can communicate and form meaningful bonds. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has been certain of these things for 20 years. She discovered that tracker chimps left messages in the vegetation while hunting, using branches to point out routes, areas where it would be prudent to take a rest, and parts of the forest where travel is best completed by taking to the trees because of danger on the ground. She has spoken of being ridiculed for her beliefs, although that ridicule, in the face of mounting scientific evidence, is now melting away.

The latter half of the 20th century has seen our knowledge of the great apes whiz up from virtually nothing to a point where it is recognised that chimpanzees, sharing at least 98.4 per cent of our DNA, are not much different from us. Not only do we share most of our DNA, we also share an enlarged planum temporales, asymmetric lumps on the brain that are the areas which control our speech. While chimpanzees don't have the voice-boxes that are needed for verbal communication, they do have the mental capability needed to grasp spoken language. We also share the capacity for joy, for fun, for sadness and for mourning.

We - chimps, gorillas, orang-utans, pygmy chimps and humans - should all now be recognised as hominids. We are all intelligent beings with complex emotional lives, intelligence, social structures, distinct personalities and cultural evolutions. In Britain, the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986 banned all experiments on great apes - being the first country in the world to recognise that in some sense, all great apes were more or less entitled to share some rights with humans.

The Great Apes Project has campaigned for human rights for all hominids. Peter Singer, whose book, Animal Liberation, won him the title the father of animal welfare, has spearheaded a campaign that has led to an investigation by the New Zealand parliament, which is assessing the possibility of awarding such rights to all of these high-order primates. In this idealistic desire to extend our humanity, while at the same time embracing our animality, there is something of the best of humankind, a pointer to a future world where all life is properly valued to the benefit of all, and where the planet is shared in a co-operative manner.

But at the same time, the late 20th century has been the period in which our lack of respect for the primates has brought them close to extinction. Half of the 235 primate species are now threatened with annihilation, while another 20 per cent are close to the danger zone. Our cousins, the chimpanzees, are among the first group. Only 110,000 of them remain. What on earth would they have to say to us if we really did learn to communicate with them? Anything we couldn't work out for ourselves?

Might the chimpanzees tell the British that while their anti-vivisection stance is appreciated, as the second largest importer of cheap African timber in the world, we are contributing massively to the deforestation that is robbing them of their habitat?

Might they point out that this deforestation also means that bushmeat poachers are gaining more and more access to previously impenetrable forest, with the result that up to 6,000 chimpanzees each year are being killed for food? And might they also point out that this meat is not just eaten in Africa, but also sold in restaurants in Brussels, Antwerp and other European cities? That it is sold in what we Europeans like to consider as the cradle of civilisation, even though the chimps know, instead, that that lies in their own continent, whose people and land we are destroying?

Or might they point out that they have seen the kind of benefits that rights have brought to human beings, and that they'd rather pass on such rights? Might they find it grimly amusing that although it is widely accepted that Aids was transferred to humans by the eating of the flesh of the now-almost-extinct sub-species the pan-troglodyte chimpanzee, humans still insist on eating chimp?

In some countries in Africa, Aids is now being carried by huge chunks of the population without anything like the medical intervention from the West that is needed to curb the epidemic. Might this fact look, to the other great apes, as if we have paid little attention to this growing crisis for 15 years because we secretly, in the heart of our buried, unacknowledged human darkness, consider Aids to be a form of population control that might sort out quite a few problems in strife-torn, messed-up Africa?

Or might they simply shrug and agree that they, too, have been known to indulge in the kind of cannibalism that resulted in human Aids; that they, too, fight wars and colonise others; that they, too, are violent flesh-eaters; and that they, too, find the indigenous human populations of Africa to be a bloody headache that a plague's culling would do wonders to get back under control; that all is fair in love, war and anthropomorphism? Or might they tell us that they have nothing to discuss with us, for we are not only their worst enemies, but our own worst enemies, too?

Or, most horrific of all, might they just ask us how they can get to Hollywood, because they dream of working for the Chimp Channel? This, a recent launch on US cable, is a show that parodies popular television shows using chimps dressed up as Ally McBeal, George Clooney, the guys from Friends and the Teletubbies. If chimpanzees really are as much like us as research suggests, then world media management opportunities should keep us all chatting till the end of the world. Well, mainly the men, in fact, because yet more recent research has found that while female chimps can easily became dependent on a fix of television-viewing, male chimps aren't interested. Probably because the chimp footage shown to them didn't include any organised sports coverage.