Of Monkeys and Men
This month's selection for the Skeptics' Book Club was Our Inner Ape, by Frans de Waal. The book was about the behavior of animals related to humans--especially the human's closest relatives, the chimpanzee and the bonobo--and about the light this could throw on human behavior. (And regarding the title of this post, yes, I know that "ape" and "monkey" aren't synonymous. But "of apes and men" wouldn't have alliterated, and anyway the book did discuss monkeys too, a little. I claim artistic license.)
At one point during the discussion, the question was raised whether perhaps de Waal was going too far in anthropomorphizing the apes, and in imputing to them conscious motivations. Personally, I don't think so; I think he gives valid reasons for his conclusions, and that his arguments as to why certain actions the apes performed could only have been the result of conscious thought on their part are good ones. But then, I've always been less amazed by evidence for conscious thought in non-human animals as I am by the amazement this seems to evoke in others. Humans in general like to think of themselves as different from the animals, in some defining way. In fact, de Waal discusses that in the book, and enumerates how each defining characteristic that was supposed to set humans apart--tool use, language, and most recently empathy--was later discovered in animals after all, forcing those who still wanted to cling to an idea of humanity's uniqueness to come up with some new and narrower defining characteristic to last them until newer discoveries rendered it, too, obsolete. (I got a laugh at the book club meeting when I suggested that maybe humanity's real defining characteristic was its search for defining characterstics.)
That's not to say, of course, that humans aren't unique. But if we are, it's primarily quantitatively, not qualitatively. We may not be the only animals capable of rational thought, or even of self-awareness--there's good evidence for self-awareness in both apes and dolphins, and according to de Waal the jury is still out on elephants--but certainly we take these matters to greater extremes than any other animal. As is evidenced by de Waal's book itself, and other books about similar themes--what other animal could so closely question its own motivations and mental make-up?
There's a delightful circularity in all of this, in that of course in questioning how our minds work we're questioning the workings of the very processes that are doing the questioning in the first place. (It's not a vicious circle, of course--the fact that we can analyze how our thought processes came doesn't make those processes or their conclusions invalid.) The recursion involved in our using our minds to analyze our minds, in products of our biological and societal evolution studying those very processes that brought them about and by which they continue to be influenced.
And I think to fully appreciate this, we have to give up the superficially attractive idea of humans being qualitatively unique, of being forever apart from the rest of the universe. I think things become much more interesting and much more, well, fun, once we recognize that we're a part of it all, that we share much the same nature as the rest of nature. The idea that humans are different, that we occupy some special place in the center of creation, may have its appeal, but I think if you really consider it the idea that humans are as much a part of the material cosmos as anything else--as well as being more accurate--is much more profound in its implications and in a way much more uplifting. That we are animals, but animals with a(n apparently quantitatively unique, if not qualitatively) capacity for introspection and self-analysis, that we are products of and subject to the same physical laws that run the rest of the universe, but have the ability to understand those laws (not fully, perhaps, but more each day), and even to manipulate them--that's really marvelous. It seems almost magical that out of the processes of nature could come something with the capacity to study and comprehend the very processes that brought it about, and more still to study and comprehend--at least to a limited degree--itself. Science fiction frequently repeats the trope of a computer program developing intelligence and self-awareness; it's considered a weird and exotic idea. But, in a way, if we consider the universe, running according to physical laws, as being something like a computer (an imperfect analogy, certainly, but not altogether baseless), it's already happened, and the program is us.
We don't have to have some qualitative defining characteristic, something that sets us definitively apart from other animals and from the physical universe, to be special. Our capacity for thought, our consciousness, may differ from that of our relatives only in degree. But it's that difference in degree that lets us wonder about our differences in the first place, and lets us try to understand just what we are in the first place. We are, so far as we know, the only parts of the universe that wonder what we are. And that's wonderful.