Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

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.


At 7/18/2007 1:51 PM, Blogger King Aardvark said...

It certainly is wonderful to think that we're part of a continuum of self-aware organisms, and it's really amazing that we can think at all. Haven't read the book myself, though.

Re: elephants - I've talked to a former zookeeper who swore that they could communicate fairly detailed concepts to the elephants, and that the elephants would play crude practical jokes on them (crude because, well, they are just elephants; we're not talking Frasier here).

At 7/18/2007 3:43 PM, Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Someplace I read that Jane Goodall originally thought of chimpanzees as "better" or "purer" than humans, but the more she worked with them, the more she saw that they were basically a lot like us ...

When she observed them committing murder and starting little inter-tribal wars, she knew they were just animals like us.

At 7/18/2007 4:01 PM, Blogger SharonAnn said...

I've been reading your blog for as long as you've been writing it. I don't read any other blogs and have never had any involvement or interest in any kind of online community and find the odd sort of intimate anonymity a little disconcerting. I left the Mormon church, at least emotionally, a little over 2 years ago. I have been fascinated and encouraged by your blog, and by your unconscious confirmation of many of my own thoughts and concerns. I feel very involved in the life of a man whom I couldn't even identify if I passed him on the street. It's a strange feeling. I've started several times now to write my own deconversion story but I keep erasing everything. It's not my intention to bore you, just to tell you that I'm grateful to you for writing this. I also want to tell you that when I finally worked up the courage to tell my family, it was hell. However, they didn't stop loving me, they didn't stop including me and they didn't stop praying for me. For about a month, things were somewhat strained whenever any spiritual or churchy subject was broached but we've managed to get past that. There are still moments that can get uncomfortable. (When my mother discovered that I was no longer wearing temple garments for example.) But a dialogue has been initiated and I hope that someday my mother will ask me "why?". I would love so much to tell her everything; from the problems with the Pearl of Great Price to the DNA issues to all the plural marriages performed after the church renounced it officially, etc ad infinitum. I could spend days telling her all the problems with the church but the funny thing is that I discovered most of that AFTER I realized that I didn't believe. My realization that the church is not true felt an awful lot like the feeling church members, myself included, described as the Holy Spirit. Perhaps she would have to have some inkling of that feeling of doubt before any of the tangible evidence could even take rootI really don't know. My family aside, only two other people know that I am an atheist. I still live in my home ward area and in fact have a calling there. I don't know what I will do about that. I anticipate a steady stream of home and visiting teachers and missionaries should I ever stop attending. I did not leave the church lightly, though, and there is no effort they could make to reconvert me that would be greater than the effort I made myself. I'm just rambling now, and could for a long time so I'll wrap up.
To answer your temple name question from many months ago, they pull from a larger bank of names for the women. And if you are interested in reading anything additional about animal self-awareness and intelligence I recommend "The Parrot's Lament" and "The Octopus and the Orangutan" both by Eugene Linden. Lots of interesting stories without making any spurious
Anyway, thanks again.

At 7/18/2007 4:04 PM, Blogger SharonAnn said...

that should say spurious claims.

At 7/20/2007 2:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nothing really constructive, just wanted to say that I thought Our Inner Ape was a really good book. I think I may take Sharonann's advice and go looking for those next time I'm at the book store, or more likely, go and order them off of Amazon.

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