Followers of news from the world of evolution research are abuzz over a new study, and it’s only partly because of the opportunity for putting some mild potty talk in your headlines. “Poop-Throwing Chimps Provide Hints of Human Origins,” explains Wired magazine, for one.
Published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, the study shows how chimps throwing feces at each other illuminates the evolutionary path by which early hominids set out on their way to acquiring the gifts of language and abstract thought.
The researchers were especially interested in relationships between throwing, cognition and lateralization, or the way certain activities are concentrated in the left or right hemispheres of our brains. Language processing occurs in the left side, which also controls our right hands; and most people use their right hands to throw, as do chimpanzees.
While throwing at first might not seem demanding, coordinating it requires intensive, on-the-fly calculations. An equation for throwing a ball, for example, would include the distance to a target, the ball’s heaviness and the thrower’s strength. A moving target makes it even harder. Other psychologists and anthropologists have put throwing at the beginning of a cognitive cascade into higher-order thought, but Hopkins said his team is the first to test this proposition.
Why didn’t we think of this? It’s so obvious and intuitive, really. From creatures scooping up their own waste and tossing it at each other — to Charles Dickens and Emily Dickinson, well it’s only a matter of a hop, a skip and a plop, when you consider it for a moment.