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Are Apes Entering the Stone Age?

Denyse O'Leary

Apes Entering the Stone Age?.jpg

Last week we looked at the fact that very simple life forms that do not have brains attempt to survive, adapt in order to do so, and often communicate for that purpose. Yet they are probably not conscious and do not likely have a sense of self. Something seems to process a large amount of information in or for them.

Animal Minds.jpegStudying ourselves sheds little light on animal mind because human mind or consciousness is the greatest unsolved problem in philosophy. But we might continue to explore the question in our own neighborhood anyway, by looking at fellow primates, monkeys and apes. They seem pretty close to us, compared to an amoeba. In what ways do they think like us?

Monkeys have an interesting relationship with information in popular science culture. Darwin’s “bulldog” Thomas Huxley (1825-1895) allegedly conjectured that

…six monkeys, set to strum unintelligently on typewriters for millions of millions of years, would be bound in time to write all the books in the British Museum.1

Of course the analogy makes monkeys stand in for an unintelligent process, sometimes called the infinite monkey theorem. But what of monkeys’ conscious relationship to information? In 2003, media reported on an attempt to introduce monkeys at a British zoo to computers.

After the researchers left a computer with six Sulawesi crested macaques, “the lead male got a stone and started bashing the hell out of it.” Eventually…

They were quite interested in the screen, and they saw that when they typed a letter, something happened. There was a level of intention there.

But their intention was bound to fade if nothing much followed that interests macaques. We teach primates, and mammals and birds, to use devices from which they perceive a benefit. We do not thereby change their goals, let alone raise their native intelligence.

What About Primates’ Natural Use of Tools?

Primates’ use of tools has often been studied. But the clamor to show that, as anthropologist Barbara J. King puts it, “humans aren’t so far apart from other animals as people sometimes think,” suggests that caution is advised in how we interpret the reports.

Reporting on research from the University of Haifa, New Scientist advises, “Bonobos use a range of tools like stone-age humans.” They demonstrate “caveman skills,” or in another account, they use “pre-agricultural” tools.

But what, precisely, are “caveman skills”? What are “pre-agricultural” tools? Such terms imply a foreseeable future, namely our past. It is assumed that if we came back ten millennia from now, we would find great advances. What reasons have we for believing so?

The reported study documents tool use by captive bonobos. In nature, bonobos, unlike the larger chimpanzee Pan Troglodytes, had not yet been observed using tools. However, as another researcher noted, the behavior of captive animals, who are fed and protected, may not represent behavior in the wild.

He might have added that captive animals see humans using tools. Bonobos have hands, after all, so it mightn’t be difficult for them to imitate the basic idea.

Sometimes, however, the ape intelligence theme goes over the top. The BBC announced this summer that chimps are now living in the Stone Age, because they smash things with stones. But so do some birds. Are the birds entering the Stone Age too?

One is tempted to ask, what about the octopuses that use halved coconuts as shelters? Are they entering the Wood Age? Are those octopuses that twist jar lids to get food or to escape entering the Age of Plastic?

Curiously, we are told that the imputed primate Stone Age

… could tell us about the nature of early human behaviour. However, drawing conclusions won’t be easy: early humans are very different from chimpanzees and monkeys.

Note the (probably usually unnoticed) internal contradiction: We both can learn about the nature of early human behavior by studying chimpanzees and monkeys even though they are very different. People talk like this when they believe something so strongly (in this case, the virtual identity of humans and primate apes) that the proposition need no longer make even outward sense. It’s too bad ape mind couldn’t be studied in its own right for what it is, and not for what it supposedly says about humans.

In any event, what significance should we attach to tool use among primates? As we have seen, a variety of vertebrates and invertebrates learn to manipulate objects. They all reach a plateau that meets their needs and then stop learning. So, while primate tool use is an interesting find, it is not the major or unexpected discovery often claimed, and not a big piece of the puzzle of animal mind.

Primates and Language

Language might be a more promising area for evaluating the characteristics of animal minds. Primates like the gorilla Koko and birds like Alex the parrot can learn many signs or words, to communicate with us. Therein lies a catch: They don’t invent, develop, and pass on such languages, establishing them in their species. Human languages are useful for communicating with humans but irrelevant to animals’ natural needs.

As we saw with tool use, many claims are phrased essentially as predictions that the primates are in the process of developing a culture like that of humans, rather than behaving as they have, largely unnoticed, for tens of millennia. For example, we were told earlier this year that “Apes may be closer to speaking than many scientists think. Koko, the gorilla who has lived with humans for forty years can “control her larynx enough to produce a controlled grunting sound.” While Koko is a very accomplished gorilla, she doesn’t seem to be progressing toward human speech, and it is unclear why she would need to.

Similarly, we are told that bonobo infant noise points to the origin of human language and can challenge “how we think about the evolution of communication and potentially move the dividing line between humans and other apes.” Really? Despite having done nothing similar for bonobos in all this time? We also hear that monkeys recognize the basic structure of language, but they do not go on to
but develop a language either.

In any event, when primate researchers say that bonobo infant noise challenges “how we think about the evolution of communication and potentially move the dividing line between humans and other apes,” who are the “we” who are challenged? They themselves seem quite convinced that there is no significant dividing line, no matter what the state of the evidence.

And their position cannot easily be assailed. They can go on looking for evidence indefinitely, and the developments in ape consciousness that would prove them right would, if they ever occur, be millennia in the future.

Meanwhile, subsequent research did not support one claim that chimps learn other troupes’ “languages.”

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that the original study tells us much new about the evolution of language,” notes Fischer, a professor of cognitive ethology.

No real surprise there; human language is bound up with human consciousness, and can’t be considered apart from a constant need to convey new information that might matter only to a human.

In some situations, as John Stuart Mill would say, one might better use the method of difference, that is, pay attention to what is different, not what is similar.

In Time, Can Ape Cognition Advance to Human Cognition?

The Stone Age metaphor, as we have seen, suggests that it already has. Said progress is not demonstrated; it is tacitly assumed. In reality, there is no reason to expect apes to just naturally become more intelligent over time.

In human history, the Stone Age is known, like the Age of Bronze, only in retrospect, not prospect. It is a contingent period of history, not a natural progression like the life cycle of a tree. We may not have become more intelligent in the millennia for which we have detailed knowledge. We have certainly become is the heirs of solved problems, as generations build on prior ones. That may be the main reason we might appear “smarter” than our Stone Age ancestors.

Research has moved on, of course, from the heady Seventies, when Nim Chimpsky was raised from infancy as a human baby, with great advances in cognition envisioned.2 Chastened perhaps, by failure, researchers turned increasingly to monitoring live animals in their own environment for signs of human-like behavior.

Apes are said by various researchers to, among other things, mourn their dead, suffer self-doubt, make dolls, have police, go to war, and use “innovative, foresighted methods.”

Study continues, and common sense accords varying weights to such claims. For example, mourning the dead, as we understand it, includes recognizing that death is inevitable and final — a high level abstraction that goes well beyond grief at the loved one’s unresponsiveness. And chimpanzees don’t necessarily excel even at lower level abstractions. Dogs performed better on one kind of intelligence test (interpreting finger pointing) than chimpanzees, despite lacking fingers.

It is often said that we can learn a lot about ourselves by studying apes. But what? First, what are the underlying assumptions? The claim that we share 99 percent or 98 percent of our genes with chimpanzees won’t help much if the gulf between mental capacities is hardly on the order of one or two percent.

It is probably more helpful to see animal intelligence on its own terms. Primate apes can use tools, communicate to some extent, and experience some level of consciousness or sense of “self” (as in, this experience is happening to me). But they do not seem to be moving along an evolutionary path that we trod before them, as much popular writing in this area implies.

Perhaps we should see what we can learn about the minds of animals whom no one envisions as becoming us or being like us: the bats, ravens, and reptiles of the world.


(1) There does not seem to be clear independent evidence of when and where Huxley said this. Seethe discussion, “Typing Monkeys: History of an Idea,” by Wesley R. Elsberry 1999/11/01, citing JH Jeans, 1930, The Mysterious Universe, 1st edition, MacMillan New York and University Press, Cambridge, 163 pp., p.4. It was most likely an authentic oral remark, later repeated in various forms, retaining the basic idea.

(2) Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Nature of Human Intelligence, New York: Random House, 1977, p. 126.

Photo credit: Itay Roffman via University of Haifa.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.



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