by David Berlinski 2008
The idea that human beings have been endowed with powers and properties not found elsewhere in the animal kingdom - or, so far we can tell, in the universe-arises from a simple impulse: just look around. It is an impulse that handily survives the fraternal invitation to consider the great apes. The apes are, after all, behind the bars of their cages, and we are not. Eager for the experiments to begin, they are also impatient for their food to be served, and they seem impatient for little else. After undergoing years of punishing trials at the hands of determined clinicians, a few have been taught the rudiments of various primitive symbol systems. Having been given the gift of language, they have nothing to say. When two simian prodigies meet, they fling their placards at each other.
More is expected, but more is rarely forthcominging. Experiments-and they are exquisite-conducted by Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth indicate that like other mammals, baboons have a rich inner world. Simian social structures are often intricate. Chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas reason; they form plans; they have preferences; they are cunning; they have passions and desires; and they suffer. In much of this, we see ourselves. But beyond what we have in common with the apes, we have nothing in common, and while the similarities are interesting, the differences are profound.
If human beings are as human beings think they are, then questions arise about what they are, and so do responses. These responses are ancient. They have arisen spontaneously in every culture. They have seemed to men and women the obvious conclusions to be drawn from just looking around. Accordingly, an enormous amount of intellectual effort has been invested in persuading men and women not to look around.
"With all deference to the sensibilities of religious people, the idea that man was created in the image of God can surely be put aside." Thus Nature magazine in a recent editorial. As for those unwilling to put their "sensibilities" aside, the scientific community has concluded that they are afflicted by a form of intellectual ingratitude. After all, the same editorial insists, "The idea that human minds are the product of evolution is unassailable fact."
It is remarkable how widespread our ingratitude really is, and also how far back it goes. read more