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Monkey see, monkey dead
April 28, 2010 12:05 PM   Subscribe

Chimpanzees mourn, freak out, and even lose sleep over a relative's death. Includes footage. Also, lol.
posted by DZack (65 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
We will stop being surprised by these discoveries (to say nothing of loling them) once we acknowledge that humans are also animals.
posted by DU at 12:12 PM on April 28, 2010 [24 favorites]


I guess I'm sort of wondering how this is "new" news or why anyone is still questioning it. Jane Goodall documented this very well decades ago. Best book I've ever read. It's a brilliant read.
posted by heyho at 12:14 PM on April 28, 2010 [4 favorites]


Jesus. Despite the anthropology classes I took in college, it's still so easy to forget the cognition and emotion that chimps and bonobos are capable of showing. Great link.
posted by Damn That Television at 12:15 PM on April 28, 2010


Whenever I think I have a dry, dark sense of humor, The Onion comes around and owns me.
posted by yiftach at 12:18 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Not monkeys.
posted by The Thnikkaman at 12:20 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I wholeheartedly agree with heyho. I'm also amazed that anyone still questions this, and In the Shadow of Man should be on everyone's reading list. Fantastic, brilliant and sad book.
posted by zarq at 12:20 PM on April 28, 2010


Yeah, I think this is fascinating, but put me in the "didn't we know this?" category. To say nothing of chimpanzees - horses can go crazy when separated from a companion horse, and they sometimes never get over it.
posted by koeselitz at 12:21 PM on April 28, 2010


And, if you piss them off, they'll eat your ass.
posted by Shike at 12:34 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I really don't understand why people react to a scientific study that provides evidence for something interesting with "hey, we already knew this, it's just common sense! Or agrees with my worldview! Or seems to follow 'logically' from something else I read about!"
posted by gurple at 12:35 PM on April 28, 2010 [5 favorites]


Reactions to a more timely death, however, are little known. And this rare documentation provides new insight that "calls for a reassessment of the position that only humans have death awareness," Anderson says

I understand that this is not a scholarly paper, but exactly who's "position" does this refer to? This kind of simplification and reduction is annoying. I think most people, if you asked them, would allow that many higher animals, dogs and cats for example, are at least AWARE of what death means.
posted by longsleeves at 12:35 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I understand that this is not a scholarly paper, but exactly who's "position" does this refer to?

Srsly. I mean, elephants are known to be big mourners.

"I've been to three funerals this year ... and I'm not a mourning person." —Dr. Katz
posted by Sys Rq at 12:43 PM on April 28, 2010


Okay, that does it. I'm never eating Chimpanzee Kabob again.
posted by inigo2 at 12:50 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure exactly what you're talking about here. I'm not surprised to learn that a chimpanzee can understand that another chimp has died and won't ever be down for dinner again, and can feel grief and loss as a result.

What would surprise me very much is to learn that a chimp understands that death is coming for him too, someday. That there's nothing he can do to avoid it. That the big SPOILER for every chimp story is "They all die. ... Eventually." And that a chimp could contemplate his inevitable fate. That realization, it seems to me, is uniquely human.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 1:08 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I really don't understand why people react to a scientific study that provides evidence for something interesting with "hey, we already knew this, it's just common sense! Or agrees with my worldview! Or seems to follow 'logically' from something else I read about!"

Because it is their nature, just as it is their nature to grieve for the death of a loved one.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:12 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


gurple, we're not making these statements to be pissy or sound ultra hip; we're making these statements because the author of this article in Scientific American is treating the information as if it's groundbreaking discovery when, in fact, it's decades-old news. Jane Goodall still spend most of her year touring and talking about her research in Tanzania.

We're not complaining about the post, but rather wondering what SA was thinking. Or at least that's my stance. Nothing at all against the post or poster, or any of you fine folks reading and maybe learning something new.

And oh, man... the elephants. Don't even google for stories/video on how elephants grieve for lost family members unless you're really in the mood to go there emotionally.
posted by heyho at 1:14 PM on April 28, 2010 [3 favorites]


"I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands.
In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn.
Baby, drink milk.
Baby, play ball.
And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief."

—Amy Hempel, "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried"
posted by Houyhnhnm at 1:24 PM on April 28, 2010 [23 favorites]


This just in: Animals have emotions. News at 6.
posted by Malice at 1:38 PM on April 28, 2010


That realization, it seems to me, is uniquely human.

I wonder if hubris is uniquely human, too.

Seriously, all we've got going for us is the combination of the Big Three evolutionary traits -- large brain + opposable thumbs + articulable lips and tongues. Also, a tendency towards gregariousness helps with the retention of knowledge across generations. Plenty of other animals have 2 out of three -- whales, chimps, otters, etc. Some have only one out of three -- mostly the large mammals.

My dog has a 40 or 50 word vocabulary, but he has to play charades because he can't fucking say "outside." He shows visible frustration at this all the time. I have no doubt that if he had opposable thumbs, he'd be drawing me pictures of what he wanted.

It seems presumptuous of us to assume that animals never ponder the ineffable questions, and that they don't have self-realization or an understanding of their own birth/school/work/death.
posted by Devils Rancher at 2:07 PM on April 28, 2010 [6 favorites]



We're not complaining about the post, but rather wondering what SA was thinking.

They were thinking they got some footage of chimps dealing with dead companions and that people might find it interesting, and that they needed a story to go along with it. The BBC's got a separate article, with a different film from the same group of researchers.
posted by frobozz at 2:12 PM on April 28, 2010


Somewhat related: Scientists Successfully Teach Gorilla It Will Die Someday
posted by wcfields at 2:13 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


wcfields: That's right there in the post.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:47 PM on April 28, 2010


I really don't understand why people react to a scientific study that provides evidence for something interesting with "hey, we already knew this, it's just common sense! Or agrees with my worldview! Or seems to follow 'logically' from something else I read about!"

Huh? It's more of "I read about this years ago, it's not really new". Maybe there is something new in the article, but the the knowledge in the FPP isn't really new.
posted by delmoi at 2:57 PM on April 28, 2010


Perhaps the big deal is that, as far as I can tell, most people of the US (51%+) watch FOX news or believe in some other sort of drivel like astrology. I'm sure there's around the same level of rampant stupidity in most other countries. We, on MetaFilter: a rather educated lot, may find it self-evident from just a few pieces of the puzzle, like Goodall's research. But that other group, they need more pieces of the puzzle to really get it - to get it deep enough that they may even be willing to consider being ethical with animals. I say give 'em as many pieces as they need!

P.S. I had a cat who was jealous that I had opposable thumbs; she'd watch intently as I did a task requiring that benefit, then she'd attempt to do the same activity. Sometimes, she'd just get mad and bite me. (Especially when I giggled and teased her.)
posted by _paegan_ at 3:00 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Aw, poor kitty!
posted by Crabby Appleton at 3:12 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


koeselitz: "Yeah, I think this is fascinating, but put me in the "didn't we know this?" category. To say nothing of chimpanzees - horses can go crazy when separated from a companion horse, and they sometimes never get over it."

Excerpts from "Am I Blue?" by Alice Walker:
I had forgotten the depth of feeling one could see in horses' eyes. I was therefore unprepared for the expression in Blue's. Blue was lonely. Blue was horribly lonely and bored. I was not shocked that this should be the case; five acres to tramp by yourself endlessly, even in the most beautiful of meadows — and his was — cannot provide many interesting events, and once rainy season turned to dry that was about it. No, I was shocked that I had forgotten that human animals and nonhuman animals can communicate quite well; if we are brought up around animals as children we take this for granted. By the time we are adults we no longer remember. However, the animals have not changed.

One morning, looking out the window at the fog that lay like a ribbon over the meadow, I saw another horse, a brown one, at the other end of Blue's field. Blue appeared to be afraid of it, and for several days made no attempt to go near. We went away for a week. When we returned, Blue had decided to make friends and the two horses ambled or galloped along together, and Blue did not come nearly as often to the fence underneath the apple tree. When he did, bringing his new friend with him, there was a different look in his eyes. A look of independence, of self-possession, of inalienable horseness. His friend eventually became pregnant. For months and months there was, it seemed to me, a mutual feeling between me and the horses of justice, of peace. I fed apples to them both. The look in Blue's eyes was one of unabashed "this is itness."

It did not, however, last forever. One day, after a visit to the city, I went out to give Blue some apples. He stood waiting, or so I thought, though not beneath the tree. When I shook the tree and jumped back from the shower of apples, he made no move. I carried some over to him. He managed to half-crunch one. The rest he let fall to the ground. I dreaded looking into his eyes — because I had of course noticed that Brown, his partner, had gone — but I did look. If I had been born into slavery, and my partner had been sold or killed, my eyes would have looked like that. The children next door explained that Blue's partner had been "put with him" (the same expression that old people used, I had noticed, when speaking of an ancestor during slavery who had been impregnated by her owner) so that they could mate and she conceive. Since that was accomplished, she had been taken back by her owner, who lived somewhere else.

Will she be back? I asked. They didn't know.

Blue was like a crazed person. Blue was, to me, a crazed person. He galloped furiously, as if he were being ridden, around and around his five beautiful acres. He whinnied until he couldn't. He tore at the ground with his hooves. He butted himself against his single shade tree. He looked always and always toward the road down which his partner had gone. And then, occasionally, when he came up for apples, or I took apples to him, he looked at me. It was a look so piercing, so full of grief, a look so human, I almost laughed (I felt too sad to cry) to think there are people who do not know that animals suffer.
posted by Rhaomi at 3:17 PM on April 28, 2010 [22 favorites]


Seriously, all we've got going for us is the combination of the Big Three evolutionary traits -- large brain + opposable thumbs + articulable lips and tongues. Also, a tendency towards gregariousness helps with the retention of knowledge across generations.

Your thinking is comical in its sheer shallowness.

Friends and neighbors, DU was right in his initial comment. We are animals. But it is not the case that we are "nothing but" animals. Don't believe that for an instant. (And if you use your common sense at all, you won't be able to believe it.) If you ever begin to think deeply about the issues I raised above, you'll need resources beyond those of any animal to deal with the consequences. Don't let anyone convince you that you don't have them.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 3:36 PM on April 28, 2010


The general problem is that we tend to see animals as "nothing but" animals. This kind of science reporting helps overcome that.
posted by No Robots at 3:38 PM on April 28, 2010


And if you use your common sense at all

This, is imo what we tend to lack. My cat has more common sense that most over thinking super animals (if that's what you suggest) have. We are nothing but animals, what's so freaky about that?

you'll need resources beyond those of any animal to deal with the consequences

huh? I guess you are maybe talking about spirituality? So what, a monkey can't build a skyscraper or send our planet's ecosystem into collapse, and that makes us better how?
posted by twistedonion at 4:01 PM on April 28, 2010


Your thinking is comical in its sheer shallowness.

It's perhaps a tad reductionist, but that's what I see on the surface. Physically, we're a collection of molecules, a great number of which form these massive brains that cause us to think abstract thoughts and ponder the imponderable. I happen to think that that's the evolutionary luck of the draw.

Why all that is, why it all exists and how it got here, I don't know. But maybe I'm just a dumb animal after all, right? Since I'm so shallow? The epistemological limits of the debate are out there beyond my menial mental capacity -- I just know it was something more powerful than me, and I'm good with that. If you need some sort of system that sets you apart from the rest of the atoms and molecules supernaturally, great -- whatever works. I'm all for it, and I sincerely hope it brings you peace and comfort.

Please though -- explain to me why a dolphin necessarily can't contemplate his or her inevitable fate? Animals are pretty much all afraid of death, just like people, which makes me wonder if maybe they have some basic understanding of what it is. It it innate instinct? Is that instinct G*d given? How the hell am I supposed to know? I still find it presumptuous of people to say we have some unique monopoly on self-awareness.

Crap -- this is exactly what I wasn't going to do when those pesky mods lured me back in with their sneaky meetup. I might have to... I dunno... log out? *shudder*
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:06 PM on April 28, 2010


And that a chimp could contemplate his inevitable fate. That realization, it seems to me, is uniquely human.

There are people who can afford it but don't buy health insurance because "they're not sick." I don't think all humans fully grasp the gravity of certain death.
posted by Kirk Grim at 4:44 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


What's less well known is that chimpazee's pen lengthy "I'm glad he's dead" style screeds when chimps of different political persuasions pass away.
posted by Joey Michaels at 5:07 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


But it is not the case that we are "nothing but" animals.

Yes, yes it is. You can argue that we have some unique traits, but lots of animals have unique traits. That doesn't make us less of an animal, or something apart from other animals.

There's no evidence either way as to whether other primates understand their own death, so asserting specialness here is as meaningful as asserting that dragons exist on some distant planet. Absolutely no basis for it. And the depth of language and understanding primates _do_ indicate makes it not seem like much of a leap.
posted by wildcrdj at 5:08 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Friends and neighbors, DU was right in his initial comment. We are animals. But it is not the case that we are "nothing but" animals. Don't believe that for an instant.

Nonsense. We are nothing but animals. If you expect anyone to believe otherwise, please provide evidence for the part of us that's "beyond any animal", but is not already accounted for by "large brain + opposable thumbs + articulable lips and tongues".

Chimps seem to know what death is. They seem to mourn it, to fear it, and to avoid even its memory. Countless studies also suggest that they are capable of performing tasks involving prediction and/or abstraction. How do you put those two facts together, yet come up with the certainty that chimps cannot "contemplate their inevitable fate"?

Your thinking is comical in its sheer wishfulness.
posted by vorfeed at 5:28 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


What would surprise me very much is to learn that a chimp understands that death is coming for him too, someday.
How would you observe this? I'm not trying to be dismissive: I think it's an excellent idea. But I don't know that it's possible to learn in the same sense as the observations reported here. I mean, I think that my four-year-old understands somehow that death is coming for her someday --- at least, she asked about it a lot, after great-grandpa died --- but I don't think she understands it in the same way I do, and I don't think that I understand it in the same that my widower friends do, and all of us have the benefit of a shared language and a shared corpus of culture and literature on the subject. What would a chimpanzee do that would indicate he understands his own mortality? What do you do?

Maybe this isn't "new" to people who've read Jane Goodall or Alice Walker. But there are people who still think Jane Goodall went into the jungle and lost her marbles. Alice Walker wrote fiction: her character Blue the horse could just as easily have sung a song about his lonesomeness, or flown away. What these chimps did for Jim Anderson's cameras, going through the same behaviors as humans troubled by death, is certainly new (in that it only recently happened) and certainly remarkable in being so clearly documented.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 5:40 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


"It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much -- the wheel, New York, wars and so on -- whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man -- for precisely the same reasons."
-Douglas Adams

We don't know what they know, and most of us never bother to consider it.
posted by jeoc at 5:44 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Unlike individual chimpanzees, exceptionalism will never die.
Animals don't have language.
Oh, they do?
Well then, they don't use tools.
Oh, even birds do?
It's not like they show emotions.
Really?
Lying?
Yep.
Sense of fairness?
Yep.
Altruism?
Yep.
Tool-using, altruistic, fair-minded, empathetic, intelligent, communicative creatures?
They must be commies, therefore they are lesser than us and we have nothing to learn from them
posted by Jakey at 6:06 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yes, but do animals have pizza? No. No, they clearly do not. Suck on that, human-bashers.
posted by koeselitz at 6:42 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


How would you observe this? I'm not trying to be dismissive: I think it's an excellent idea. But I don't know that it's possible to learn in the same sense as the observations reported here. I mean, I think that my four-year-old understands somehow that death is coming for her someday --- at least, she asked about it a lot

Sure, but part of that is that you told her right? Or she learned it from another human. If you had told her that only 10% of people died, and that she wouldn't be one of them, she might believe that most people, including herself, were immortal. What inference would a monkey draw? Since they don't have language and history, this would have to be something they'd realize on their own. That may never happen.
posted by delmoi at 6:50 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Squirrel defends his dead friend's body from ravens.
posted by Cobalt at 6:53 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yes, but do animals have pizza?

Turtles do. It was in a documentary I once saw.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:54 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


To be slightly more serious: Aristotle, who I believe was probably the most observant human being who ever lived, distinguished human beings from other animals by saying that man is a political animal. He distinguishes this clearly in other places from being a social animal, and admits that other creatures do indeed have societies and relationships with each other and hierarchies and structures. I think that this isn't even something we need modern scientific detection methods to know; it's obvious from watching ants, or bees, or almost any animals. They relate to each other, and have social structures.

What Aristotle meant, I think, was that human beings distinctly find their deepest meaning and purpose in discussion with other humans about the good life and about how they want to live. That's very important to us, but it isn't important to other animals. That doesn't mean that other animals are less important or less worthy than human beings; and it also doesn't mean that it's not possible for some animal, from this planet or another planet, to engross itself in discourse and discussion the way that we do. It's just that we haven't observed that consciously - yet.

This difference has some repercussions. I think one thing that this means is that morality is not something which applies to other animals. This seems to be why human beings think of other animals as 'innocent' and often 'cute'; because the vast, epic moral debates and deliberations we involve ourselves in simply aren't part of the world as other animals experience it. Again, this doesn't mean that other animals are worse or better than humans - in fact, it wouldn't even make sense to say it did, since 'worse' and 'better' are moral categories that aren't really coherent when you apply them to non-moral things - it's merely a difference between us.

However, I also believe that human beings are more similar to other animals than we are likely to realize, particularly these days. This is strikingly true in the context of scientific discussions of the experiences of other animals; we're constantly cautioned that we shouldn't try to 'anthropomorphize' animals (which I believe is a holdover from Descartes, who believe that non-human animals are merely soulless robots) but there are so many similarities in the way we experience the world and our lives that it seems blind for us to ignore the deep connections we have to other animals.
posted by koeselitz at 7:05 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


By the way - I wanted say thank you for that wonderful piece from Alice Walker, Rhaomi, with which I sympathize deeply. I remember when I was grooming horses, there was one particular horse who had grown attached to another, and after a particularly long two weeks apart at a show they were put out in the pen together to get some exercise. After about an hour, I had to separate them and bring this horse back to his stall; but he bolted, and very violently pulled the halter out of my hands, suddenly rearing without any warning. I seriously thought I was going to die, as this huge beast (he really was a big one, larger than average) was towering fifteen feet in the air on hind legs and brandishing his front hooves at me like he meant to do something with them when he came down. But just as quickly he pulled back and dropped lightly to earth, only he snorted and looked me right in the eye with violent, angry emotion. Ever since then, I've been pretty much convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that horses (and lots of kinds of animals) create connections, experience loss, and get angry (and aren't afraid to show it) in much the same way humans do.
posted by koeselitz at 7:18 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


What would surprise me very much is to learn that a chimp understands that death is coming for him too, someday. That there's nothing he can do to avoid it. That the big SPOILER for every chimp story is "They all die. ... Eventually." And that a chimp could contemplate his inevitable fate. That realization, it seems to me, is uniquely human.

Crabby Appleton, ya know how I know you didn't watch the "lol" link in the FPP?
posted by IAmBroom at 7:47 PM on April 28, 2010


What makes humans different from animals? After all, we're just primates. Very, very successful primates. Heinlein said "Man is the animal who laughs", but other animals have humor. My cat plays practical jokes on me. They're not brilliant, but they are jokes, and he thinks they're funny.

The story from Genesis about the tree of knowledge of good and evil is a good metaphor for what makes humans different. We are intelligent enough to have a strong sense of self awareness, and successful enough to have the capacity to consume and destroy our environment.

What other animal has a sense of that responsibility, not just of our individual mortality, but the mortality of our species, of *all* species, in the entire biosphere?
posted by and for no one at 10:19 PM on April 28, 2010


What would surprise me very much is to learn that a chimp understands that death is coming for him too, someday. That there's nothing he can do to avoid it. That the big SPOILER for every chimp story is "They all die. ... Eventually." And that a chimp could contemplate his inevitable fate. That realization, it seems to me, is uniquely human.

Why? Just because we can intellectualise death, doesn't mean other animals can't be aware of their own mortality. All they need to do is observe that their fellow beings change over time and that they eventually die.
posted by Soupisgoodfood at 1:17 AM on April 29, 2010


Since they don't have language and history, this would have to be something they'd realize on their own. That may never happen.

Lots of assumptions - some of them wrong - packed into those sentences.

Animals do have language. They may have history. Some certainly seem to have culture. We human animals are prone to making pronouncements that "Animals can't [blahblahbalh]" because we ask the wrong questions and/or have no idea how to interpret what we observe. Or we just flat-out interpret it incorrectly, blinded as we are by the biases we refuse to admit we have.

I'm pretty sure my cats think I'm retarded because I don't speak or understand cat hardly at all, despite their attempts to teach me. But they're quite kind to me anyway.
posted by rtha at 8:41 AM on April 29, 2010 [3 favorites]


I like kitties too, rtha. And I think they're more clever than many people give them credit for being. A relative had a cat who would get on top of the TV to sleep during the day while they were at work. He'd reach down with his paw and turn the TV on so he'd have a nice warm surface to sleep on (yes, this was a while ago). I still haven't seen one writing his autobiography or torturing a mouse with improvised tools.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 11:03 AM on April 29, 2010


You know, teh crazy is strong in this thread. I was getting depressed thinking "Am I going to have to enumerate the ways in which humans are way beyond animals? Really?". I started enumerating things (mathematics, technology, literacy, poetry, philosophy) but then I thought about fire. How about fire? Will fire work for you guys?

I mean, after all, "all they need to do is observe that" fire is hot, so it could keep them warm in the winter, and that the animals that perish in a fire are much more tasty. (Soupisgoodfood, do you realize how much semantic baggage you're smuggling in with "all they need to do is observe"? I don't think so.) So, are the animals doing a truly outstanding job of keeping their campfires hidden from us? Or what? (Or what about the wheel? "All they need to do is observe that" round things roll better on...oh, never mind.)

You might wonder why people spout this stuff; it might be simple insanity in a few cases, but mostly I think it has to do with their ideological commitments. Some of it is "four legs good, two legs bad", which I don't think I'll dignify with a response. The rest of it is probably that atheism is an easier sell if you don't think you're any more than an animal, just like all other animals.

Anyway, I think I'll respond to a few of the real gems here.

Nonsense. We are nothing but animals. If you expect anyone to believe otherwise, please provide evidence for the part of us that's "beyond any animal", but is not already accounted for by "large brain + opposable thumbs + articulable lips and tongues".

No, Lucy, I think you've got some 'splainin' to do. Handwaving about "large brains and opposable thumbs" doesn't cut it. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. And since you're sitting there typing your angry screeds into a world-spanning network of digital computers created by humans, I'd say the burden of proof that we're no more than animals rests pretty squarely on you.

And, by the way, if we're nothing but animals, tell me exactly when the magic mutation occurred that made us capable of all this science-fictional stuff that we can do? Isn't it the case that humans have been pretty much the same for tens of thousands of years? Yet, we don't seem to have any evidence of having developed a high-tech civilization before. (Actually, that might not be entirely true.) So, if what we can do is so trivial, why didn't it happen before? Why didn't other animal species do it? (I won't hold my breath waiting for your answer.)

What would a chimpanzee do that would indicate he understands his own mortality? What do you do?

Go to funerals. Isn't the fact that Neanterthals buried their dead with flowers and some of their posessions considered to indicate that they had some notion of their own mortality (and an afterlife, too, perhaps)?

Unlike individual chimpanzees, exceptionalism will never die.

Exceptionalism? Really? OK, I'm an exceptionalist because, guess what, humans are exceptional. Hell, not only exceptional, but fucking unique in the cosmos, as far as we know.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 11:45 AM on April 29, 2010


but then I thought about fire. How about fire? Will fire work for you guys?

I have a recurring thought that keeps me up at night, sometimes: If the ants ever harness fire, we are all well and truly fucked.
posted by Devils Rancher at 12:01 PM on April 29, 2010


There are already fire ants, Devils Rancher. And they seem inordinately interested in electrical fixtures. I hope that doesn't keep you up at night, though.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 12:06 PM on April 29, 2010


Only when I'm covered in welts from their nasty bites.
posted by Devils Rancher at 12:47 PM on April 29, 2010


Go to funerals.
That is, congregate around the recently deceased and exhibit symptoms consistent with emotional distress, as described in the article? Or gather together to bury the dead, which this troupe of chimps had no opportunity to do?
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 1:07 PM on April 29, 2010


I know. None of them had a shovel. Ain't that a bitch?
posted by Crabby Appleton at 2:09 PM on April 29, 2010


How about fire? Will fire work for you guys?

No. Because chimps show an understanding of fire.

No, Lucy, I think you've got some 'splainin' to do. Handwaving about "large brains and opposable thumbs" doesn't cut it. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. And since you're sitting there typing your angry screeds into a world-spanning network of digital computers created by humans, I'd say the burden of proof that we're no more than animals rests pretty squarely on you.

Facile observations like "we have the internet, therefore the idea that we're animals is extraordinary" have nothing to do with the "extraordinary" in "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof". What makes a claim "extraordinary" is not having evidence which supports it over the opposing claim... and there is plenty of credible biological evidence (a larger, yet very similar brain; more dexterous, yet very similar hands and mouths; more complex, yet very similar behaviors) in support of the theory that the difference between humans and other primates is one of degree, not fundamental type.

If you're suggesting that the difference is one of fundamental type, then you need to provide evidence which supports your theory, not just declare it by common-sense fiat. Common sense is often wrong.

And, by the way, if we're nothing but animals, tell me exactly when the magic mutation occurred that made us capable of all this science-fictional stuff that we can do? Isn't it the case that humans have been pretty much the same for tens of thousands of years? Yet, we don't seem to have any evidence of having developed a high-tech civilization before. (Actually, that might not be entirely true.) So, if what we can do is so trivial, why didn't it happen before? Why didn't other animal species do it? (I won't hold my breath waiting for your answer.)

As far as anyone can tell, the answer to this question involved a long and gradual cultural sea change, not a single "magic mutation". However, unless you believe that culture comes from somewhere other than the brain, this is still accounted for by the fact that our brains, especially the parts which have to do with learning, are 95% similar to yet much larger than those of our closest living relatives. Evolution was a necessary but not sufficient condition for discoveries like this -- the mutations which allowed such cultural changes could have been individually small and subtle, and could have occurred tens or even hundreds of thousands of years before those cultural changes caught on. That doesn't mean they didn't exist.

Trying to disprove the fact that we're animals by asking where the "magic mutation" is is like trying to disprove the fact that cars are machines by asking where the "magic part" that makes them run is. Come on.

Likewise, it's clear these mutations did happen before, and that other animal species did start doing it, but the animals involved died out. As far as we can tell, the neanderthals were non-human, and evolved entirely apart from humans, yet were on much the same cultural trajectory before they became extinct.

Besides, if all that's necessary for high-tech living is the magic non-evolutionary spark that makes us humans more-than-animal, then I may as well ask you when that happened. Why wasn't that "world-spanning network of digital computers" invented by the Victorians, or by Bronze Age tribesmen? Are we more greater-than-animal than our great-great-grandfathers were? Are your yourself more greater-than-animal than your pre-internet self was?

Also, no one claimed that what we can do is "trivial". The claim is that it's animal. Animals have many extraordinarily non-trivial behaviors; the onus is on you to tell us why this particular one is somehow beyond-animal, while the many other non-trivial social behaviors which are unique to particular animals (like beehives, ant's nests, and wolf packs) are not.

The rest of it is probably that atheism is an easier sell if you don't think you're any more than an animal, just like all other animals.

Ah, you brought this up. What a surprise! I suppose your position is not at all influenced by the fact that your religion is a much easier sell if you think you're "way beyond" the animals, right?
posted by vorfeed at 3:11 PM on April 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you get over being contrary and care to elaborate on what you would or wouldn't see at a chimp "funeral," I'll be curious to hear it.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 3:28 PM on April 29, 2010


Can I just point out that I love that, as vorfeed alluded to, Crabby points to neanderthals as having a sense of mortality, while apparently unaware that the neanderthals -- they were not us?

They were just a different species of ape. Like, oh, I dunno, chimpanzees?
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 3:58 PM on April 29, 2010


Really?
posted by Crabby Appleton at 4:33 PM on April 29, 2010


Yeah. Really. Different species. With which we did some limited interbreeding. My point stands just as firmly as before.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 4:46 PM on April 29, 2010


Sorry if I seem slow, JKF, but I just want to make sure I understand this. So Neanderthals were a different species—a separate species, not a subspecies of Homo sapiens. A different species, like chimpanzees are a different species—but a different species with which we could interbreed. And there's no controversy among scientists about this. Have I got that right?
posted by Crabby Appleton at 5:12 PM on April 29, 2010


The very article you linked indicated there is controversy that any of what you described happened at all, actually. They may not have interbred. They may not have been able to interbreed. Also, the definition of species you refer to is, of course, but one of many. One that would consider chihuahuas and wolves the same species. Or horses and donkeys. Or lions and tigers. I'm not saying it's an invalid definition, but it's not the only one.

(I also suspect we have more dna in common with a chimp than a lion has with a tiger, but I'm just making that up and am too lazy to google it, so I may be wrong.)

So yes. There was a separate species, like the article you linked to keeps calling them, of the animal family known as apes, that may or may not have interbred with us to some extent before going extinct. The article you linked is clear that that is controversial. It doesn't seem to feel that being a different species is controversial however, but I'll move on.

That different species of apes shows evidence of a basic understanding of death. So we have one species of apes: homo sapiens, that has that. You're on board.

Another non human ape: homo neanderthalensis, that has that. You're still on board.

And then there's a third, Pan troglodytes, (but perhaps that should change), that also seems to have this. And that my friend, THAT is where you draw the line.

I get where you're coming from, and I am not hostile to the desire to imagine that we're somehow singularly special in the world. We're chosen, or whatever. But the thing is, we have imagination, and we have evidence. And the evidence is that we're not the only animals that have this capacity. And I find that fascinating, exciting, and enlightening.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 5:27 PM on April 29, 2010


(oh and from this link:)
DNA studies indicate that Humans and chimpanzees carried on interbreeding for thousands, perhaps millions of years after the two species diverged.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 5:30 PM on April 29, 2010


One that would consider chihuahuas and wolves the same species. Or horses and donkeys. Or lions and tigers.

For the record, chihuahuas and wolves most certainly are the same species: Canis lupus.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:39 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hadn't noticed that Canis familiaris was just shorthand for Canis lupus familiaris, but that just ends up dovetailing with my broader point even better :-)
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 6:54 PM on April 29, 2010


The rest of it is probably that atheism is an easier sell if you don't think you're any more than an animal, just like all other animals.

This sticks out here on re-read. I know there's a pile-on going on here, so I want to address it on a calm, measured sort of way.

First: Atheism does not require that humans are not exceptional. There is not a particular dogma that requires any acceptance of any set of concepts to have an atheistic belief set. It's an utterly individual choice. There is no church of Atheism. No liturgical canons exist that are universally accepted by atheists as a group, because atheists are not an organized group.

Second: Having spiritual or theistic, even monotheistic, beliefs does not require that humans be exceptional. There's any number of belief sets that involve deities and supernatural powers that don't exclude animals from their concept of spirituality. Why can't we have a universe where all of creation is divinely inspired? If I die and find that my soul survives the event, consciousness intact, I would really, really, really love to be reunited with all the amazing cats and dogs that have been my close friends these 47 years. Why shouldn't they get a place at G*d's table?

Let me quote from what I feel is a sacred text:
Crazy Horse dreamed and went into the world where there is nothing but the spirits of all things. That is the real world that is behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that world. He was on his horse in that world, and the horse and himself on it and the trees and the grass and the stones and everything were made of spirit, and nothing was hard, and everything seemed to float. His horse was standing still there, and yet it danced around like a horse made only of shadow (...)

-- from Black Elk Speaks. I don't think Crazy Horse was an atheist.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:31 PM on April 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sorry, folks, I can't monkey around with this today. I'll try to respond sometime this weekend.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 7:40 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


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