Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Chimps at the Water Hole

Last night’s (June 23, 2009) NOVA, “Ape Genius,” opened with a group of chimps having a “pool party” (their words) in the wilds of Africa. There they were, dropping from branches into the water, splashing everywhere, behaving like, well, kids at the beach having a grand old time.

You won’t, of course, find much about that in print, because it hasn’t reached the general knowledge base yet, but it’s there in living color. Chimps like to play in the water. At least some of them do.

NOVA went on to show chimps making and sharpening spears to hunt bush babies, a small arboreal primate, as well as understanding and following fairly complicated English instructions. The gist of the show was that we share more traits than we’d like to admit with the other apes.

It began by explaining the human bias towards thinking that many characteristics, such as tool making, are uniquely human as coming from a feeling that people have been blessed by the hand of God, so to speak, making them a separate beast from the other apes, which, the narrator promulgated, was not the truth. Easy for him to say, yet the show continued to speak of the differences between humans and apes rather than between humans and the other apes: a small but significant distinction. For even the most humble of observers it’s difficult to say “other apes,” because couched within that phrase is the admission that we, too, are one of them. (Something, frankly, which bothers me when I see us all driving cars down the road: should apes be doing this, I wonder?)

The show questioned why people ended up the way we did versus how the other apes ended up, but it didn’t look at the broader implications of these discoveries towards evolution in general; it only looked at the relationships between humans and chimps and bonobos. Certainly, chimps and bonobos inhabit different strata of the forest and eat probably slightly different, if similar, diets; and it’s well known that the two species have quite different social structures and behaviors. “Ape Genius” tried to make a case for humans developing differently than other apes because of certain social traits which we have, such as being able to squelch our emotions, rather than seeing those social traits as part of a larger complex of behaviors. Significantly, they didn’t discuss the implications of chimp behavior at the water hole, which is frivolous and interactive, nor did they make any connection between bipedalism and human behavior. It could well be that the forces which inclined us to be bipedal were the same forces that inclined us to be socially cooperative. And it’s plausible that both those traits were picked up at the water hole. (If I were you, I’d keep watching those chimps at the water hole. If they start liking frogs and tubers, who knows how far it could go. Couple million years, they might stand up and sing.)

NOVA also failed to stress the ubiquity of tool-making beyond humans, chimps, and bonobos; but if we have three extant primates making tools, the implications for primates of the past is enlightening. For one thing, it means that tool-making is not a uniquely human characteristic; so that any tool-making fossil from the past is not necessarily in our line any more than is your local bonobo.

But watching those spear-chucking chimps made me rethink early hunting strategies and what sort of weapons would be effective in the open country; and I’m starting to think that a pack of Austrolopithicines armed with sharpened spears might be a formidable foe. They might not be fast of foot out there in the open, but they were clever and, probably, cooperative. This hunting with the dogs thing is starting to make a lot of sense. One thing us “higher” apes are good at is learning from observation. I can see our ancestors watching how pack carnivores work and imitating their cooperative methods. I can see how, when they found themselves hunting the same prey, that the primates would start mimicking and running along with the dogs, as it were. I can picture the dogs looking to each other and asking, “Who let the people out”? And I can see after a successful hunt, right from the get-go the tiny little A-piths tossing the dogs their share: A) it avoids a nasty fight; and B) it insures cooperation next time they find themselves hunting together.

We might have been tough guys out there on the veld. Provided, of course, we had enough to drink.

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