02 January 2009

Book of the Month: January 2009

Our Inner Ape

A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are

by Frans De Waal


Penguin Group, New York


January’s Book of the Month is ‘Our Inner Ape’ by Frans de Waal. It is an insightful overview of the amazing similarities between us and our ape ‘relatives’, chimpanzees and bonobos, leading to a deeper understanding of what is like to be a human.

While De Waal is clearly fond of his study subjects, he is one of the scientists who chose to study apes in captivity. On page 36 he writes:

“This is the sort of intelligence that draws many of us to the study of apes. Not just their aggressive or sexual behaviors, much of which they share with other animals, but the surprising amount of insight and finesse they put into everything they do. Since much of this intelligence is hard to pinpoint, studies of captive apes are absolutely essential. In the same way that no one would try to measure a child’s intelligence by watching him or her around in the school yard, the study of ape cognition demands a hands-on approach. One needs to be able to present the apes with problems to see how they solve them. Another advantage of captive apes under enlightened conditions (meaning spacious outdoor areas and a naturalistic group size) is that one can watch their behavior much more closely than is possible in the field, where at critical moments they tend to disappear in the undergrowth.”

Then (p. 39-40), De Waal acknowledges one limitation of captive studies:

“Most of my colleagues are field-workers. Whatever the advantages of research on captive apes, it can never replace the study of natural behavior. For every remarkable ability demonstrated in the laboratory, we want to know what it means for wild chimps and bonobos, what kind of benefits they gain from it.”

And yet, De Waal seems to accept that his work somewhat contributes to ‘legalizing’ the deprivation of freedom for animals he sees as very close to his own kind, including in terms of emotions and sensibility. This reminds of researchers who focus their work on unfolding the intelligence of dolphins, but do that in a pool.

Apart from the never-ending debate about captivity, which should probably not be rehearsed here, isn’t it curious that some choose to express their appreciation and love for animals in settings that actually contribute to depriving these creatures of some of the fundamental rights they are entitled to?

If we come to the conclusion that apes (or dolphins) are entitled to freedom, shouldn’t we accept the difficulties of studying them in the wild, therefore not only expressing our appreciation with words, but also embodying it?

Giovanni Bearzi

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