Seeing Ourselves Through The Study of Apes

Baby Teco

hide captionResearchers at the Great Ape Trust hope that baby Bonobo Teco will help advance the study of language acquisition.

via Great Ape Trust

Next week I’m going to the Great Ape Trust of Iowa to spend the day with my great friend Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and her group of seven bonobo chimpanzees. I’ll be narrating my experiences in upcoming blog posts.

Sue and her long-time collaborator Duane Rumbaugh piloted and immersed themselves in a pioneering language-study project with bonobos at Emory and Georgia State Universities for many decades before the group moved to Des Moines.

Most famous is Kanzi, now 30-years old, who has spent his life in the bonobo/human culture that Sue and Duane developed and, as a youngster, learned to communicate with his human teachers using a computer keyboard; some wonderful Kanzi footage is found in minutes 2-7 of a video from the Oprah show.  Matata, Kanzi’s wild-caught adoptive mother, is the group matriarch and sole conveyor of rainforest knowledge since it is fortunately no longer legal to remove these endangered creatures from their native Congo habitat.

Great Ape Trust/YouTube

Teco, a bonobo born at Great Ape Trust, helps scientists learn about language aquistion.

Kanzi’s first son, Teco, was born June 1, 2010. Teco’s mother, Elikya, bequeathed him to Sue shortly after his birth, and Sue has been raising him 24/7 in the Great Ape Trust facility, living and sleeping with him and his 6 relatives. A great Youtube video of Teco and Sue is below:

Many other such clips are compiled here, where a favorite shows Nyota, Kanzi’s nephew, lovingly tending the baby. This is not what male bonobos spontaneously do; it’s an outcome of the bonobo/human confluence that the group has been experiencing for so many decades.

Non-human great apes are one of my passions — previous blog posts to this effect are here and here — and I’ve become something of a primatologist groupie. One favorite is Frans de Waal, whose particularly lucid insights are set forth here:

If we consider our species without letting ourselves be blinded by the technical advances of the last few millennia, we see a creature of flesh and blood with a brain that, albeit three times larger than a chimpanzee’s, doesn’t contain any new parts. Even our vaunted prefrontal cortex turns out to be of typical size: recent neuron-counting techniques classify the human brain as a linearly scaled-up monkey brain. No one doubts the superiority of our intellect, but we have no basic wants or needs that are not also present in our close relatives. I interact on a daily basis with monkeys and apes, which just like us strive for power, enjoy sex, want security and affection, kill over territory, and value trust and cooperation. Yes, we use cell phones and fly airplanes, but our psychological make-up remains that of a social primate. Even the posturing and deal-making among the alpha males in Washington is nothing out of the ordinary.

So what social differentiations might have accompanied the human/non-human great ape divergence?

Another favorite primatologist, Sarah Hrdy, proposes a most interesting idea along these lines in her new book, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Human Understanding. She notes that non-human great-ape mothers are extraordinarily possessive of their infants, whereas human babies, in all known cultures, are passed around among other group members from birth, with post-menopausal grandmothers often playing prominent roles in their rearing and nurture. This observation, she writes, leads to an interesting thought experiment:

Take a primate with the cognitive and manipulative potentials and rudimentary empathy and Theory of Mind typical of all Great Apes, and rear that creature in a novel developmental context where his mother’s commitment is contingent on how much social support she has, where she and her infant depend on care and provisioning from multiple caretakers. The resulting phenotype will be a youngster adept at perspective-taking, far more so than any other ape under natural conditions would be. Then subject this novel ape phenotype to novel selection pressures such that infants best at monitoring the mental and emotional states and intentions of others, and also best at learning from them, are going to be those best cared for and best fed. This then leads to directional selection favoring traits like enhanced mutual tolerance, social learning, social communication and perspective taking — precisely the traits that comparisons between humans and other apes require us to explain.

What’s fascinating, then, is that at the Great Ape Trust, such an experiment is in fact underway. Baby Teco is being raised from his first day of life by a human mother, other human caretakers and three generations of bonobo kin. Sue tells me that he’s already like no other bonobo infant she’s known.

More next week!

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