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Apes And Anthropomorphism

Caesar (Andy Serkis) leads his army of apes in a revolt against the humans, who imprison his kind for use in drug experiments. 20th Century Fox hide caption

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20th Century Fox

Caesar (Andy Serkis) leads his army of apes in a revolt against the humans, who imprison his kind for use in drug experiments.

20th Century Fox

Autumn begins tomorrow. Suffused already with a seasonal nostalgia, I'm replaying scenes of summer in my head. Among them is sitting in a dark theatre, watching apes clamber across San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.

In the movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, alpha-male chimpanzee Caesar leads a band of apes against humans in a bid to escape the grip of their tyranny.

Before he is a battle-hardened rebel leader, however, we get to see Caesar as he grows up, transforming from playful primate child in a human household to confused adolescent to powerful adult.

"Careful, human no like smart ape," he's told by the orangutan Maurice. Nevertheless, Caesar learns human speech, and has the temerity to use it.

Two aspects of the film caught my attention. Marvelously, no living primates were forced to work on the set; CGI apes were used instead. What made ROTPOTA work as a film is our collective willingness — at least while watching it — to embrace anthropomorphism.

Defined as the attribution of human qualities or abilities to non-human animals, anthropomorphism is familiar to most anyone who lives with animals. Let's say I'm in a room with two of my cats. One jumps in my lap, and purrs as I stroke and whisper endearments to her. The other glares at me, and acts aloof for the next hour. "He's jealous!" I may think to myself. Or, after a tough day at work, you slump on the couch. Your dog nuzzles your hand and looks into your eyes. "He understands," you may conclude.

But is it valid to label animals' emotions and actions in this way?

It's one thing for Hollywood to dazzle audiences with anthropomorphic screen apes, but when we apply human terms to real-life animals do we wrongly superimpose our experiences onto theirs?

Real, breathing apes offer a good starting place for thinking about anthropomorphism. (Cats, dogs, and other creatures matter too; I'll expand my scope at a later date.) I often recount the following event noted by the biologists Christophe Boesch and Hedwige Boesch-Achermann. It stars the chimpanzee Brutus at Tai National Park in the Cote d'Ivoire, West Africa.

A young female chimpanzee, Tina, was killed by a leopard. Her body lay in the forest. Twelve of Tina's companions sat silently around her body, sometimes touching it gently. Brutus, the community's alpha male, sat with Tina for nearly five hours. When youngsters approached, he shooed them away, with a single exception — Tina's younger brother Tarzan, who came near, pulled on his big sister's hand many times, and gazed at her body.

We know, thanks to decades of field research uncovering aspects of chimpanzees' minds and emotions, that careful anthropomorphism is appropriate here. Working in context, it makes good scientific sense to conclude that Tarzan felt grief for his sister, that Brutus was able to recognize Tarzan's bond of affection with Tina and that Brutus chose to act upon that knowledge by compassionately allowing Tarzan to do what other youngsters could not.

A skeptic would balk. Maybe Tarzan was only curious about why his sister's body lay so still. Perhaps Brutus had noticed some kind of connection between the brother and sister, but had no deep motives for what he did.

Science needs skeptics in order to stay true to its self-correcting nature. I can't emphasize enough, though, the relevant weight of cumulative knowledge about chimpanzees. A new source to consider is Andrew Westoll's The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. Westoll tells the stories of 13 chimpanzees, once trapped in biomedical testing facilities and now living in a Canadian sanctuary run by Gloria Grow.

One chimpanzee's tale seared itself into my mind. Westoll writes about Tom:

"For more than thirty years, he was repeatedly infected with increasingly virulent strains of HIV, went through numerous hepatitis-B studies, and survived at least sixty-three liver, bone marrow, and lymph-node biopsies. Tom has gone through more surgeries than anyone else at Fauna — by Gloria's estimate, he was knocked unconscious at least 369 times."

Upon arrival at the sanctuary, Tom readily complied with verbal instructions that enabled staff to care properly for his foot injury. When offered a tray of antibiotic cream and other supplies, Tom even treated his own wound. Later, Westoll recounts:

"The chimpanzee Regis sustained a bad bite wound. At first, Grow treated him, but when Regis's strength returned, that option was no longer safe. She then left for Tom all the medical materials on a trolley; Tom cleaned and treated Regis's wound for a week."

With the skeptic's help, we might dismiss Tom's behavior toward Regis as a product of curiosity or boredom, or as a conditioned response to human praise. Yet is it so hard to believe that Tom, who himself had suffered badly, might clean Regis's wound because he realized Regis's discomfort and wanted to help?

Wide discussion of Westoll's book could sustain the summer's ape buzz well into autumn. Along the way, we might ask this question: Does a reluctance to assign human depth to chimpanzees' thoughts and feelings make it easier to tolerate what's done inside biomedical labs in this country to chimpanzees like Tom?


Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, the writer of non-fiction science books, most recently Being With Animals, a guest contributor to 13.7 and a Twitter addict.