Planet of the Apes

This AP headline caught my eye: Expert: Apes May Be Key to Human Nature. This strikes me as odd. I would think that humans provide better clues to human nature than apes, and we have thousands of years of human history, not to mention six billion or so living humans, to draw on for information about human nature. But the idea of drawing conclusions about humans from observations of apes has a long history, and shows no signs of going away. Why is that? I suspect it’s because some people don’t like what human history and human behavior tell us about human nature.
That seems to be true of the researcher profiled in this AP story:

“If you want to find a human-like creature that exists in a completely natural state … that creature is the bonobo,” said [Dr. Sue] Savage-Rumbaugh, an experimental psychologist who is one of the world’s leading ape-language researchers.
If the apes are able to learn language, music and art, once thought to be distinct to humans, then “it strongly suggests that those things are not innate in us,” she said.
“Those are things that we have created, and create anew and build upon from one generation to the next …” she said. “Then we have the power to change it and make it any other way. We could have an ideal world, if we but learn how to do it.”

It’s extremely unlikely that anything that could be observed about the bonobo would cause me to believe in the perfectibility of human nature. It’s interesting, though, to contemplate the quest for insight into human nature via the apes in the context of news coverage of the selection of Pope Benedict. The conventional view is that religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, represents a backward, primitive way of looking at the world, and especially at human nature, compared to modern, progressive science. But who do you think has a more sophisticated understanding of human nature: Cardinal Ratzinger, the new pope, or the researcher who believes that studying bonobos can enable humans to construct an “ideal world”?
UPDATE: Reader Steve Baker points to this explanation of why bonobos are liberals’ favorite primate. I’m beginning to understand that “ideal world” a little better, too.


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