SATURDAY APRIL 19, 2014
 
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CHIMPS VS. HUMANS
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The surprise hit prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes imagines a future where chimps are made more intelligent through the magic of science. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t go well for humans. 

It turns out chimps may not need the help after all. In many ways they are superior to us, because ...

5. They make love, not war

While the common chimpanzee or pan troglodytes lives in a patriarchal society and engages in complex warfare with rival tribes or intruders, the smaller bonobo or pan paniscus is notably unaggressive and matriarchal. And completely perverted.

Though a correlation between bonobo civility and their godless monkey orgies would be too easy (and fun!) to draw, scientists have noted the way sex seems to replace conflict in groups. Next time you’re waiting in a long line, imagine that comely female in front compulsively jerking you off; that is the give and take that keeps bonobos stress free.

Bonobos are commonly and openly bisexual, promiscuous and value distinction between genders far less than their relatives. Unlike the common chimp, ritualistic group behaviours like grooming and feeding are shared between both males and females.

Yes, this had been studied at length:



One of the reasons this is so fascinating is that few species outside humans are known to have sex for reasons other than instinctive reproduction. Dolphins, for example, are thought to have sex for pleasure in much the same way we do. But the bonobos appear to use sex as their primary social lubricant (chuckle). The engagement can be a sign of dominance, a bonding experience or just a way to kill time.

5. They have great memory

While the evolution of human memory is still somewhat mysterious, there’s little question that our ability to retain mass quantities of useless information isn’t entirely helpful. “Sorry officer, I couldn’t focus on that stop sign as the Mini Wheats jingle is currently running laps in my brain.”

Luckily, while chimps have highly developed cognitive ability compared to other animals they also don’t have all that much to think about. That may be why in at least one major study a group of chimps completely schooled a rival batch of university students in a number pattern/sequence test. And that included baby chimps, suggesting that even immature primates have stronger focus and retention.



While this doesn’t mean the chimps are “smarter” than us in any practical sense, it does show how modern human society has degraded evolutionary traits like short-term memory and placed a stressful emphasis on being observed. In other words, the baby chimp not really giving a shit about how the test turned out probably helped him beat it.

4. They are altruistic 

Altruism — selfless sacrifice for the benefit of another living thing — is rarely observed in the animal kingdom. And though it wouldn’t even be cynical to point out most humans are definitely not altruistic, it’s still prevalent in our history and culture, however implausible. Darwin called the tendency to care for the poor or sick in contrast to the process of natural selection “the noblest part of our nature.”

If you thought the noblest part of the chimp’s nature was his decision to throw poop at your shoes instead of your face, think again. In one multi-part study, scientists measured whether chimps would go out of their way to assist a person they had never seen before in retrieving a stick (representative of a simple valued object). The chimps responded positively.

Worried the subjects could have been responding to humans because they were in a sanctuary, where we are are generally associated with food and protection, the scientists introduced some ape-on-ape action, though not the bonobo kind. The second test allowed one set of chimps to open a room containing food for another set, and the result was still surprising: chimps would allow others to feed without any apparent benefit to themselves.

The study concluded with caution however, stressing that wild chimps have a hard time recognizing distress or need the way humans do. So if you fall in the jungle and break your leg, Cheeta is more likely to stand around picking his fur than rig you a splint.

3. They could kick all our asses

Chimpanzees are biologically and anatomically similar to humans, aside from all the body hair (Robin Williams is technically more ape than man by that standard). But there’s no question who would win a grappling match between, say, a middle-aged guy and the average female chimp.

Experts say your everyday chimp is about four times stronger than a comparable person, which is one of the reasons they are (ideally) not kept as house pets or companions past maturity. A less developed nervous system means chimps are rarely aware of or find much interest in the level of strength they are exerting, and while humans have evolved to work on tasks both blunt and intricate, chimps aren’t built for knitting so much as ripping your arm out of its socket and pummeling you with it.



1. They don’t need words 

The recent documentary Project Nim tells the true story of a chimp who was raised by a human family and taught, as much as possible, to communicate through sign language. It didn’t go well.



One of the problems is that while chimps have a highly developed awareness of body language that has helped them organize complex social structures and engage emotionally with each other, they lack what original Project Nim theorist Herb Terrace called “the frame of mind,” which allows us to empathize and read subtle emotional cues. If you aren’t jumping up and down and waving your arms, for example, the chimp has no possible way of understanding that you are excited.

While this may leave chimps at a disadvantage in some areas, it recalls the problem of memory explained earlier: modern humans have developed a system of language so complex it can obscure simple ideas and instructions, which may be part of the reason we tend to become more destructive and disorganized in larger groups. 

Because chimps can respond quicker to cues from other chimps, their social groups become less tenuous. Rise of the Planet of the Apes may be science-fiction, but the probability of one hypothetically super-intelligent chimp leading the rest en masse without much inter-chimp conflict is not as unlikely as you might think.

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