Which are nastier? Chimps or people

A Bad Week for Chimps

Robin Baker – Blog (5 October 2009)

This has been a bad week for chimps. Until now, their morals have had a subtle form of protection. Scientists have suspected that whatever they discovered about our hairy cousins reveals a little, or even quite a lot, of what lurks inside us as well. But according to Steve Jones – Professor of Genetics at University College London, speaking on last Friday’s ‘Today’ programme on BBC Radio 4 – this protection has evaporated. Now we can happily accept that chimps are, in his words, “pretty nasty creatures” without worrying that the same will therefore apply to us. In fact, or so he suggested, recent scientific research may prove that “we are actually much nicer than we thought we were.” I am sure he was being light-hearted, but his argument was not only flawed but also so unfair on chimps that I felt that somebody needed to make a stand on their behalf. And having just published a novel portraying a group of chimps behaving no worse than the marooned people they are forced to live alongside, that somebody may as well be me.

The trigger for Steve Jones’ comments on chimps and humans – and for similar multitudinous articles by others that have appeared in and on the media this last weekend – was the publication on Friday of eleven separate scientific papers in the journal Science. These papers provided details of what is now accepted as the oldest known human ancestor. Scientifically named ‘Ardipithecus ramidus’, this ancestor is known affectionately as “Ardi” because amongst the fossils was the partial skeleton of a female. The fossil remains themselves are not new. They were discovered in Ethiopia as long ago as 1992, but their full significance is only just being debated. Some major new claims are being made, including those with implications for the relative moral standing of ourselves and chimps.

The details of Ardi herself are fascinating and by themselves are innocent enough. She stood about 4ft tall and being fairly muscular weighed nearly eight stone. Thanks to long arms, huge hands and grasping toes she should have been able to climb trees easily. But she could also walk fully upright on two legs which, given that she roamed her woodland habitat in East Africa as long ago as 4.4 million years, makes her the earliest known human ancestor with a bipedal gait. Apart from her bipedalism, Ardi would have looked more ape-like than human because she had a hairy body and a snout-like face. She lived on an omnivorous and fairly soft diet – a mixture of fruits, roots, insects, eggs and perhaps small mammals – and her hands were capable of grasping objects, which meant that she could pick things up and manipulate them, maybe even use them as tools.

At first, this fleshing-out of Ardi in the articles published in Science seems to be just one more step in the gradual unravelling of our evolutionary past. A fascinating glimpse of what our ancestors were once like. But there is more to Ardi than that. She heralds a change in our understanding of the link between ourselves and chimps.

Not everything changes. It is still a fact that chimps share 99 per cent of our genetic material. And it is still fairly certain that at some point between 6 and 7 million years ago they and us had a common ancestor, though no fossil of that ancestor has yet been found. But what Ardi does change is our vision of what that common ancestor of chimps and ourselves looked like and how it might have behaved, and it is this change that invites unfair comparisons.

The popular conception of the chimp-human common ancestor used to be that it was much more chimp than human and that over the 6 or so million years since, chimps have changed little while we have changed a lot without quite ridding ourselves of our ancestral instincts. In other words, deep inside every human is a chimp-like being trying to get out. And as the consensus amongst those who should know is that chimps are basically “nasty creatures” it follows that inside every human there is a similarly “nasty creature” just waiting to show itself.

Over the last week Ardi has changed that logic. The scientists who described her point out that we can no longer believe that the chimp-human ancestor was either recognisably chimp-like or human-like, or even some obvious mixture of the two. Chimps have changed just as much as we have – if not more – since that common ancestor. So chimp “nastiness” could have evolved recently; it may not have been a feature of our common ancestor at all. That common ancestor might actually have been “nice” – gentle and herbivorous, with a manner perhaps more like modern-day gorillas. So maybe, unlike chimps, we humans have retained this “niceness.” It is a comforting thought with the potential to impart a warm glow of self-satisfaction. It is also, of course, totally flawed.

What is it that makes chimps so unpleasant that people wish to remove themselves from comparison? According to Professor Jones in his Radio 4 interview, chimps are “pretty nasty creatures” because “males fight, and attack females, and they kill other chimps.” And he is, of course, correct. As the author of books on genetics and human evolution he knows these things. Male chimps do often fight and once in a while they do kill each other, groups of males sometimes even forming to systematically kill other groups. Males also sometimes attack females, and very, very, very occasionally they may even rape them, though hardly ever do they kill them. But I wonder …

If we could add up over say the last hundred or so years what proportion of the human species has been killed by other people through wars, colonialism, terrorism, street crimes, and other acts of violence … If we could add up the proportion of women who have been attacked by men, or raped or killed … And then compare those figures with the proportion of chimps that have suffered similar fates at the hands of their own species … How many of those comparisons would show that humans are actually “nastier” than chimps? My guess – and that’s all it is – is that they all would; the record would show that we, not chimps, are the more violent.

Our species is what it is, not what we think it is or what we would like it to be. Whether our common ancestor with chimps was “nice” or “nasty”, it doesn’t alter the fact that chimps have evolved to become what they are, and we have evolved to become what we are. And as far as I can see, whatever our evolutionary history and however we would like to envisage ourselves, there is not a lot to choose between us in terms of nastiness. I stand by the portrayal of chimps and humans in my novel. In fact, in retrospect, I too may be guilty of being unfair on chimps in my story, and if only chimps could read and communicate, I rather think they would tell me so.