Almost Chimpanzee: Searching for What Makes Us Human, in Rainforests, Labs, Sanctuaries, and Zoosby Jon Cohen
The captivating story of how a band of scientists has redrawn the genetic and behavioral lines that separate humans from our nearest cousins
In the fall of 2005, a band of researchers cracked the code of the chimpanzee genome and provided a startling new window into the differences between humans and our closest primate cousins. For the past several years,/b>
The captivating story of how a band of scientists has redrawn the genetic and behavioral lines that separate humans from our nearest cousins
In the fall of 2005, a band of researchers cracked the code of the chimpanzee genome and provided a startling new window into the differences between humans and our closest primate cousins. For the past several years, acclaimed Science reporter Jon Cohen has been following the DNA hunt, as well as eye-opening new studies in ape communication, human evolution, disease, diet, and more.
In Almost Chimpanzee, Cohen invites us on a captivating scientific journey, taking us behind the scenes in cutting-edge genetics labs, rain forests in Uganda, sanctuaries in Iowa, experimental enclaves in Japan, even the Detroit Zoo. Along the way, he ferries fresh chimp sperm for a time-sensitive analysis, gets greeted by pant-hoots and chimp feces, and investigates an audacious attempt to breed a humanzee. Cohen offers a fresh and often frankly humorous insider's tour of the latest research, which promises to lead to everything from insights about the unique ways our bodies work to shedding light on stubborn human-only problems, ranging from infertility and asthma to speech disorders.
And in the end, Cohen explains why it's time to move on from Jane Goodall's plea that we focus on how the two species are alike and turns to examining why our differences matter in vital ways—for understanding humans and for increasing the chances to save the endangered chimpanzee.
"It has been years, decades really, since researchers worried about idealizing chimpanzees or emphasizing their similarities to ourselves. The shift is largely credited to the fieldwork and educational activism of another pioneering scientist, Jane Goodall. Indeed, as Jon Cohen points out in his gently provocative new book, Almost Chimpanzee, the conservation-minded Goodall deliberately dwelled on people-parallels. 'She believed that a critical mass of humans would most likely come to her cause if they imagined their own hands reaching for the curl of a chimpanzee's finger.' But today, Cohen suggests, it may be time to dwell again on our differences. Chimpanzees are well established as our closest cousins on Earth; some research sets the genetic difference at a mere one percent. On the other hand, even that slight deviation set us on widely divergent evolutionary paths and, in the end, provided only one species with real power over life on Earth. 'Humans will determine the fate of chimpanzees,' Cohen notes. 'Chimpanzees of course will have no say in the fate of humans.' Cohen's book, then, is a meticulous exploration of how both small quirks and large kinks in biology and culture led to such different destinations. He searches for the best evidence of when human and chimpanzee ancestors first separated—usually fixed at about five million years ago—and whether it was a genuinely dramatic break. He mulls over why small genetic variances have such enormous impact, leading him into a wonderfully weird discussion of whether human-chimpanzee hybrids are possible—a notion dubbed 'humanzees' by some researchers . . . [Almost Chimpanzee is] a briskly told, clear-headed survey of research that looks at the innate differences between two closely linked species, never forgetting that one of those species—at least for now—stands as the most successful primate in the planet's history. There's a terrific section on life expectancy built around the evolutionary biology work of University of Utah anthropologist Kristen Hawkes that neatly connects everything from chimpanzee menopause to the role of elderly females in hunter-gatherer societies. And there's a fascinating look at the importance of cooking food, which allowed early humans to spend less energy sleepily digesting their dinners and more, apparently, devising a route to world domination. All of this leads to the ever-troubling question of what comes next. Many scientists working with chimpanzees in labs find their studies restricted or too expensive to maintain over the long term. And many conducting field research wonder how much longer the animals will last as a wild species, because of habitat loss, poaching and the notorious African bush meat trade. One scientist whom Cohen interviewed predicted that within 50 years only captive chimpanzees will be left alive, almost entirely due to the activities of their human cousins."—Deborah Bloom, The Washington Post
"Almost Chimpanzee is an extraordinary journey into a world of great interest but—until now—little understanding. An astute observer and engaging writer on complex issues at the intersection of science and society, Cohen summons his prodigious talents in this examination of chimpanzee research and conservation. For too long, Cohen persuasively argues, chimpanzees have been presented and widely understood as ‘almost human,’ analogues worthy of attention and protection by virtue of their similarities to us. In this wide-ranging synthesis of genetics, epidemiology, anthropology, history, and the sociology of science, Cohen demonstrates how much we can learn about chimpanzees—and ourselves—by exploring their unique qualities."—Paul Farmer, MD, PhD, Partners In Health, Harvard Medical School
"How human are chimpanzees? Jon Cohen, in his well-written and carefully argued report, provides an up-to-date examination of the question. The bottom line is that we are far from understanding chimp/human relationships, but Almost Chimpanzee is a fascinating look at how investigators are probing the unknowns and searching for definitive answers."—David Baltimore, Nobel Laureate and professor at the California Institute of Technology
"It’s often been said that we can look into a chimpanzee's eyes and see ourselves. Well . . . almost. And it's that very big almost that Jon Cohen so tenaciously explores in this extraordinary scientific odyssey. There are important matters at hand here—such as the uniqueness of speech and the origins of bipedalism—but Almost Chimpanzee is far from being a cold analysis. To get at the truth, Cohen clomps through malarial jungles, travels in an RV with a baby orangutan, even handles fresh chimp sperm. The result is world-class science writing that is also a rollicking adventure story—one that takes us to the ends of the earth and to the margins of our species."—Hampton Sides, editor-at-large at Outside magazine and bestselling author of Hellhound On His Trail
"A dazzling look at a field in which no two scientists seem to agree on what makes us either human, animal, or both. Jon Cohen has a gift for bringing this issue to life: he gives our species its due without losing respect for our fellow evolutionary travelers, the apes."—Frans de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy
"Precious animals are rapidly disappearing, victimized by hunters, collectors, and habitat encroachment. Among them, chimpanzees have earned a special place in humanity's imagination because we look in their eyes and see ourselves. Jon Cohen has done a magnificent, masterful job of showing us why chimps are not like humans, yet—or because of the differences—they must be saved, in the wild. Controversial? You bet. But it's high time humanity takes responsibility for both its sins: Killing species with the 'kindness' of making them us and through outright ruthless slaughter."—Laurie Garrett, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance
"How are we different from chimps? That’s the question that Cohen sets out to answer in his absorbing account of current chimpanzee research. Too often, Cohen argues, scientists have focused on the similarity between the two species, when it is in fact an understanding of our differences that can reveal 'what, exactly, it means to be human.' Cohen’s survey spans investigations into the chimp genome, brain, and physiognomy, with a fascinating chapter on chimp sex (one captive female chimp was observed 'flipping through Playgirl, sometimes using a vacuum cleaner hose for stimulation') and a colorful portrait of Richard Lynch Garner, a 19th-century adventurer who lived in a cage in a jungle for 112 days, studying and recording chimp and gorilla language. [The book is] replete with surprising theories for the origins of human traits from 'concealed ovulation' to endurance running. One scientist, for instance, believes that humanness derives from the simple fact that our babies, unlike their ape counterparts, can lie flat on their backs, which allows them to gaze into their mothers’ eyes."—Publishers Weekly
The Washington Post
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Read an Excerpt
In Their Habitat
When Jane Goodall first headed to the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve at the behest of the archaeologist Louis Leakey, it was July 1960 and the country was called Tanganyika. It took four months of watching chimpanzees through binoculars before Goodall finally managed to win their trust enough that a male with a gray beard let her observe him at close range.
National Geographic three years later introduced the world to Goodall and the chimps she named David Greybeard, Mrs. Maggs, Count Dracula, Huxley, and Goliath. She was not the first person to study chimpanzees in the wild. But with her patient constitution and the help of bananas, she was the first person from whom wild chimpanzees did not run, allowing her to document in detail their daily lives, social structure, tool use, hunting, and emotions.1 Like an explorer who makes first contact with a remote tribe, Goodall penetrated a community, complete with its own culture, that until then had been known only to its own members.
Nearly half a century has passed since Goodall made her initial visit to what is now the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, and the catalog of sites conducting long-term studies of wild chimpanzees by 2010 included Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania, Kibale National Park and Budongo Forest Reserve in Uganda, the Taï National Park in Côte d'Ivoire, Bossou in Guinea, Fongoli in Senegal, and the Goualougo Triangle in the Republic of Congo's Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park. The many other researchers who "habituated" wild chimpanzee communities also needed much patience, especially since the field now looks askance at making chimps feel comfortable with the presence of humans by provisioning bananas and other foods, which Goodall and others later recognized disrupted the animals' natural behavior. So while it is not easy to gain the trust of wild chimpanzees and to observe them at close range for extended periods—habituation took five years in Taï—clearly, humans have figured out how to do it.2
In 2006, I set out to observe the world of chimpanzee research at close range, and that, too, required that I slowly build the trust of individuals in a foreign community. It was hardly the first contact between a journalist and primate researchers—which in part explained why my many phone calls and e-mails for a time went unanswered. I also did not want to simply interview people for a few minutes on the phone. I wanted to see the scientists doing what they do in their natural environments, from the rainforests of Africa to the laboratories, zoos, and sanctuaries where captive chimpanzees live in many countries. That added another obstacle: great apes are endangered, which means that few exist, and even fewer humans devote their lives to studying them. Apes also live in places where entry is tightly restricted, and it can be just as difficult to receive permission to visit a protected national forest to see a wild chimp community as it is to be invited to a biomedical research facility to see a captive one. So I had to be patient with my requests.
From the outset, I understood that many in the community had received too much media interest for their own tastes. They did not exactly run and hide away in the trees when they saw a journalist coming, but they knew both the benefits and the perils of publicity, and they preciously guarded their time—and access to the animals they studied. It made good sense. Goodall is arguably the world's most famous living scientist, and many of those who have followed in her footsteps—including the ethologist Frans de Waal, the evolutionary biologist Richard Wrangham, and the psychologist Roger Fouts—have written popular books and magazine articles themselves and been featured prominently in an endless stream of documentaries. Dian Fossey, who studied gorillas in Rwanda also at the behest of Leakey, became the subject of a Hollywood blockbuster, Gorillas in the Mist. Biruté Galdikas, the "orangutan lady" and the third of "Leakey's Angels," has garnered two appearances on the cover of National Geographic, written four books, and had several books written about her. In his native Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe, the chimp researcher Christophe Boesch has a high profile, and the same is true of the primatologists Tetsuro Matsuzawa, Toshisada Nishida, and Kinji Imanishi in their native Japan.
In time, most every request I made was granted, and people graciously invited me to watch them hike through rainforests, conduct biomedical and cognitive experiments with live animals, examine bones and brains from dead ones, and even collect and then study chimp sperm under a microscope. My travels took me to Uganda, Japan, Germany, England, Russia, and all over the United States. Only one place I wanted to visit ultimately froze me out: National Geographic actually blocked a trip I had planned to the Republic of Congo to observe researchers studying chimpanzees and gorillas in the remote Goualougo Triangle; the husband-and-wife team of scientists working there had welcomed me, but then were forced to rescind their invitation because the magazine funded them and wanted to monopolize their research for a story. I mention this not to complain, but to illustrate the peculiar inner workings of the community, as well as to explain the great satisfaction I felt each time I managed to finally visit researchers at their work sites. They had, in a sense, become habituated to my presence. At the very least, they tolerated my watching them do their business, and more often than not, I was greeted with enthusiasm and a genuine eagerness to help me understand and communicate what I was seeing.
Unlike many authors of books about chimpanzees, I am not a researcher or even connected to one. That means I do not emphasize my own original findings, I have no agenda, and I, too, struggle to cut through the scientific jargon to distill the significance of specific studies. My aim from the start was simply to explore anew a question that tickles at the human mind, and which with the publication of the chimpanzee genome in 2005 was pushing answers into novel directions: What are the dividing lines between humans and chimpanzees, between us and them?
In 1925, the psychologist Robert Yerkes teased open many minds with his book Almost Human, which argued that humans and chimpanzees had so many similarities that much could be learned if we studied them more carefully. Almost Human had another agenda that from today's vantage seems unnecessary and downright absurd: to convince people not to revile chimpanzees. "There is intense and well-nigh universal curiosity about these animals, but it is often coupled with strong dislike or repulsion," he wrote. "Perhaps as our ignorance disappears we shall lose also the prejudice and unreasonable dislike which makes many feel that genetic relationship with the monkeys or apes is belittling."3 The fact that chimpanzees were seen by some at the time as "inventions of the devil," as Yerkes noted, could be traced to creationism: Almost Human appeared the same year as Scopes v. the State of Tennessee, which famously put the teaching of Darwinian evolution on trial. Yerkes was doing his bit to combat the creationists of his day, and the mounting evidence for the chimp's humanlike appearance, behavior, and biology made a strong case for the Darwinians, one that continues to resonate.
Goodall, fifty years later, pushed this "almost human" viewpoint to forward an entirely separate agenda. As a leading advocate for protecting the habitats of wild chimps and a foe of researchers who housed chimps in small cages and conducted invasive biomedical experimentation, she believed that a critical mass of humans would most likely come to her cause if they imagined their own hands reaching for the curl of a chimpanzee's finger. Goodall was pursuing noble and worthwhile goals, and indeed she, along with Yerkes and other pioneering chimpanzee researchers, deserves much credit for making people more aware of the intelligence, social needs, and emotional depth of our closest cousins. But I think the need to emphasize our similarities has abated.
With the flood of genetic information now available from many species, the argument for Darwinian evolution no longer requires the chimpanzee-human connection as its linchpin. Advocates also have made much headway in persuading humans to treat chimpanzees more humanely, with invasive research steadily becoming less common, housing for captive chimps improving, and more people recognizing the plight that wild chimpanzees face because of our disregard for their well-being. And there is something fundamentally backward about the "almost human" rubric for chimps. From everything I can tell, no chimpanzee looks at a human and wonders, Is that where I came from? Nor do chimps ponder the possibility that we represent where they are heading. Yet humans from every culture look at chimpanzees and see hints of their more primitive selves.
"Almost human" inherently pushes people to look for similarities. Yet, while we have a lot of chimpanzee in us, we cannot hope to see that clearly unless we can identify the specific features and forces that separate us from them. We have bigger and more complex brains, full-fledged language and writing, sophisticated tools, the control of fire, cultures that become increasingly complex, permanent structures in which to live and work, and the ability to walk upright and travel far and wide. It also is important to recognize that we are not "better" in every regard. No human stands a chance against an adult chimpanzee in a fight or a tree-climbing contest; many diseases that devastate us spare them; and one study even suggests that they have much better short-term memory.
I am not arguing that we should treat chimpanzees with any less respect, that the case for evolution is any less compelling, or that we should conduct studies of humans to better understand chimpanzees. "Almost human" and "almost chimpanzee" represent two sides of the same coin. But people have many misunderstandings about our relationship to chimpanzees, and I am convinced that we have focused too much attention on the heads rather than the tails.
H. A. Rey's children's classic, Curious George, opens with an illustration of George swinging on a vine and eating a banana. "This is George," the text reads. "He lived in Africa. He was a good little monkey and always very curious."
George, as the drawing clearly shows, is a chimpanzee, not a monkey.
This fundamental mistake riles people who study chimpanzees, and with good reason. In evolutionary time, monkeys and apes diverged from each other about 25 million years ago. Humans and chimpanzees split from a common ancestor at most 7 million years ago. So to understand the difference between humans and chimpanzees, as a starting point, it is critical to recognize that monkeys are not apes.
How do we know George is not a monkey? He does not have a tail. All monkeys, save for the misnamed Barbary ape and the Sulawesi black ape (which look nothing like George), have tails. In contrast, no ape—a family that includes chimpanzees, humans, gorillas, bonobos, orangutans, gibbons, and siamangs—has a tail.
The differences between apes and monkeys reach far beyond the tail. But the fact that many people don't know that simple distinction—and that a popular children's book has corrupted young minds since 1941—underscores the confusion about where to draw the dividing lines that separate humans from other species.
As I tour the world of chimpanzees, I do not address every dividing line between us and them, nor do I become chummy with the likes of David Greybeard, the extraordinarily communicative Washoe and Kanzi, or any other knuckle-walking ape. But I introduce many chimpanzees, as well as other apes, including bonobos and orangutans, focusing on the differences that matter. I begin at the most microscopic of differences, looking into the blood, then slowly zooming out for the successively broader, and more encompassing, vantages of the brain and finally the body. I mesh little-known historical tales with the most cutting-edge science to explain the origins of chimpanzee research and reveal where the field is heading. And while few primatologists study both captive and wild chimpanzees, I blend findings from both areas, which often complement or challenge each other in surprising ways.
George, the chimpanzee, is defined by his curiosity. Humans are an extraordinarily curious species, too. But the range of our curiosities and how we satisfy them are distinct, and since the dawn of our consciousness, since the first myth of our origins was passed on, we have explored that particular difference and pondered what, exactly, it means to be human. Chimpanzees are a unique—and rapidly closing—window into our answer.
Meet the Author
Jon Cohen is the author of Shots in the Dark and Coming to Term. He is a correspondent at the internationally renowned Science magazine and has also written for The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Discover, Smithsonian, and Slate. He lives in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California.
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