The Monkey Psyche

Thanks to our insatiable desire for amusing animal videos on the web, the outdatedness of the notion of tool-use as a quality that raises us above “mere” animal status is pretty well-known now.

Betty, the hook-making crow in a lab in Oxford, probably got the ball rolling, easily out-performing the rudimentary tool skills of chimps:

Then we saw the crows from Osaka, not directly fashioning tools, but demonstrating a kind of planning ingenuity that will drop the jaw of anyone who’s grown up with the word “animal” having connotations of “dumb and brutish”:

But while such tricks make great web distractions, they only breach the crumbling wall between humans and animals in the science-friendly realm of functional, practical behaviour. What about those shiftier areas, such as emotion, with all its attendant complexities and pathologies?

Our culture has a see-saw relationship with perception of emotions in animals. Sometimes it seems like the debate is divided cleanly in two, with criticisms of sentimental anthropomorphism flying one way, and protests about the species-centric, Christian-Cartesian separation of humans from nature going the other.

We don’t find “truth” at some magical fulcrum point between the two, though. Both sides have validity, but they’re just like kids hooked on the simple back-and-forth fun of the see-saw rocking. (OK, the metaphor breaks down badly here, as this sort of polarized debate is usually anything but simple fun…) Truths start to emerge when bums get sore, they get off the ride, and have a chat.

Then they slowly discover that “reductionist” science’s view of humans’ place in nature, based ostensibly on the Darwinian revolution, has indeed retained a few too many prejudices from Christianity and Cartesian proto-science. As Stephen Jay Gould often maintains, Darwin’s revolution has not been completed. Our evolution introduced some hugely important variations and complexities into the animal world, but we really haven’t fully embraced the idea of our place in an evolutionary continuum with animals.

The see-saw opponents also start to realize as they converse that touchy-feely sentimentality about animals has been one of the only refuges for perception of this continuum in our deeply Christian world. As an increasingly repressive society makes extremists out of its moderates, the lack of real appreciation for the resonance that the deeper levels of our emotional and psychic make-up find with other life-forms have distorted this resonance badly, dulling it to nothing here, leaving it to ramp up uncontrollably there.


How have the vestiges of the Christian-Cartesian split between humans and other animals distorted our self-image? In ways too numerous to mention here; I’ll narrow things down to one example that’s come up twice for me recently: chimp violence.

I’m a great admirer of Howard Bloom, especially his ability to see clearly through sentimental images of nature when the evidence of science demands it. However, in his book The Lucifer Principle, in his chapter titled ‘Mother Nature, The Bloody Bitch’, he makes blunders as he tries to demolish any resistance we may have built up to the image of nature as “red in tooth and claw”.

First off, he makes the embarrassing mistake of conflating and confusing “violence” and “war”. He tries to debunk Richard Leakey’s claim that southern Africa’s !Kung demonstrate the absence of war in non-agricultural societies by rallying evidence that they have a relatively high murder rate. He neglects to mention whether the situation that yielded this murder rate in the study he cites might have been affected by the influence of agricultural societies. Even so, homicide and war are, in the terms of Bloom’s own argument, different kettles of fish altogether.

Regarding violence among chimps, he naturally brings to bear Jane Goodall‘s famed studies, where she “discovered war among the chimpanzees, a discovery she hoped she would never make.” The implicit message of this, and most such use of primate studies (especially studies of violence), is that in looking at chimps, because they’re 99% genetically identical to us, we’re looking at our own hard-wired nature. As Bloom’s colourful language has it, “our biological legacy weaves evil into the substrate of even the most ‘unspoiled’ society.”

However, all may not be as it seems. For starters, Jason Godesky at recently posted an extract from a review of Margaret Power’s book The Egalitarians – Human and Chimpanzee: An Anthropological View of Social Organization, which is worth re-quoting in full here:

Essentially, Power argues that because human hunter-gatherers and chimpanzees in the wild share the same ecological niche, their social organization is remarkably similar. The qualifier, in the wild, is significant, inasmuch as the dominant paradigm in chimpanzee studies today derives from the later work of Jane Goodall, who reports that the animals are strongly territorial, aggressive, and dominance-seeking. Whereas Goodall’s analysis might support a theory of phylogenetic continuity for similar, biologically inherent, agonistic qualities in humans, Power’s important contribution is to show that Goodall’s conclusions may rest principally on the “unnatural” environment that Goodall herself created for the apes in order to facilitate observation of their behavior.

When Goodall began her naturalistic studies of chimpanzees in 1960 in the Gombe National Park area of Tanzania, she was a distinctly non-participant observer. After some years of patiently tracking apes over large areas, Goodall discovered that she could lure animals into a more or less permanent presence around her camp, thereby improving opportunities to observe social interaction, by baiting the camp with supplies of bananas. Indeed, this was an inspired notion. According to Power, it worked too well.

Power maintains that the change that Goodall engineered in the food supply warped the chimpanzees’ conduct and social organization more or less permanently. Power pursues the argument by examining the differences between Goodall’s observations prior to the artificial feeding regimen and the subsequent findings. Goodall herself does not rely much on the results of her early work.

Power argues that, like human hunter-gatherers, chimpanzees in the wild roam widely, rarely confronting each other in direct competition over food. Goodall’s artificial feeding, practiced from 1964 to 1968, introduced direct competition among the apes for the first time. Bunched around the feeding boxes and often frustrated by not obtaining the bananas (which were doled out according to specific schedules), the animals began to engage in more intense forms of competitive, aggressive, and threatening behavior than was known to occur in the wild.

A couple of days after reading this, I was reading the recent “Psyche & Nature”-themed Spring Journal, specifically an essay called ‘Trans-Species Psychology’ by G. A. Bradshaw & Mary Watkins. In arguing for the extension of psyche outside the human realm that we’ve habitually confined it in, they note that “humans alone have been considered to possess the capacity to be un-natural.” We possess mind, psyche, or soul, which gives us our ability to behave in ways that respond in a much more sophisticated way to the environment than the “hard-wired” genetics of “mere nature”.

If we avoid the hard-line behaviourism that seeks to overcome this dualism by erasing psyche from the map completely, we might admit that in observing chimpanzee behaviour, we aren’t necessarily looking at some image of what our biological nature is “in itself”. We would realize that we need to be sensitive to psyche’s role in the scene – with its inevitable corollary, psychopathology. Obviously Goodall’s apparent artificial distortion of “natural” chimp behaviour is an extreme instance of this. But even genuine observations in the field may not be revelations of our encoded genetic inheritance; they may be contingent psychological aberrations, influenced by a complex network of forces in the immediate environment.

Of course, this isn’t to argue that our genetic inheritance is “clean”, wholly bereft of unfortunate traits. In fact, it means that as we open our emotional identities to the animal kingdom, we’ll find resonance with instances of cruelty and pathology as well as with instincts to love and nurture.

Humans are plainly the most deviant, pathologized creature around. But finding cruelty in nature may not always be a cue to justify human foibles as “natural”; it may indicate that our struggles with the tumultuous difficulties of psychic life are not ours alone.