Friday, October 12, 2012

Animals Like Us

Today I sat across the glass from Kyle, a 16-year old orangutan at the National Zoo while he sporadically twisted pieces of straw as if pedaling a hand bike, regurgitated his food, scratched his arms and looked sideways at his onlookers. He rapped gently on the glass with his fist and I couldn't help putting my own hand up to meet his.

Kyle / Smithsonian Photo
Kyle became famous last year for sensing the DC earthquake before it hit: rushing to the top of the "tree" in his enclosure, but I came to visit the apes because I'm in the midst of reading Frans de Waal's The Age of Empathy and wanted to see our cousins up close.

De Waal's gotten in debates with the likes of curmudgeonly atheist Richard Dawkins, whose book The Selfish Gene has, somewhat unintentionally, added fuel to the popular idea that animals are looking out for numero uno above all else. De Waal makes the case, much like the Cherokee legend of two wolves, that empathy is just as motivating a force as selfishness is for many primates. And that includes humans.

The book is filled with examples of self-sacrifice and evidence of empathy that de Waal's witnessed in his decades as a primatologist: chimps jumping into moats to save their zoo-mates despite an inherent fear of water, a Bonobo who collected a stunned bird that had fallen in its enclosure and tried helping it flap its wings, even dolphins saving dogs and humans.

De Waal's observations have a positive message for human cooperation, but they also serve to chip away at the ideological barrier between humans and animals. My friend Anoop, who got me into reading this book, wrote his undergraduate thesis on the topic. He quotes Paul Nadasdy:
It is perhaps not surprising that anthropologists should be reluctant to accept the notion that humans and animals might actually engage in social relations with one another. Despite the fact that humans are animals, Euro-Americans invest a great deal in maintaining a sharp conceptual distinction between humans and animals…the standard behavioralist assertion that animals are mindless automatons should be recognized as dogma that is not only unproven but that requires all sorts of theoretical contortions to maintain.
We like to believe, as we push our doublewide strollers through the great ape exhibit, flashing photos and  pointing out the "monkeys" to our children, that the creatures behind the glass are nothing like us. But researchers are closing the gap all the time, putting the "animal" in "human" and, as a consequence, making us a part of the environment too.

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