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Ape Genius reveals depth of animal intelligence
By Paul Eccleston
Chimpanzees in Senegal make and sharpen spears with their teeth to go
hunting. Like our own ancestors they have learned to use tools to kill
their quarry more effectively.
They use their colossal strength to thrust their spears into holes in
trees where they suspect nocturnal bushbabies are sleeping.
Anthropologist Jill Pruetz believes she has made a landmark discovery
- a species other than humans learning - and passing on - the skills
to make a lethal weapon.
The generation of ideas and sharing a skill is a scientific definition
In another part of Africa a young chimp lowers himself gingerly into a
cooling pool and squealing with excitement - in exactly the same way
as a human child would. Apes are supposed to be afraid of water but
this one is actively using the water as a tool to enjoy a dip.
In controlled laboratory experiments another chimpanzee called Judy
quickly learns how to use a complex series of manoeuvres, turning
wheels and pulling handles in order, to obtain a piece of fruit from a
specially constructed wooden slot machine. But even more remarkably
other chimps watch her success and then learn the skill themselves.
Learning by imitation is regarded as an essential skill for culture.
Apes display rudimentary traditions which could be interpreted as
culture but are they really bright enough to develop a proper culture?
The apes are all stars of a new film - Ape Genius - which gives a
fascinating insight into the depth of intelligence of animals who
share 99 per cent of human genes. In it they reveal the skills,
reasoning powers and emotions that were once thought to be uniquely
The stars include Koko a gorilla who understands sign language, Azy an
orangutan maths champion, and Kanzi a bonobo who understands more than
3,000 words of English.
The film demonstrates that apes are more like us than we ever imagined
and only the lack of a few mental skills has prevented them making the
giant evolutionary development steps taken by their human cousins.
What's the little difference that makes the big difference and how big
is the gap between Them and Us?, the film asks.
In west Africa Japanese researchers watch a mother care for sick
two-years-old infant. She puts her paw on his forehead in exactly the
way as a parent would check for a temperature in a child. As the baby
chimp's life ebbs away she cares for him devotedly and when he dies
she carries him around on her back for weeks almost refusing to accept
that he is gone.
It is impossible to know what she is thinking but not difficult to
recognise that she is stricken with grief.
"When I see the scene of the mother looking at the baby, I really
recognise the emotional life of chimpanzees are so similar to us,"
says one of the researchers.
But if apes have the power to reason, learn skills, feel emotion and
co-operate in a frenzied tree-top hunt for Colobus monkeys as
chimpanzees do, why don't we have a planet of the apes?
The film reveals that although apes will co-operate to obtain food
they don't have a shared commitment, they don't have the passion to
urge or cheer on a tribe member and they do not have control of their
emotions. They are also violent, impulsive and display deadly rivalry.
Although they can be taught to recognise symbols and words they don't
have the mental capacity to contribute to a 'conversation' - and they
don't make small talk. And most important of all although they can
imitate, they can't teach or build on the achievements others have
made - unlike more successful humans.
Their mental rocket is on the launch pad but it hasn't taken off, the
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