What Sets Humans Apart from Chimps? - "Humans And Apes: On Whether Language Usage..." by Marie George

This article deals with the idea of humans and animals and what really sets them apart from one another. Are the differences simply quantitative, but of the same kind such that it was only time and chance that set up apart? Or could it be that there is something about us which is of a qualitatively different kind than animals, making an unsurpassable chasm between us and them? Dr. Marie George is going to hold that there is something specifically different about us, and that is our abstract rationality. George will assess whether or not this rationality has been shown to exist in the highest of the animal kingdom or not by looking at several different experiments done with chimpanzees and analyzing their meaning.

Neo-Darwinian or Scholastic
Dr. Marie George begins this article by pointing out that if one is strictly Neo-Darwinist, there is no qualitative difference between lower animals and human beings, only a difference in a type of quantity. 1 “In other words, Gradualism leads people to conclude that human beings are nothing more than smart apes or, conversely, that apes are simply less intelligent rational beings.” 2 In this article, Dr. George is going to defend the position that human beings are, in reality, qualitatively different through their capacity of rational thought.3

Apes and Language?
George beings by challenging her Thomistic thesis by pointing out that Aquinas, and other medieval thinkers, did not travel or see much of the world in regards to the animal kingdom. Rather it wasn't until the 1960s that modern researchers were well traveled enough to be surprised by the great apes that they could learn to make tools, or even memorize sign language. 4 George notes, though, that there is a distinction between learning through association, such as when a animal learns to press a button for an immediate reward, and that of abstract reasoning for its own sake, in which there is not an immediate stimulus of feedback. The question becomes, then, what the smartest of the animals do, and how they participate in regarding these two types of learning. 5 An example is given, to begin with, in which a chimpanzee is presented with a bottle of coke. The chimpanzee uses rudimentary signs to express her desire to drink the coke, but nevertheless those signs are tied to an immediate stimulus and reward, not something abstract. George then mentions another author, Dr. Clive Wynne, who in his recent book, “Do Animals Think,” recognizes the immense discontinuity between apes even though he is a Neo-Darwinist himself. 6

Wynne also expresses skepticism about whether or not these reported conversations are being augmented through the interpretation of their handlers. Wynne seems to suggest that getting an actual transcript of what the apes sign is difficult, and that often the original communications are incredibly simplistic, focused on immediate treats only. 7 An example of an actual transcript Wynne talks about shows how the human handler adds lots of context and intelligibility to what otherwise would be one to two word utterances. 8 “A partial survey of scientific literature indicates that the apes mean length of utterance is 1-2 signs this pretty wells excludes the possibility that any of the apes tested can carry on a conversation it is pretty hard to elaborate on a topic using two words at a time.” 9 “It is well know that the production of these apes are almost invariably request (...one estimate is that request account for 95% of all productions) and that the intention of those productions that are not request is difficult to discern.”10 A fair interpretation of this data would be that apes do not have a conceptual understanding, but have simply associate certain hand gestures with desirable treats. 11

Another author on this topic, Dr. Duane Rumbaugh, does make the claim that sometimes apes supposedly speak in “declarations.” The very small portions that utterances that are these declarations are themselves up for interpretation as to their meaning. If an ape taps a button for a banana and goes and picks up a banana, is it declaring what it is going to do, or is it simply following associations that it has previously made? Likewise, when apes have over and over received positive feedback for signing in response to their handler, it begs the question whether they are truly meaning these signs or merely conditioned to the positive feedback they received from them.12 Logically the question also needs to be asked, if apes do have this capacity for language and abstract ideas, why is this capacity never developed in any sort of means to aid them in survival. George quotes Noam Chomsky, saying that this would be like a species of bird who had the ability to fly but never flew. 13 "Teaching apes symbolic means of expression did not result in their using it in order to gain an intellectual understanding of the world. This is a clear indication of their lack of capacity for abstract thought.”14 If the most qualified animal candidate for rational thought lacks the ability to use it, this also means that a strong case could be made that lesser candidates in the animal kingdom are thus likewise.

The next major question that George looks at is whether or not animals are aware of the mental states of other animals. “Put in other words, are there non-human animals that have mental representations of the mental states of others? If they do, they are said to possess ‘a theory of mind.’”15 George points out to begin with that the term "theory of mind" is fraught with much ambiguity. For example, how does one define what constitutes a mental state? Are “intentions, thoughts, perceptions, emotions, beliefs, and pretending” mental states? Likewise, what is meant by the word "mental?"16 George asks if there is a difference regarding the word mental between sense knowledge and intellectual knowledge. In terms of sense knowledge, it seems possible that one can see or hear and yet not be intellectually aware that they are seeing or hearing, the same being true in the case of experience of emotions. George is going to hold that for something to count as a mental state one must not only have sense knowledge, but be intellectually aware of that knowledge. 17

Apes and the Awareness of the Beliefs of Others?
Another example which some claim is a rationale for an animal theory of mind is an experiment testing for understanding for "false belief." In the experiment, the experimenter places an apple in front of a human and chimp in location then asks human to leave the room, the experimenter then changes the placement of the apple and asks the chimp the location of which the human will search for the apple. If the chimp correctly deduces that the human will search for the apple in the first location, then it has passed the test thus indicating that the chimp understands the belief of the human is different from the reality it knows. 18

George holds that, regardless if the ape passes the test, the test itself does not show what it claims to show. It doesn't show that the ape has an understanding that others have beliefs at all. Rather, she says the same experiment could be explained simply by the ape associating through experience that where a subject places its eye is where it will search.19 “The test set up does not allow one to distinguish whether a correct answer is based on prior experience of certain kinds of behavior being commonly linked together rather than on any knowledge of mental states… it might also be that the child or ape makes this transition by having learned through experience that in such circumstances the subject does not go to the objects current location, but rather to where the object and subject were initially together.” 20

George also recounts another experiment in which a chimp supposedly understands the ignorance of a person entering the room, and tries to show them where a particular item is. Like the previous experiment, George holds that, just as one can read a theory of mind into the apes' actions, one can also explain through simple association and experience that where someone does not set their eyes on something they do not know it. 21 George is not convinced that these experiments truly demonstrate a theory of mind, and that we are not simply projecting our own consciousness onto the apes. 22 “The physical situation the apes observe can in principle always be directly linked through experience with a given course of action or inaction… so there seems no way for experiments in which one observable behavior could be linked to another to determine whether apes know others as knowers and not simply as actors of course, the more parsimonious explanation is to say that they know others only as actors.” 23

Animal Awareness of Internal and/or External Emotion in Others
George then moves on to the question on mental states regarding emotions. Does knowledge of another’s state of emotion requires reason or can it be understood naturally in a being without reason? 24 Or, could it be the case that animals understand emotion simply through external signs and not in the sense of the internal reality of another, such as the difference between when a person grimaces on their face in pain, and when they don't make any painful gestures, but go to reach for the medicine cabinet. 25 When there is more of a direct connection between the two, George expresses her own opinion that she thinks that animals do have some knowledge of how others are feeling, and can symbolize it. Does this mean that animals share our ability to reason then? 26

In order to look further into this, George says that we need to distinguish how animals seem to "categorize" different types of things. It is clear that animals do distinguish between types of things, in a way, because we can clearly see that they make a certain of judgment between friend and foe, between threat and non threat, between similar kind and unknown foreigner. 27 "Above, I argued that animals lack abstract concepts and thus cannot categorize things in function of such. How then do they do so? We obviously cannot get into their minds. However, we can make some reasonable guesses as to the sort of thing that is going on by reflecting on our own sub-universal knowledge and by examining the experiments with animals that are geared to determining how they categorize things." 28

It seems clear that animals can use their experience and memory to generate a way of functioning in the world that is not a conceptual understanding. Likewise, imagination may also help them in in remembering or associating things in survival. What is harder to understand is how an animals may recognize and pick out patterns with more abstract things like shape and colors. Another scientist, Stephen Budiansky, proposes that animals create a rudimentary model of similar things which helps them function in the world, but is probably mostly incomplete. There is some similarity in its features through which the creature associates them together in a grouping. 29 It seems as though these groupings depend on experience gained through multiple iterations, whereas a human could follow directions the first time based on abstract understanding. 30

"Even if we cannot figure out which, if any, of the above explanations actually corresponds to what is going on in an animal's mind when it categorizes something, we can nonetheless see that in principle some operation of the internal senses (imagination, memory) can account for an animal's doing so. Thus, while abstract thought is not the explanation for how animals categorize things (for, as the language studies show, they lack abstract thought), the senses offer an adequate explanation of how they are able to do so." 31

George then uses this same explanation to return to the question of animals understanding other animal's emotional states. Could it not likewise be something they develop a sense of through experience over time with association? Every time I see another chimp beat its chest, scream, and show its teeth, it must be a similar situation. 32 Even though animals do not understand emotions or the inner life of emotion of others since this takes abstract reasoning, that doesn't mean the pattern recognition they have is not useful for them. 33 For those pack animals whose survival is dependent on support from the group then it benefits them to know that their kin is feeling well also. It may be possible that there is no distinction between interior and exterior for them, that the concept itself is something that we are projecting on to them. 34 "Part of the problem lies in the difficulty we have in examining consciousness. In trying to examine our own conscious experiences, we almost inevitably become self-conscious." 35

In conclusion, Dr. Marie George holds that there is a gap between human reason and chimp intelligence that is not just quantitative, but is different in kind. Animal learning can be explained through experience, association, memory, and imagination, whereas human rationality deals with conceptualization on an abstract and universal level. 

"I will leave off here my investigation of animals' knowledge of emotions. My primary intention in discussing this matter was to establish that, if animals do have knowledge of emotions, we need not conclude that they possess the capacity for abstract thought. I have shown that there is an alternate explanation available in terms of the internal senses. Higher animals are in principle able to know their own emotions in virtue of being conscious, and are able to know others' emotions in virtue of possessing memory, for memory allows an association to be made between one's experience of one's own emotions and one's present observation of external expression of others' emotions. As for what the language studies reveal about animals' capacity for abstract thought, apes that have been trained to use symbolic forms of communication fail to carry on conversations geared to increasing their understanding of the world for the sake of understanding. Since this is something that beings capable of abstract thought naturally do, the apes' failure to do so shows that they lack this capacity." 36


1 - Marie I. George, “Humans And Apes: On Whether Language Usage, Knowledge Of Others’ Beliefs, And Knowledge Of Others’ Emotions Indicate That They Differ When It Comes To Rationality,” in
Reading the Cosmos: Nature, Science, And Wisdom, ed. Giuseppe Butera (American Maritain
Association, 2011) : https://maritain.nd.edu/ama/Reading/Reading302.pdf Pg. 163
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