I love monkeys.

I not only love monkeys, but I love the word “monkeys.” It has the right amount of syllables, it includes a bilabial, velar, and sibilant consonant, and in the plural form, it is one of the rebellious nouns that ignores the rule of changing from “y” to “ies.”  I admit that I use this term improperly, since I love not only monkeys but most species which fall under the Order “Primate,” which includes: monkeys, apes, prosimians, and humans.

But I am certainly not alone in my love of all things simian.  When at a zoo featuring our phylogenetic cousins, I have noticed that the time and attention spent on these guys is rivaled only by time spent with the “big cats.”  They are so like us in so many ways that it’s positively mesmerizing to watch their interactions.

I think we connect with monkeys and apes on a deep level because whether we know it consciously or not, we share over ninety percent of our genetic code with them; more than 95% with our closest relative–the chimpanzee.  Sorry creationists, but DNA don’t lie.

Back in the 1970’s, there was a documentary by Barbet Schroeder that centered on Koko (full name: Hanabiko), a gorilla that was part of a psychological experiment to teach animals a form of American Sign Language to determine if they have intelligence and emotional responses on par with a human’s.  One of the key members of the project, Francine “Penny” Patterson, has devoted her entire life to training Koko and assessing her communicative intent.  Watching the documentary, I was disappointed that Penny was so intent on “humanizing” Koko–asserting physical dominance while acting as Koko’s mother, imbuing her actions with human moralistic value judgements of “good” and “bad,”  and even offering her make-up; telling her it’s to make her “pretty.”  Give us a break, Penny.

While I agree that we don’t afford primates enough protection and we don’t give them credit for their high levels of intelligence, they are not people.  The differences between us are critical and it’s inappropriate to treat monkeys and apes like our children or pets.  That’s how people’s faces get ripped off.  For goodness sake, we share over 90% of our genome with mice, yet we don’t treat them with commensurate respect.  I believe strongly that animals should be allowed to form social bonds with their own species.  If this experiment had given us undeniable, solid results, then I feel we might have been justified in they way we’ve experimented with these animals.  Unfortunately, the studies have fallen prey to the criticism that too much of the evidence is  subjective and there aren’t enough controlled empirical studies.

Koko is now forty years old and she has failed to mate thus far.  This to me, is a great tragedy as her species is dwindling in the wild due to interference from humans.  We clearly don’t know how to encourage mating in captivity, which I believe, should be our number-one focus before teaching them to “talk.”

If this has sparked your interest, check out Readings In Animal Cognition, edited by Marc Bekoff and Dale Jamieson.  In particular, give Chapter 18,  Animal Language: Methodological and Interpretive Issues a read.

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