What I learnt from tickling apes

Evolution is a gradual process of descent with modification, whether we are talking about physical or mental traits. The more we play down animal intelligence, the more we ask science to believe in miracles when it comes to the human mind, says the a
Evolution is a gradual process of descent with modification, whether we are talking about physical or mental traits. The more we play down animal intelligence, the more we ask science to believe in miracles when it comes to the human mind, says the author. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Apes that giggle when tickled. Cuttlefish that cheat rivals. Crows that use tools. Yes, animals exhibit these traits we tend to think of as "human". In our haste to contend that animals aren't people, we forget that human beings in fact are animals too.

Tickling a juvenile chimpanzee is a lot like tickling a child. The ape has the same sensitive spots: under the armpits, on the side, in the belly. He opens his mouth wide, lips relaxed, panting audibly in the same "huh-huh-huh" rhythm of inhalation and exhalation as human laughter. The similarity makes it hard not to giggle yourself.

The ape also shows the same ambivalence as a child. He pushes your tickling fingers away and tries to escape, but as soon as you stop he comes back for more, putting his belly right in front of you. At this point, you need only to point to a tickling spot, not even touching it, and he will throw another fit of laughter.

Laughter? Now wait a minute! A real scientist should avoid any anthropomorphism, which is why hard-nosed colleagues often ask us to change our terminology. Why not call the ape's reaction something neutral, like, say, vocalised panting? That way we avoid confusion between the human and the animal.

The term anthropomorphism, which means "human form", comes from the Greek philosopher Xenophanes, who protested in the fifth century BC against Homer's poetry because it described the gods as though they looked human. Xenophanes mocked this assumption, reportedly saying that if horses had hands they would "draw their gods like horses". Nowadays, the term has a broader meaning. It is typically used to censure the attribution of human-like traits and experiences to other species. Animals don't have "sex" but engage in breeding behaviour. They don't have "friends", but favourite affiliation partners.

Given how partial our species is to intellectual distinctions, we apply such linguistic castrations even more vigorously in the cognitive domain. By explaining the smartness of animals either as a product of instinct or simple learning, we have kept human cognition on its pedestal under the guise of being scientific. Everything boiled down to genes and reinforcement. To think otherwise opened you up to ridicule, which is what happened to Wolfgang Kohler, the German psychologist who, a century ago, was the first to demonstrate flashes of insight in chimpanzees.

How could our species arrive at planning, empathy, consciousness and so on, if we are part of a natural world devoid of any and all stepping stones to such capacities? Wouldn't this be about as unlikely as us being the only primates with wings?

Kohler would put a banana outside the enclosure of his star performer, Sultan, while giving him sticks that were too short to reach the fruit through the bars. Or he would hang a banana high up and spread boxes around, none of which were tall enough to reach the fruit. At first, Sultan would jump or throw things at the banana or drag a human by the hand towards it, hoping to use him as a footstool.

If this failed, he would sit around without doing anything, pondering the situation, until he might hit on a solution. He'd jump up suddenly to put one bamboo stick inside another, making a longer stick. He'd also stack boxes to build a tower tall enough to attain his reward. Kohler described this moment as the "aha! experience", not unlike Archimedes running through the streets shouting "Eureka!"

According to Kohler, Sultan showed insight by combining what he knew about boxes and sticks to produce a new action sequence to take care of his problem. It all took place in his head, without prior rewards for his eventual solution.

That animals may show mental processes closer to thinking than learning was so unsettling, though, that still today, Kohler's name is hissed rather than spoken in some circles. Naturally, one of his critics argued that the attribution of reasoning to animals was an "overswing of the theoretical pendulum" back "towards anthropomorphism".

We still hear this argument, not so much for tendencies that we consider animalistic (aggression, violence and territoriality in animals) but rather for traits we like in ourselves.

Accusations of anthropomorphism are about as big a spoiler in cognitive science as suggestions of doping are of athletic success. The indiscriminate nature of these accusations has been detrimental to cognitive science as it has kept us from developing a truly evolutionary view. In our haste to argue that animals are not people, we have forgotten that people are animals too.

This doesn't mean that anything goes. Humans are incredibly eager to project feelings and experiences onto animals, often doing so uncritically. We go to beach hotels to swim with dolphins, convinced that the animals must love it as much as we do. We think that our dog feels guilt or that our cat is embarrassed when she misses a jump.

Lately, people have fallen for the suggestion that Koko, the signing gorilla in California, is worried about climate change, or that chimpanzees have religion. As soon as I hear such claims, I contract my corrugator muscles (causing a frown) and ask for the evidence.

Yes, dolphins have smiley faces, but since this is an immutable part of their visage; it fails to tell us anything about how they feel. Yes, dogs hide under the table when they have done something wrong; yet the most likely explanation is that they fear trouble.

Gratuitous anthropomorphism is distinctly unhelpful. But when experienced field workers who follow apes around in the tropical forest tell me about the concern chimpanzees show for an injured companion, bringing her food or slowing down their walking pace, or report how adult male orang utans in the treetops vocally announce which way they expect to travel the next morning, I am not averse to speculations about empathy or planning.

Given everything we know from controlled experiments in captivity, such as the ones I conduct, these speculations are not far-fetched.

To understand the resistance to cognitive explanations, I need to mention a third ancient Greek: Aristotle. The great philosopher put all living creatures on a vertical Scala Naturae, which runs from humans (closest to the gods) down towards other mammals, with birds, fish, insects and molluscs near the bottom. Comparisons up and down this vast ladder have been a popular scientific pastime, but all we have learnt from them is how to measure other species by our standards. Keeping Aristotle's scale intact, with humans on top, has been the unfailing goal.

But think about it: How likely is it that the immense richness of nature fits on a single dimension? Isn't it more likely that each animal has its own cognition, adapted to its own senses and natural history?

It makes no sense to compare our cognition with one that is distributed over eight independently moving arms, each with its own neural supply, or one that enables a flying organism to catch mobile prey by picking up the echoes of its own shrieks. Clark's nutcrackers (members of the crow family) recall the location of thousands of seeds that they have hidden half a year before, while I can't even remember where I parked my car a few hours ago.

Anyone who knows animals can come up with a few more cognitive comparisons that are not in our favour. Instead of a ladder, we are facing an enormous plurality of cognitions with many peaks of specialisation. Somewhat paradoxically, these peaks have been called "magic wells" because the more scientists learn about them, the deeper the mystery gets.

We now know, for example, that some crows excel at tool use. In an aviary at Oxford University in 2002, a new caledonian crow named Betty tried to pull a little bucket with a piece of meat out of a transparent vertical pipe. All she had to work with was a straight metal wire, which didn't do the trick. Undeterred, Betty used her beak to bend the straight wire into a hook to pull up the bucket. Since no one had taught Betty to do so, it was seen as an example of insight.

Apart from dispelling the "bird-brain" notion with which birds are saddled, Betty achieved instant fame by offering proof of tool- making outside the primate order.

Since this capacity has by now been confirmed by other studies, including one on a cockatoo, we can safely do away with the 1949 book Man The Tool-Maker by the British anthropologist Kenneth Oakley, which declared tool fabrication humanity's defining characteristic. Corvids (crows) are a technologically advanced branch on the tree of life with skills that often match those of primates like us.

Convergent evolution (when similar traits, like the wings of birds, bats and insects, appear independently in separate evolutionary branches) allows cognitive capacities to pop up at the most unexpected places, such as face recognition in paper wasps or deceptive tactics in cephalopods. When the males of some cuttlefish species are interrupted by a rival during courtship, they may trick the latter into thinking there is nothing to worry about.

On the side of his body that faces his rival, the male adopts the colouring of a female, so that the other believes he is looking at two females. But the courting male keeps his original colouring on the female's side of his body in order to keep her attention. This two-faced tactic, known as dual-gender signalling, suggests tactical skills of an order no one had ever suspected in a species so low on the natural scale.

But of course, talk of "high" and "low" is anathema to biologists, who see every single organism as exquisitely adapted to its environment.

Now let us return to the accusation of anthropomorphism that we hear every time a new discovery comes along. This accusation works only because of the premise of human exceptionalism. Rooted in religion but also permeating large areas of science, this premise is out of line with modern evolutionary biology and neuroscience. Our brains share the same basic structure with other mammals... Brains are in fact so similar across the board that we study fear in the rat's amygdala to treat human phobias. This doesn't mean that the planning by an orang utan is of the same order as my announcing an exam in class and my students preparing for it, but deep down there is continuity between both processes. This applies even more to emotional traits.

This is why science nowadays often starts from the opposite end, assuming continuity between humans and animals, while shifting the burden of proof to those who insist on differences. Anyone who asks me to believe that a tickled ape, who almost chokes on his hoarse giggles, is in a different state of mind than a tickled human child has his work cut out for him.

In order to drive this point home, I invented the term "anthropodenial"... the rejection of human-like traits in other animals or animal-like traits in us. Anthropomorphism and anthropodenial are inversely related: The closer another species is to us, the more anthropomorphism assists our understanding of this species and the greater will be the danger of anthropodenial. Conversely, the more distant a species is from us, the greater the risk that anthropomorphism proposes questionable similarities that have come about independently. Saying that ants have "queens", "soldiers" and "slaves" is mere anthropomorphic shorthand without much of a connection to the way human societies create these roles.

The key point is that anthropomorphism is not nearly as bad as people think. With species like the apes - aptly known as "anthropoids" (human-like) - anthropomorphism is in fact a logical choice. After a lifetime of working with chimpanzees, bonobos and other primates, I feel that denial of the similarities is a greater problem than accepting them.

Relabelling a chimpanzee kiss "mouth-to-mouth contact" obfuscates the meaning of a behaviour that apes show under the same circumstances as humans, such as when they greet one another or reconcile after a fight. It would be like assigning Earth's gravity a different name than the Moon's, just because we think Earth is special.

Unjustified linguistic barriers fragment the unity with which nature presents us. Apes and humans did not have enough time to independently evolve almost identical behaviour under similar circumstances.

Think about this the next time you read about ape planning, dog empathy or elephant self-awareness. Instead of denying these phenomena or ridiculing them, we would do better to ask "why not?"

One reason this whole debate is as heated as it is relates to its moral implications. When our ancestors moved from hunting to farming, they lost respect for animals and began to look at themselves as the rulers of nature. In order to justify how they treated other species, they had to play down their intelligence and deny them a soul. It is impossible to reverse this trend without raising questions about human attitudes and practices. We can see this process under way in the halting of biomedical research on chimpanzees and the opposition to the use of killer whales for entertainment.

Increased respect for animal intelligence also has consequences for cognitive science. For too long, we have left the human intellect dangling in empty evolutionary space.

How could our species arrive at planning, empathy, consciousness and so on if we are part of a natural world devoid of any and all stepping stones to such capacities? Wouldn't this be about as unlikely as us being the only primates with wings?

Evolution is a gradual process of descent with modification, whether we are talking about physical or mental traits. The more we play down animal intelligence, the more we ask science to believe in miracles when it comes to the human mind. Instead of insisting on our superiority in every regard, let's take pride in the connections...

We are endowed with the mental powers and imagination to get under the skin of other species. The more we succeed, the more we will realise that we are not the only intelligent life on earth.

NEW YORK TIMES

•Frans de Waal, a primatologist and professor of psychology at Emory University, is the author, most recently, of Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are? from which this essay is adapted.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 17, 2016, with the headline 'What I learnt from tickling apes'. Print Edition | Subscribe