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Of Primates and Persons

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Coltan Scrivner for the month of January. Coltan will be writing a series of posts on personhood from different disciplinary perspectives.

When I moved to Chicago for graduate school, one of the first things I did was go to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Just like with other zoos I’ve been to, I was most eager to visit the Great Ape exhibit. As always, after sitting and watching the chimpanzees for some time, I inevitably start to feel a bit guilty. There’s something about the chimps, with their eerily human-like behavior, that makes it feel wrong to be watching them in an enclosure.

You can get at the familiarity from a biological perspective by rattling off scientific facts like “they share 99% of our protein-coding genes,” or “our lineages split just 5-7 million years ago.” As a biological anthropologist, I am prone to do so. These things are often invoked to shed light on similarities between Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes. Between species. Yet, even to someone who knows nothing of biology, there is still something about chimpanzees that rings familiar. Something about the way they behave, about the way they interact with other chimpanzees and their environment. You don’t need the biology or the genetics to begin to wonder if perhaps they should be considered as something more than animal. It’s clear they aren’t humans, but could they be individuals? Can a chimpanzee possess an understanding of a self, be a someone as opposed to a something; can they be “persons?”

When the concept of a person is brought up, many seem to begin by comparing the “other” to humans, using our species as a measuring stick. We take for granted that our species exemplifies what it is to be a person, to be an agent in the world. This leads many of us to assume that personhood is somehow intrinsically tied to human beings. It’s “a part of our DNA,” so to speak, to be a person. Thus, any other creature or entity that might be considered to be a “person” is measured against abilities that exist in Homo sapiens. This often tosses the question to scientists to figure out if the “other” is enough like us to be a person. When considering chimps and other apes, this has been the charge of cognitive and comparative psychologists.

For quite some time now, chimps and other primates have been subject to a battery of cognitive tests aimed at assessing theory of mind. One of the first major studies in this area was Gallup’s “mirror test.” In essence, an animal is sedated and a mark is placed on their forehead, where it could not be seen by any normal method. The animal awakens in front of a mirror with no knowledge of the dot. If they begin to use the mirror to inspect themselves, in particular the dot, it suggests that the animal has some idea that the thing in the mirror is not just “that animal,” but is “me.” Thus, they would possess, at minimum, a sense of bodily awareness. The study has been replicated numerous times with various animals, but consistent passing has largely been restricted to adult species of Great Apes. Moreover, humans don’t start passing the test until around 18 months of age.

One of last cognitive bastions separating humans from other primates was the inability to show that other primates understand false beliefs. This might seem like an odd barrier, but understanding false beliefs, or the intentions of others, is an important and potentially testable component of understanding the mind of others. However, a recent study published in Science has purportedly demonstrated that chimps – as well as orangutans and bonobos – can in fact understand the false beliefs of others. Through the use of eye tracking software, all three primates were shown to anticipate another ape’s (okay, really a human dressed as an ape) false belief by looking where the misinformed ape would look before they did, even though the observing primates knew the object wasn’t in that location. If replicated and demonstrated to be a reliable finding, there will indeed be little in terms of testable self-consciousness that we possess that at least some apes do not.

Still, with chimpanzees passing a battery of cognitive tests over the years, many people, including some scientists, would not consider them a person. But where does the jump from a “highly intelligent animal” to a “person” happen? It seems the science is being backed into an increasingly small corner. As we get better at testing cognitive concepts that were once thought to be solely human, we are finding that other animals are more similar to us in more ways than we had previously imagined. We are coming to a point where cognitive tests won’t tell us much new information about basic cognitive processes. Sure, specifics will be discovered and outlined, and will no doubt lead to some interesting conclusions. But as it pertains to personhood, it’s doubtful that we will get many more perspective-changing findings.

Comparison to human persons is perhaps not the best way to approach the question of personhood. It’s important, but it isn’t sufficient. Conditions for personhood need to be taken from the perspective of the organism in question. Sociocultural anthropologists are pretty much already trained to do something like this. In the same way that we employ the concept of cultural relativism to study human cultures, we should be taking chimpanzees and other apes on their own terms. The sciences have shown us that chimpanzees possess highly developed cognitive and emotional abilities and complex social structures. It’s time primatologists and psychologists invite sociocultural anthropologists – and sociocultural anthropologists accept the invitation – to the table to work together to understand what it means for something other than a human, such as a chimp, to be a person. The person only exists in the context of the social, so there needs to be discussion with experts on the social.

If chimps or other apes are to gain personhood, it likely won’t be due to anything extra that they can do that we haven’t already seen. Personhood for chimps will finally be realized not through more cognitive tests or changes in evolutionary timelines, but through a reimagining of what it really means to be a person. These are questions that sciences such as biology and psychology can contribute to, but not answer alone. Indeed, thinking about what it means to be a person will see the most progress from dialogue between more humanistic disciplines, such as philosophy and sociocultural anthropology, and the life sciences. The life sciences do the important job of creating and carrying out the tests for the questions, but the experiments are only as insightful as the questions that are being asked. It seems that other disciplines may have a lot to contribute in the form of questions. Throughout the next three posts, I hope to provoke thoughts and discussion on what is means to be a person from a few different disciplines. The question not only has implications for how we perceive ourselves and other beings with whom we co-occupy the Earth, but also has legal implications in fields such as primatology, medicine, and artificial intelligence. These legal implications are already being played out in primatology and medicine, and will soon be the center of discussion around artificial intelligence.

Coltan Scrivner

I am currently a Ph.D. student in the Comparative Human Development department at the University of Chicago. I'm interested in the evolution of human social behavior and biocultural approaches to studying human evolution. I'm also interested in public understanding of science.