Could a chimp design a car? -- Could you?
WORTH THINKING ABOUT: COULD A CHIMP DESIGN A CAR? -- COULD YOU?
Dale Peterson, an accomplished student of primate life, writes:
"The next time you go to the zoo and wander past cages containing chimpanzees, you might pause and look into the eye of a being who will indeed look back; and you should know that you (genetically almost 99 percent chimpanzee) are sharing a gaze with someone who is, according to the best measurement, almost 99 percent human. You are on one side of the bars, the chimps on the other side, simply because those apes lack a little more than 1 percent of the requisite genes to be treated like humans. And if you linger to gaze at gorillas in the same zoo, remember that they are sitting on the other side of the bars or the moat not because they have done anything wrong, but simply and solely because they happen to be missing just slightly more than 2 percent of the human genome.
"It remains a commonplace act of self-flattery for people to persist in emphasizing that great divide between the intellect of humans and the other apes. Why should we, the makers of such wondrous things as automobiles and computers and atomic bombs, be impressed by them, the makers of mere nutcrackers and termite dippers? We continue to mark not similarity but difference, as if the distinction between us and them is a matter of our own species' pride. Homo sapiens may possess some superficial similarities with Pan troglodytes, it has been declared again and again, but the mental divide between the two species remains uncrossable. 'I considered the differences between men and animals," so journalist Jeremy Gavon has recently expressed the idea. "Some were vast. A chimpanzee could be taught to drive a car. It could even be taught to build parts of it. But it could not begin to design it... Our intellect is incomparably more sophisticated than any animal.'
"True, a chimpanzee could not begin to design a car. But, come to think of it, neither could I. Nor could you or any other person working in intellectual isolation -- without the help of books, conversations, directions, documents, explanations, and traditions -- design a car. Or even a bicycle. Or a pair of shoes. Or a mousetrap. Apes work in intellectual isolation because they lack language. We have language, and therefore our creations and inventions and technologies become collective efforts and cultural products. With your brain alone, with my brain alone (minus language and a language-based tradition), we would consider ourselves very lucky indeed to think of cracking nuts between a stone hammer and a stone anvil. Our greatest human creation is not the tool but the word, not the technology that we so treasure and depend on but the language that has allowed us to talk about it. Language, not technology, is the most compelling artifact of the human intellect."