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June 1st, 2008
Program Two: So Human, So Chimp
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photo © Larry Engel, 2008

Premieres January 13, 2010 at 8pm (check local listings)

We are separated from our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees, by only one or two percent of our genes – but also by some 6 million years of going our different evolutionary ways. So when we meet the eyes of a chimp we are reminded uncannily – and perhaps a little uneasily – of ourselves. But we are also aware that behind those eyes is a mind very different from our own. Alan Alda sets out to explore that difference, and quickly finds that the scientists studying chimps and other non-human primates are themselves separated into opposing worldviews. One camp emphasizes the continuity between us – seeing everything we believe to be uniquely human present in at least a rudimentary form in our ape and even monkey cousins. The other camp sees a sharp discontinuity in our abilities, admiring chimps for their superb adaptation to their (rapidly disappearing) forest environment, but also granting to human minds a special status that has enabled us to conquer the planet (and cause those forests to disappear).

In visiting with chimps and those who study them, Alan challenges the arguments of both sides in the debate. Yes, chimps exhibit empathy for others in their group; is that the same empathy humans show for victims of a far off natural disaster? Chimps have cultural practices they pass on within their social group; are those cultures the same as the cultures that can separate humans into “us” and “them?” Chimps can easily tell the difference between heavy and light, but do they have a concept of heavy and light? Chimps use tools, and can be taught that symbols represent objects; does that mean they have technology and language? Chimps can cooperate on tasks that reward them with food. Is that the same cooperation humans employ to build a skyscraper or rescue the victims of an earthquake or even agree to take a walk together? Chimps and monkeys both seem able to judge the intentions of others. Does that mean they wonder, and worry, about who is saying what about whom, and why? And what about that one or two percent change in our DNA? Do those figures mask not a tiny difference but an evolutionary chasm?

In short, how much of the Human Spark flared only since we evolved away from our non-human primate cousins, and how much was already there at the parting of the ways?

  • Joe Girard

    You can find most things that are considerd human in the apes – except one, and I never seem to find it mentioned in these articles. Care to make a guess?

  • Mark L. Ferguson

    Apes don’t ‘save’ anything. They use tools, but do not keep them. Agriculture is not the only way to prepare for the future, and apes don’t do those things. Maintaing a fire is far different from warming yourself at one.

  • Carla Benejam

    Joe, I’m thinking that you are thinking that apes don’t shed tears of sadness nor of joy. Plus, that little spot in my brain that is enjoying thinking about what you will be thinking about when you read this is pretty special, too.

  • mike shaw

    Compare humans and other species is interesting, but doesn’t really matter. I bicycle is not the same as a car … so what?
    Other species should be measured/appreciated for their unique abilities and traits.

  • Anthony Casabianca

    Important to note:
    Humans didn’t evolve FROM apes. We share a common ancestor, and so we evolved WITH apes.

    Confusing the two has led to many people rejecting evolution stating that “I am not an ape,” which is true, but irrelevant considering all the details. oh ignorance :D

  • Jean SmilingCoyote

    I disagree with the claim that wolves don’t understand pointing. I’ve heard elsewhere that everything dogs do for us, esp. the working & sporting breeds, is an elaboration of natural wolf behavior. I believe wolves do point just like the pointer dog breeds do; but like them they point with their whole bodies. I wouldn’t put it past them that a smart human could train a captive wolf to understand the human finger point. But you know humans hunting together also point just like pointer dogs do, for the same reason. And I really wish I hadn’t heard anyone utter the mispronunciation “orangutang.”

  • steve e.

    It’s arrogant of humans to say the least to think we’re that much smarter than chimps. The truly creative human being is a one in a thousand anomaly. The vast majority of humans are nothing more than talking chimps.

  • Armand

    Some of the topics covered in this episode were touched on the NOVA episode “Ape Genius.”


    Check it out, its a great episode.

  • Mr. Michael Shane Becker

    Anthony Casabianca, WHy oh Why can’t the average person GRASP that IDEA. Because mostly mwe were raised on religious DOGMA, of whatever your culture dictated. Finally the MAPPING of the PRIMATE, and by extension HUMAN genome project. I do not know when the FUNDAMENTALIST dogma, will part way. I suppose as primates are creatures of habit, it may take a GREAT amount of TIME. – Shane

  • jack Goldman

    Chimps still believe the Earth is flat, sun circles Earth, Earth is center of Universe, and God is a chimp who created chimps in his image. Humans have let go of three of these misconceptions. We are still working on letting go of the misconception that humans are a superior life form. We are infants for twenty years, work for forty years, and retire to die. What’s smart about that? Chimps don’t go to work, pay taxes, or go into debt for toys. Who’s the smarter creature?

  • Raquel

    Chimps do not “believe”, as you say, Jack. They do not have convictions. They do not have the ability to reason about the unobservable, they cannot conceive that level of abstraction. And “smarter” is again, an abstraction. Though I will agree–that is, if the natural world wasn’t so adulterated by the actions of humans–to live more by instinct inclined to survival is surely more preferable to me than to sustain a life riddled with obligations & other undesirable constructs of the sort. What other species display behavioral & other psychiatric disorder like those that plague humans? None. There must be a reason. Also, we are the only species that has all matricide, filicide, fratricide, sorocide, patricide, suicide, genocide, gynocide, etc. How superior are humans? Well…that all depends on how one defines ‘superior’.

  • Mitur Binesderti

    Watching this episode I noticed a huge problem with the dog pointing experiment. Looking at the second run the experimenter pulls the collar to the side where the treat is.

    I also wish they had gone to show how cooperative bonobos are. They will open a door to allow a fellow bonobo in to a room with food where a chimp would never do that. I feel they really missed out by spending all the time with chimps instead of bonobos.

  • Rana

    I am not sure if anyone noticed but in the dog experiment where Alan points to hidden objects and the dog goes to it looked like in both instances the dog handler “pushed” or “prodded” the dog in a particular direction. It is very subtle…I do believe the experiment works and dogs have this ability but I am not sure if the dog handler is doing justice to the experiment. Please see it carefully and you will notice it too…the slight push to the left by the finger of the handler and then a slight pull to the right on the dog chain and the dog goes right. The best way would be to blindfold the dog handler to make her “irrelevant” to the outcome of the experiment….

  • Rana

    Whoops …looks like some one else pointed it out before me…got my answer….

  • Maryam

    I was watching Chimps vs. Children last night where they pointed out that chimps don’t follow your finger when you point at something (as opposed to children and dogs). They should try pointing with their chin and using more facial and body movement if they want a reaction from the chimps.

  • John

    Another possible flaw in the dog-pointing experiment is not taking into account the canine sense of smell. The experiment does not rule out the dogs’ ability to smell the food. “Dogs can discriminate odors at concentrations nearly 100 million times lower than humans can” (Wikipedia).

  • Mr.Michael Shane Becker

    I stand as a prime example of a VICTIM of a GENETIC descendent of inFAMOUSLY EVIL Marquee De Sade, Maiden Name: Ms.Rhonda Lynn Marquardt, her SADIST way of telling me she was now: Mrs.Rhonda Lynn Werkmeister of Bolingbrook IL, was NOT to WEAR a WEDDING RING, nor to even TELL ME, but to seek to be the cause of my IMPOTENCE. She has PROVEN to me BEYOND any doubt, MADMAN Adolph Hitler’s Aryan, or “Noble” brotherhoods precept. If she if NOT a direct GENETIC DESCENDENT of Marquee De Sade, then she is simply a TRUE SADIST. I’ll heal, given TIME, but am NO LONGER a FOOLISH Cretin, of Christian. EVERYTHING need STOP until I can function as a MAN again, well at least I can provide copious, or ALOT of ORAL SEX to women whilst I heal. Now SouthWest from Lockport IL. 1 (815) 685-0431

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