Our hirsute brothers and sisters

Norm sent me a link to an interesting article on his site that suggests we are more closely related to orangutans than we are to chimpanzees. I lack the expertise to judge the research but it certainly seems respectable and comprehensive work.

Image © Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel 2000

Image © Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel 2000

I hope they’re right, I really do. For one thing whenever I’ve had the chance to watch my fellow great apes I’ve always felt more kinship with orangutans than with chimps, bonobos or gorillas (or even humans, sometimes). Their largely peaceful, solitary, gentle existence would make such a good common ancestral model to aspire to. Chimps always seem a bit nasty to me. Some would say that this makes them a better mirror of humans but that’s only true for modern humans (and indeed modern chimps) – I don’t know that we were always this warlike.

Plus we might have a little more chance of saving the few orangutans who are left if we recognised them as our brothers and sisters. Chimps seem to have a little more time left (not much but a little).

I wouldn’t dare say this in public, obviously, because someone might write deeply affronted comments on my blog or something, but if you ask me the differences in appearance and behavior between many human races are barely any smaller than those between the most orangutan-like humans and the most human-like orangutans. Sure, orangutans can’t talk, but they can do pretty much everything else – row boats, wash clothes, solve problems… They ought to be included in the human race, I reckon (along with the other hominids too). It would certainly challenge us to think more clearly about a lot of things if we expanded the definition of “us” rather more widely. After all, Australian Aborigines were not legally regarded as human beings by whites until 1967. Us and Them is such a basic categorization, something we are all guilty of making all the time: My friends versus my enemies, my family versus the rest of the village, Christians versus Muslims, Catholics versus Protestants. If you ask me (and I realise you didn’t, but this is my blog versus your blog) the more inclusive we make the category of “us”, the less meaningful the category of “them” becomes, and this is a good thing.

The evolutionary tree does not end in big lumps, within which all pigs are the same, all humans are the same, etc. It ends in trillions of individual leaves – every single living thing is unique and more or less distantly related to every other living thing. The notion of species certainly makes sense – there are reasons why some creatures can’t breed with others, and that means that creatures who can interbreed end up being more similar to each other and more different from those with which they can no longer share genes. This is also true to a lesser extent when geography or culture separate people – Irishmen end up looking more like other Irishmen than they do Russians, because they share genes more often. But so what? It’s still true that we are all different and all the same. Hedgehogs, jellyfish, azalias and E.coli are all “us”.

There are certainly places we need to draw lines, but there is no single line that works for all questions, so we need to get into the habit of turning our instinctive black and white categories into more subtle shades. For example we need to draw a line (perhaps a very fuzzy one) between things that are conscious and therefore have moral rights and things that aren’t and don’t. We don’t actually have a clue where to draw that line yet, but few of us are even asking the question. It almost certainly doesn’t fall between Homo sapiens and all other living things, as religion-reinforced intuition and arrogance would have us believe. Sometimes we also fail to differentiate between finding where to draw a line and choosing where to draw it.

Anyway, I realise this little rant would apply equally well if chimpanzees really are our closest cousins, but I just wanted to raise a cheer for orangutans. After all I was (until I went grey) a redhead just like them, so that makes me and the orangs into “Us” and all you dark-haired gorilla offspring can go hang…

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About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

9 Responses to Our hirsute brothers and sisters

  1. Alon says:

    Cool, another post. 🙂

    Yeah, I read that MLU article earlier today and it really caught my eye. I remember that I immediately started Googling images of orangutans so I could stare at their expressions, and then I quickly compared “them” to chimpanzee photos. I don’t know, I probably would never have come to this conclusion before reading that research today (I’m such a human), but orangutans truly seem more expression(ful?) than chimps do. Even then, a male orangutan has those distinct cheek flaps don’t they? For some reason the sexual/social selections that took place to make that happen strike me as uncannily human. I dunno, call me crazy… Anyway.

    I very much enjoyed reading what you wrote here, and I have no disagreements. This may sound stupid, but sometimes I think this blog is just quoting some other famous person like Dawkins or Dennett, and then I remember that “this is Steve Grand’s blog! So of course his writing will be extremely interesting.”
    (And no, this isn’t just an attempt at flattery; I’ve taken ‘Evolution vs Creationism’ and ‘History of Life and Earth’ in college, and what you say is truly amazing with all its social implications.)

    And lol at the ending, totally cracked me up. Dammit, I’m a gorilla offspring. xD

    • stevegrand says:

      Hey Alon,

      I’m all for a bit of flattery – thanks! I was at one of Dan Dennet’s talks once and went up to say hello afterwards and he introduced me to someone as “the only person he knows who deserves to be called a god”! Pretty cool, huh? 🙂

      There’s really an evolution versus creationism college course? Great! Where? How did it go?

      • Alon says:

        OMG (Oh My Grand), that sounds like one of the best experiences ever! *Is Jealous*

        Yeah, at the University of S. Florida I was lucky enough to take a class completely devoted to the debate between Evolution and Creationism+Intelligent Design. We got to read a ton of essays from both sides going at each other, and then debated each one of them in class. Half of the class was religious, the other half wasn’t. Lots of fun. The experience truly solidified my love for evolution.

        This was one of the books we read full of essays, Dawkins included: http://books.google.com/books?id=CIFM67GkCyMC

      • stevegrand says:

        Wow. I bet that was fun, and good for the brain, too. I contributed to a book recently (refence below, but you ain’t gonna buy it because it’s $58!) where we had to discuss the subject with some noted proponents of ID and it was HARD! Not because they have a good case – their case is complete crap – but because they can be very clever at using dirty tricks. I found they would get me on the run trying to defend some small technical point about evolution, while their own utter gibberish was left unchallenged. And they deployed every logical fallacy in the book. Why someone would do that is a mystery – they must have known they were breaking the rules of logic in order to be that clever at it. I don’t think I did a very good job, although I managed to convince one of them to change his mind about something, at least. I hope you fared better than me!

        Seckbach, J. & Gordon, R. (eds.) (2008). Divine Action and Natural Selection: Science, Faith and Evolution, Singapore: World Scientific. [published in hardback, paperback and eBook formats: 1069p., US$58, http://www.worldscibooks.com/lifesci/6998.html%5D

  2. Graham Glass says:

    Hi Steve,

    I think the main reason that people don’t like to think of animals like the Orangutan as being almost human is that then they’d have to face the reality that humans are mortal and not God-sent spirits. Unfortunately this scares most people. Personally, I’m proud to be related to all the other animals!

    Cheers,
    Graham

    • stevegrand says:

      Hi Graham!

      Yes, I’m sure you’re right. It blows my mind that anyone could fail to see that we are animals too, and very, very closely related indeed to the other hominids. I mean the evidence just stares them in the face. And yet an awful lot of people refuse to believe it and prefer to believe some nonsense about animals being created for the benefit of humans.

      And even anthropologists can be bigotedly (?)reluctant to accept that other primates are conscious in almost exactly the way we are. I was corresponding with one of the people who run OFI (the orangutan charity I linked to in the post) once and he sent me his Phd thesis, on teaching orangs sign language (if I remember right; I think he was the first person to do it), and the circumlocutions and qualifications he had to put into almost every sentence to protect himself really shocked me.

  3. Lisa says:

    I too have always thought that orangutans had more in common with us humans than chimpanzees, bonobos, or apes. My main reason for thinking so is due to the way orangutans use their hands, think, solve problems, and, most importantly, their behavior. Whenever I have had a chance to observe a baby orangutan’s behavior, I find much of it mirrors that of human babies—with a bit more intelligence (due to the necessity of survival when compared to that of his human siblings.)

    I understand that many would accuse me of anthropomorphizing their clever antics with humans, but I’ve always disliked that description because it assigns superiority to the human species with no regard towards other species. I feel it is really just an excuse to justify the exploitation of animals for food, experimentation, and to adorn humans with their furs and skins—without having to experience the feelings of guilt. Some go so far as to think that animals are incapable of feeling pain… or, that because they don’t exhibit God-worshipping behavior, they are nothing more than beasts provided for our use, thus inferior to man by default.

    Although I love all of the great apes, I have a particular fondness for the orangutan, probably because they seem so light-hearted and far less serious than the other primates. Honestly, whenever I see these wonderful creatures in action, they truly look as if they enjoy themselves. Plus, they are mischievous enough in ways to be considered almost scary-intelligent!

    It really tickles me to think that now there is some evidence that these beautiful and comical creatures might very well be the apes most closely related to us. In fact, I’m quite stoked about the idea!

    • stevegrand says:

      Hi Lis! Nice to see you here!

      Thanks for that. I agree with everything you say. I like your point about orang babies being smarter than human babies, too. We seem to have evolved “brakes” on our development to suppress our instinctive tendency to be able to walk, etc. almost from birth, untll we can learn it a different but more powerful way. Put a newborn baby on its feet and it will make walking movements, but these soon disappear and it becomes helpless. A foal can walk extremely quickly after it is born but a human takes a whole year to get the hang of it. But then when we do finally figure it out we can run, crawl, slither, skip, hop, moonwalk and dance! I wonder if there’s any evidence that this kind of suppression happens in other great apes? Orangs are staggeringly adept at travelling from tree to tree – I wonder how much of that has to be learned and discovered, and how much is instinctive.

  4. Jeff C says:

    Hi Steve,

    Not that it’s relevant to your blog or anything (grin) but can you drop me a note so I can get your eMail address? I’d like to send you an invitation for comments on a piece I’m writing on Cognitive Systems.

    Thanks!
    — Jeff
    home.earthlink.net/~jdc24/

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