The Wisdom of Darwin and Apes


Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Feb 12 will be the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

November 24 will be the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species–a book that changed the world forever.

Throughout the year there are going to be all kinds of special events, celebrations, lectures, books and movies that celebrate the work of this extraordinary man.

I’ll be writing more about Darwin as the year progresses, but today, I wanted to share a quote, a video and a question for your consideration.

The quote is an oft-repeated one and comes from the end of chapter 2 in Darwin’s treatise, The Descent of Man.

…the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind …. the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or ever sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.

The video below is a fascinating example of what Darwin was talking about. It comes from the TED Talks series and features Susan Savage-Rumbaugh and her work with bonobo apes. In this talk, she demonstrates that bonobos can understand spoken language and learn tasks by watching. Her work forces us  to rethink how much of what a species can do is determined by biology — and how much by cultural exposure.

Darwin "Doolittle"

Darwin "Doolittle"

So, here’s my question: “If the difference between other animals and humans is one of degree, not kind, on what basis do we say that all humans have the right not to be treated as the property of others, but other animals do not?

I’d be curious to see what you think.



Filed under Athesim

4 responses to “The Wisdom of Darwin and Apes

  1. FC

    Hi Scott,
    Just a brief comment. I am happy to read a text on your blog on another subject than Jesus. I know this time of the year is special (isn’t today “Kings’ day”?). Still I was a bit getting sick of the J stuff to be honest.

    That said, keep writing very interesting stuff!

  2. So if the bonobo ape learns all sorts of cultural nonsense from us, does that mean that the bonobo ape will eventually develop a religious creed that renders us divine and requires it to kneel and worship our likeness? There is an implicit suggestion of divine intervention as the source of our cultural “instincts” which then engages us in an infinite regress problem. (We bestow our bounty on the bonobo, god bestows on us, who bestows on god?) Found it interesting in the video that as Nyoti gives a haircut to her infant, the background music is from Stainer’s Crucifiction. Is there a subliminal theistic message at work here?

  3. deb

    That’s funny, ’cause i didn’t pick up on any implicit suggestion of divine intervention as the source of our cultural ‘instincts’! In fact, what *i* took from that was the opposite – i.e. that bonobos show such similarity to our ancestors — it struck me that it was like looking at another group of beings that could just as easily become “just like us” given more time, and what we do to them is like doing to ourselves, or our great-great-great (add a few thousand more) grandparents. 😉

    Actually, given the context, i was surprised to see the extent to which they keep the bonobos confined. THAT was what i found disturbing – that there was an implicit bias against them, that the scientists in this clip obviously still view these bonobos as property e.g. feeling they have the right to keep them indoors (when she was communicating that she wanted to be outside), to keep them on leashes etc.

    I am also skeptical as to the extent to which they are REALLY trying to learn the bonobo culture…it seems like it’s more of an experiment.

    In any case, i think one value of the video is that it points people to the similarity among the species, and perhaps stimulates people to begin to think of ourselves not as ‘THE MAIN SPECIES’ but rather, one of a huge number of species, all having evolved to this point in history, all equal.

    One more comment to follow…

  4. Jim

    I think your question presupposes that being “a possession” is a bad thing.

    For us humans it is. For my domesticated cat, however, the thought of her suddenly being wild and free would terrify her.

    But in general I agree with what you’re saying. I think animal rights (and even vegetable rights) is going to be, in the long long run, one of the final moral challenges for humans. We have to get there in baby steps though. On the whole, we won’t be morally outraged by a lion in a cage while we’re too busy being morally outraged by how we treat our own species.

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