Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Event report: Prof Volker Sommer - 'Apes Like Us: Confessions of a Primatologist'

Time: 2 February 2012, 19:00 - 21:00
Place: Gavin de Beer LT, Anatomy Building, University College London

UCLU ASHS welcomed Volker Sommer, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at UCL, to give us a talk on our tendency to distinguish ourselves from animals, and what he believes is the true relationship between human beings and non-human primates. His research revolves around the behavioural ecology of apes in the wild, much of which is covered in his upcoming book, Apes Like Us. 

Prof Sommer began his talk outlining the deep-rooted folk view of defining a dichotomy between humans and animals. As we like to construct our knowledge of the world using heuristics, or rules of thumb, we like to perceive the world in dichotomous terms, i.e. black vs. white, human vs. animal, and enlightened vs. primitive. This is echoed in the Cartesian dual-mind hypothesis, namely that body and soul, or matter and mind, are separate entities. This separation of ourselves from animals started falling apart, however, with Darwinian theory and a paradigm shift towards the notion of human and other animals having a shared common history. Thus, 'longitudinally', Prof Sommer explained, 'dichotomy disappeared.'

What followed was the view of naturalism, which posited that not only are other animals mechanistic or machine-like governed by nothing but natural laws, but that humans are merely machines as well. Humans are the result of nature and evolution - like other things including plants and bacteria, 'we also consist of stuff'.

Hence, we should advocate the view of materialism and monism, rather than dualism. Nevertheless, there is a human tendency to want dualism: Prof Sommer refer to the German word Sonderstellung, i.e. 'special place', as a way to describe our desire to be unique and establish that there are qualitative differences between humans and other animals. With the sentiment of 'of course evolution took place, but humans are very, very special!', people increasingly substitute the lack of body-soul dualism by reinventing a divide between humans and animals. This concept of Essentialism, i.e. that humanity is essentially something different and special, Prof Sommer argued, is even shared by 'enlightened people who want to feel connected to the cabbages and the chimpanzees and the cockroaches and so on.' This is further reflected in Humanism, in which humans are perceived have individual value and inherent human rights, setting us apart from animals.

Prof Sommer then went on to advance his own view, Gradualism, which is the paradigm of contemporary evolutionary anthropology. The gradualist view is that we are all unique, both humans and other animals, yet there is a similarity in hardware between the two that you cannot discuss away with Essentialism. He argued for this view by providing several examples of studies with apes and monkeys, both in the wild and with domesticated animals. Chimpanzees in the wild intentionally make brush ends of sticks from trees in order to create a spoon-like tool to get honey out of nests of bees. They are also able to use tools in succession, e.g. using a large stick to try and find a spot where they can insert a smaller stick in tree trunks and on the ground to look for termites.

Prof Sommer also showed several videos of non-human primates displaying tool use, intent, and high cognitive abilities.

Prof Sommer's take home points were that, in nature, there is gradualism, and thus we should be against the notion of specism in the same manner we are against sexism and racism. He advocates an enlargement of the community of equals and that great apes should be entitled to legal rights under legal bodies, similarly to humans. 

Following a Q&A session covering topics such as social constructivism and whether non-human primates can exhibit suicidal tendencies, Prof Sommer joined us at the Bentham for further enlightening discussions.

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