Travis The Chimp, Humanity versus Chimpanzity, Evolution, and Responsibility

Mar 19 2009 Published by under Creationism

Denyse O'Leary is nattering on over at Uncommon Descent - and several other places - about some sort of connection between "Darwinists" or perhaps "Darwinism" and the recent and tragic case where a pet chimpanzee attacked and mutilated one of the owner's neighbors. A large portion of the various posts seems to revolve around Denyse's love of the tautology "only people are people." The rest seems to consist of an attempt to find some way to blame the attack on the scientific community as a whole, or at least on "Darwinists."

Frankly, I'm having an even harder time understanding O'Leary than usual. And that takes some doing.

There is absolutely no doubt that Travis the Chimp's rampage last month was tragic. There's also no doubt that it was completely and utterly preventable. There were a few posts on the topic here at ScienceBlogs, but most of us didn't really dive into the story - probably because there really didn't seem to be a lot to say. Wild animals, including chimps, should not be kept as pets. Full stop. There certainly doesn't seem to be a heck of a lot more to say, particularly from a scientific standpoint. So why does O'Leary think that the scientific community need to speak up.

Apparently, she believes that somehow or another, the concept that we're closely related to chimps makes people think that chimps are more human-like, and therefore encourages the "chimp crazies" to keep chimps as pets:

You and I are descended from the same common ancestor as many serial killers, which should warn us that common descent is obviously a poor predictor of psychology and behaviour.

So the "chimp champs" have no business relying on arguments from the Tree of Life theory to bolster their case, whether the theory is true or false.

However, last I heard, Darwinian evolutionists were trying to get humans and chimps classified in the same genus.

Such a grossly irresponsible move would only give the chimp crazies a boost - about the last thing that is needed.

A responsible move on the part of biological science societies would be to make clear to the chimp crazies that chimps are not people, and living with people does not change them into people.

Viewing a chimp as a child does not make it one.

However, I fear crickets will be chirping Sweet Adeline before the societies do anything like that. They are fronting too much false knowledge about human origins to risk the obvious questions that would be asked.

Let me see if I can try to follow this.

OK. I tried. I can't. As far as I can tell, she's arguing that where chimps are placed on the "Tree of Life" is irrelevant to whether or not they should be kept as pets, and therefore any attempt to place humans and chimps in the same genus would be "grossly irresponsible" because it would make it easier for people to justify keeping them as pets.

By the way, what sort of mindset is required to think that "more human" = "more acceptable to keep as pet"?

O'Leary's referral to attempts to put humans and chimps in the same genus is really a red herring. I don't agree with those attempts, but if there's been a serious push to try to make that happen, I'm not aware of it. It's the kind of idea that makes the rounds now and again, but never really picks up much traction.

The classification of the chimps is entirely irrelevant, because classification is (or is at least supposed to be) a reflection of reality. There are some people who think that humans and chimps belong in the same genus because most of the differences between us and the chimps are relatively minor. If the differences weren't relatively minor, there wouldn't be a push.

As one of the commenters noted the last time I disagreed with the notion of sinking Pan into Homo, "there is no difference between ourselves and the other great apes that is not a question of degree rather than kind." I certainly don't disagree with that one little bit. Scientifically, I just don't think that's enough to justify merging Pan and Homo.

Regardless, the "chimp crazies", as O'Leary so delicately puts it, view chimps as being very similar to humans because chimps are, in fact, very similar to humans. What we call chimps isn't going to change that, and reminding people that the chimps aren't really people won't change that either. They're our closest living relatives, and they are very much like us. That's why they don't make great pets.

9 responses so far

  • afarensis, FCD says:

    Damn! Beat me to it. I've been trying to make some sense of O'Leary's post since about 6:30 this morning. I'm still at a loss as to her point...

  • You state that you think that there's any difference between humans and chimps that isn't just a matter of degree. I'm curious then what your attitude is about language ability. In particular, what do you think of Chomsky and others who have suggested that human language ability is fundamentally different from that of chimpanzees and the other non-human great apes?

  • Eamon Knight says:

    It seems to me that mostly we treat organisms (including other humans) as familiars according to their degree of social interaction, with phylogenetics being a distant abstraction. Thus, my cats are members of the family because they respond to me in ways I can relate to (but with differences and limitations I also understand). My koi, not so much: they're more like a particularly unusual garden flower that has to be fed. At a deep level, there are no doubt evolutionary reasons for this, ie. that cats and humans share a mammalian heritage, with the fish being outliers -- but that is not the immediate subjective *motivation* for my reactions.
    Of course, I also think that my cats are smarter than D'Oh!Leary ;-).

  • Paul Browne says:

    Eamon Knight "My koi, not so much: they're more like a particularly unusual garden flower that has to be fed."
    Would it help to think of them as pond-kittens?

  • cicely says:

    Her arguments make perfect sense....provided that she also advocates moving serial killers into another genus. You know, to emphasize that they're not like us.

  • cicely says:

    Oh...and that we should not try to keep serial killers in our homes as pets.
    But they're so adorable!

  • Paul says:

    I have to say I laughed at the phrase "Darwinian evolutionists", it conjures up images of fusty old professors somewhere bravely holding out against all that new-fangled gene theory, molecular biology and everything else that's been discovered (or rediscovered) since Darwin died.
    I suppose "evolutionaly biologists" just doesn't have the same ring to it as "Darwinian evolutionists".

  • T. Bruce McNeely says:

    This of course explains why some guys have pet boa constrictors.

  • Frasque says:

    Wouldn't moving Pan into genus Homo make keeping one . . . slavery?
    I dunno, there's nough crazy in this that'll it'll never make sense.