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I wonder how much of the alleged "superiority" of the chimps is actually just a learned response to the environment.

I am struck by the cited observation that ". . . wild chimps make use of about 200 plant species out of 600 in the forest. They can discriminate - they have a botanist's memory for these plants, their seasons, locations and their uses." Clearly, a human hunter gatherer would learn and discriminate between even more species. Just as an eskimo might know many ways to describe snow or a car enthusiast might be able to rattle off hundreds of years and makes and recognize them all, the mind of higher primates is a highly adaptable thing. Distinguishing between 200 edible plant species is no more difficult than distinguishing between 200 brands at the grocery store, and yes, both chimps and humans are capable of that.

I would hypothesize that under the right test conditions, whatever x number of items in a category that chimps can distinguish, humans are capable of a higher number. Even if that isn't true, it is absurd to hold out that distinguishing 200 edible species from 600 is a remarkable achievement. When the stakes are life and death, it's no surprise the chimp brain can achieve at a level that allows it to survive and propagate.

The "200 species" point is not meant to be another example where chimps outperform humans (unlike the particular short-term memory tests Matsuzawa identifies where we can give humans and chimps identical or very similar test conditions). It is merely an additional factoid about chimp cognitive abilities and perhaps my short summary of the article contributed to the confusion.

Whether or not you think chimp recognition of 200 plant species is a "remarkable achievement" probably just depends on your baseline expectations of their abilities.

I skimmed your "note" (40 pages is a long note!) at the Law Review and was really impressed. I'm glad that these questions are being considered at the legal level.

Most of the research I read is no longer on great apes. The preferred research animal now seems to be rhesus macaques, though I suppose that could just be a result of my own idiosyncratic exposure to lots of macaque research. But I was under the impression that this is part of an intentional trend away from the use of great apes in biomed and neuroscience research.

Of course, I would imagine that interacting with rhesus macaques is also eerily reminscent of human interaction. How far away from humans is far enough? Should we be content with mere genetic distance, or should there be more cognitive benchmarks? Fascinating questions.


Thank you for your kind words on my note. Yes, I agree that most research does not involve great apes, and I'm sure there are a variety of reasons for it (e.g., costs, endangered species protections, animal rights issues, etc.). I focused on great ape issues not because the practical issues raised are the most pressing but because the ethical issues raised are the most dramatic.

Here's a recent interview with Jane Goodall in the New York Times about primate research:
(You'll have to catch it though before it expires.)

Thanks again for your comment.

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