I have been pondering an article I read recently that was published a little over a year ago that had the provocative title of “Chimpanzees and monkeys have entered the Stone Age.” The implication was that this is a recent accomplishment. Reading the article, though, showed that chimpanzees in Cote d’Ivoire have been using stone tools for thousands of years. This isn’t something new. Macaques in Thailand can be proven to have used them for 50 years, which I will concede qualifies as a new accomplishment if that is as far back as it goes, which I highly doubt. Capuchins in Brazil can be documented back 700 years, which is pushing it in my mind as far as the recent evolutionary progress that I was expecting.
It seems that there is disagreement in the scientific world about the importance of this discovery. Some want to believe that other primates will follow our example and increase their intelligence and eventually come to be our intellectual equals. Others scoff and say that just because two paths take a similar turn does not mean that they will arrive at the same destination. I did not delve deeply to determine the scientific credentials of these authors, but I did not give much weight to the Daily Mail, or to the Metro.co.uk, who suggested I might want to also read about the man who will be undergoing the world’s first head transplant.
I have been wondering about what would happen if, indeed, chimps, bonobos, etc. do follow our exact same evolutionary path. How would we react? I remembered that modern human was not the only human species to evolve to the stone age in the past. Although there are several theories about the demise of the Neanderthal, the fact is that they are now extinct, leaving us peerless as a species.
I look at the world around us and wonder, if some other species made a half-million year evolutionary leap overnight, how would we welcome them? Would we embrace them as our brothers? Or would our xenophobia run amok and lead to genocide? I think history is probably more in favor of the latter. Another intelligent species would threaten our identity.
I used to play a table-top RPG called Shadowrun, which takes place in the near future (when it was published, 2011 was still the future). After an event called “The Awakening”, which ushered magic and magical beings back into our world, there were multiple races of intelligent beings. Humans gave birth to Elves, dwarves, trolls, and orcs, who joined us in the world. This was not a peaceful event, and there was plenty of upheaval in society. A line from the story describing the history in the book has long stuck with me. It was referring to racism and said something along the lines of, “Who cares what color skin the human next to you has when the guy across the street has tusks?”
Racism as history of speciesism
I wish that we could be that thoughtful. Discrimination today is justified by the smallest of differences. One of my daughters has been mocked and called names simply for having a short haircut (not of her own choosing, even). And we certainly don’t limit the bases of our discrimination to appearances only. If we could progress to the point where our society can make the quoted statement, I think that would be great progress indeed.
We are still stuck in the idea that not all humans are actually humans. Racism is still so rampant that people spew ignorance like this: “In fact, the Brazilian monkeys have been using stone tools to crack open cashew nuts for 700 years. The monkeys’ tool use predates humans arriving in the New World, Oxford University researchers say.” (Source) Yes, that just said that Mayans were not human.
This whole thing might be moot if we don’t save our own species from extinction before the bonobos and macaques take over as supreme intelligent beings on Earth. I guess this is really just a thought experiment on our interpersonal and interspecies relationships. I would love to see us move forward in a way that allows us to embrace them in a half million years or so when and if they become our equals. Certainly, I won’t be around then, at least not in this consciousness, and we have a lot of our own social and emotional evolution to do first, but maybe it can happen. Perhaps by then we will also discover that we are not the only intelligent species in the universe. Maybe the latter will precipitate the former. Who knows?