Orangutans affect me the most. They are smarter than chimpanzees. They learn and adapt more quickly, they make extensive use of tools. Their faces are so intelligent. Once, at a zoo, I spent several minutes staring in what I hoped was a non-threatening way at a large male having a rest against the cool Plexiglas window on the second level of the orangutan area. He had a burlap sack over his head to shade himself. In the jungle, orangutans use banana leaves; here, the zoo provided sacks, which were in demand on this hot day. He and I watched each other for a while. He raised his eyebrows when I moved closer. I raised mine back. He scratched his armpit, mine started to itch. He yawned, I yawned. I tried not to anthropomorphize (it’s difficult with animals that look so human) but he seemed curious, then bored, and then he went to sleep.
I watched him over a small distance, maybe two to three feet, a distance that seemed as small as the physiological distance between the two of us. Just a pinch of DNA here and there, maybe a couple rearrangements of sequences, and I am a human and he is an orangutan. But the truer measure of distance yields a vast gap. It’s that thing that no one understands well but we call “consciousness.” Philosophers, biologists, physicists, and computer scientists have all tried to define it; all the definitions differ. But nearly all of the thinkers I’ve read on this topic agree that humans have it and other animals do not.
A chimpanzee can recognize itself in a mirror; so can orangutans and, I believe, gorillas. This is a species of consciousness. Dogs, cats and birds, for example, react to their reflections as if seeing second animal. Most animals can learn, be conditioned with food rewards or punishments. Chimpanzees have rudimentary reasoning and planning skills. Many animals have emotions (although they do not, to our knowledge, understand them as such), many animals have complex social structures. Chimpanzees in particular have fascinating interlocking social hierarchies, and behaviors that look a lot like politics (right down to the baby-kissing, on occasion). Nearly all of what is present in humans is also present in our closest relatives.
Descartes believed it was language that set human beings apart from other animals, which I would call the ability to represent the world in symbols and manipulate it accordingly. I tend to agree. While all animal species communicate, none seem to be able to master to any significant degree, the ability to understand the relationship between a set of symbols and the world. As a result, none but humans can use those symbols to create things that did not exist but are brought into existence as a result of this symbolic understanding. Or, the idea to build a wheel likely preceded the wheel.
Then again, the human brain is itself a mystery. I read a book by a cognitive psychologist called Julian Jaynes, with the irresistible title The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes’ theory is roughly that consciousness evolved in human beings many thousands of years after the species evolved. Up until about 3000 years ago, we just heard voices and did as we were told, because the two hemispheres of our brains were not yet fully connected.
It’s not that far-fetched. Ancestor worship is probably the earliest form of religion in human beings. What better way to understand death than to attribute the voice in one’s head to the recently deceased relative or leader? Dead mothers and fathers eventually became gods and goddesses, ordering us to act in certain ways from the left hemisphere (language, ordering of stimuli and planning) and understood and obeyed as a familiar voice in the right brain (intuition, emotion, creativity). Also, if we believe, per Papa Darwin, nature does not make leaps, it makes more intuitive sense that consciousness evolved separately in humans after the speciation event, rather than bam! Humans! Consciousness!
Jaynes was never taken very seriously by his colleagues. This inclines me to him. Also, he describes several split-brain studies and studies done with people who suffered various types of brain damage that suggest there is something to his theory. As a last resort for severe epileptics, a neurosurgeon may sever the corpus callosum (the neuronal tissue that connects the two hemispheres of the brain) to prevent the electrical storm from spreading. These patients can generally communicate and act normally, but when certain perceptual and cognitive functioning is tested, the results are seriously bizarre. When asked to both identify and point to a picture of an apple, a patient told the experimenter she could not see an apple, even as her left hand was reaching towards the picture.
Other studies Jaynes cites involve brain damaged patients hearing voices, having visual hallucinations (very, very rare without the aid of psychotropic drugs) and various and sundry other—forgive me—wicked cool results, suggesting that indeed there are two brains inside our heads and it is the connection of these two brains that somehow creates something called “consciousness.”
We’ll probably never know. And I suppose this is my urge to fill the gap. I want to know. I want to know what orangutans are thinking. I want to know what a chimpanzee thinks when she sees me looking at her. I want to know what something that isn’t human makes of humanity.For now, I’ll accept the fantasy and science fiction that at least provides insight into what human beings think that non-human beings think of human beings. It’s why I love Tolkien’s Ents. Forget orangutans. What would an ancient tree-herder make of all this?