Click on the cover to link to OUP's e-catalogue then turn to the biology section.

Interview Podcast with George Miller

Interview Podcast with George Miller
Click on the pic to link to the NOT A CHIMP podcast on Blackwell's Website

Preface to "Not A Chimp: The Hunt For The Genes That Make Us Human"

In many ways, this book is born out of frustration for a professional career in popular science television where ideas about comparative primate cognition, and the similarities and differences between us and our primate relatives, have continually circled me but constantly evaded my grasp in terms of the opportunity to transform them into science documentary. On the plus side, keeping a watching brief for over a quarter of a century on subjects like comparative animal cognition and evolution allows you to watch a great deal of water flow under the bridge. Fashions come and fashions go - specifically, perspectives on the similarity - or otherwise - of human and ape minds.

I remember the first Horizon science documentary about the chimpanzee Washoe, the great ape communicator, using American Sign Language to bridge the species barrier. And, later, Kanzi the bonobo jabbing his lexicon. These were the apes, as Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has put it, that were "on the brink of the human mind".

I remember when the pre-print of Machiavellian Intelligence, by Andrew Whiten and Dick Byrne, plopped onto the doormat of the BBC Antenna science series office in 1988. Suddenly primatology had become a great deal more exciting. Could primates, and especially higher primates like chimpanzees, really be as full of guile, as dastardly, as cunning, and as manipulative as the eponymous Florentine politician? Could they really reach deep into the minds of other individuals to see what they believed and what they wanted, and turn that information into deception?

I remember discussing primate cognition with a young Danny Povinelli, as we sat finger-feeding ourselves shrimp gumbo and new potatoes out of plastic Tupperware containers in a Lafayette restaurant surrounded by an alligator-infested moat, before returning to his kingdom - the New Iberia Research Centre - where the University of Louisiana had lured him back to his native deep South by turning a chimpanzee breeding centre for medical laboratory fodder into a primate cognition laboratory with one of the largest groups of captive chimpanzees in the country. He looked like a kid who had just been thrown the keys to the tuck shop.

In those days Povinelli shared the zeitgeist - spread by Whiten's and Byrne's work, and started by Nick Humphrey and Alison Jolly before them - that, since the most exacting and potentially treacherous environment faced by chimpanzees and other primates was not physical, but the social environment of their peers, they had evolved a form of social cognition very much like our own, in order to deal with it. This was further elaborated into a full-blown "social brain" hypothesis by Robin Dunbar, who related brain neocortex size to social group size throughout the primates and up to man. Povinelli's early work reflects this optimism for the mental life of apes, but both ape-language and ape-cognition research was subjected to a cold douche of searching criticism during the 1990s, and misgivings set in regarding the effectiveness of the experiments that had been constructed to guage ape cognition. Now the worm has turned again, with a number of research groups emerging with bolder and bolder claims for the Machiavellian machinations of primate minds, only to be powerfully countered by the curmudgeonly skepticism, chiefly by Povinelli, that these researchers are merely projecting their mental life onto that of their subjects; that, rather in the frustrating manner of Zeno's arrow that could never quite reach its target because it continually halved its distance to it, no experiment constructed thus far can actually get inside the mind of a chimp and show us exactly what it does and doesn't know, or how much, about the minds of others or the way the physical world works. One influential part of the world of comparative animal cognition talks of a continuum between ape and human minds and shrinks the cognitive distance between us and chimps to almost negligible proportions, while another returns us to the unfashionable idea that human cognition is unique, among the primates, after all.

When I began writing this book the working title was "The 1.6% that makes us human". My aim had always been to scrutinize the impression put about in the popular science media that humans and chimps differ by a mere 1.6% in our genetic code - or even less - and that it therefore makes complete sense that this minuscule genetic difference translates into equally small differences in cognition and behaviour between apes and man. However, contemporary genome science and technology, over the last few years, have dramatically advanced the power and resolution with which scientists can investigate genomes, eclipsing the earlier days of genomic investigation that gave rise to the "1.6% mantra".

As with comparative cognitive studies, conclusions on chimp-human similarity and difference in genome research depend crucially on perspective. To look at the complete set of human chromosomes, side by side with chimpanzee chromosomes, at the level of resolution of a powerful light microscope, for instance, is to be overwhelmed by the similarity between them. Overwhelmed with a sense of how close our kinship is with the other great apes. True, our chromosome 2 is a combination of two chimp chromosomes - giving humans a complement of 23 chromosome pairs to 24 in chimps, gorillas and orang-utans - but even here you can see exactly where the two chimp chromosomes have fused to produce one. The banding patterns you visualize by staining the chromosomes match up with astonishing similarity - and that banding similarity extends to many of the other chromosomes in the two genomes. However, look at a recent map of the chromosomes of chimps and humans, aligned side by side, produced by researchers who have mapped all inversions - end-on-end flips of large chunks of DNA - and the chromosomes are all but blotted out by a blizzard of red lines denoting inverted sequence. Now you become overwhelmed by how much structural change has occurred between the two genomes in just 6 million years. True, not all inversions result in changes in the working of genes - but many do - and inversions might even have been responsible for the initial divergence of chimp ancestor from human ancestor.

The extent to which you estimate the difference between chimp and human genomes depends entirely on where you look and how deeply. Modern genomics technology has led us deep into the mine that is the genome and has uncovered an extraordinary range of genetic mechanisms, many of which have one thing in common. They operate to promote variability - they amplify differences between individuals in one species. We now know, for instance, that each human is less genetically identical to anyone else than we thought only three years ago. When we compare human genomes to chimpanzee genomes these mechanisms magnify genetic distance still further. I have tried, in this book, to follow in the footsteps of these genome scientists as they dig deeper and deeper into the "Aladdin's Cave" of the genome. At times the going gets difficult. Scientists, like any explorers, are prone to taking wrong turnings, getting trapped in thickets, and covering hard ground, before breaking through into new insights. I hope that those of you who recoil from genetics with all the visceral horror with which many regard the sport of pot-holing will steel yourselves and follow me as far as I have dared to go into Aladdin's Cave. For only then will you see the riches within and begin to appreciate, as I have, just how limited popular accounts of human-chimpanzee genetic difference really are. Let me try and persuade you that this is a journey, if a little arduous at times, that is well worth taking.

There are a number of scientists around the world who have the breadth and the vision to have begun the task of rolling genetics, comparative animal cognition, and neuroscience into a comprehensive new approach to the study of human nature and this is part, at least, of their story. They strive to describe the nature of humans in terms of the extent to which we are genuinely different to chimpanzees and the other great apes. Somehow, over 6 million years, we humans evolved from something that probably resembled a chimpanzee (though we cannot yet be entirely sure) and the answer to our evolution has to lie in a growing number of structural changes in our genome, versus that of the chimpanzee, that have led to the evolution of a large number of genes that have, effectively, re-designed our brains and led to our advanced and peculiar human cognition.

If you don't believe me, hand this book to your nearest friendly chimpanzee and see what he makes of it!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Anne Pusey's Leakey Foundation Lecture


2010 marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Louis Leakey sending Jane Goodall to Gombe Stream, in Tanzania, to begin her groundbreaking study of chimpanzees in the wild. The chimpanzee behavioral research she pioneered there has produced a wealth of scientific discovery. This significant and vital part of scientific history will be celebrated by The Leakey Foundation, in partnership with the California Academy of Sciences. Anne Pusey, former Director of Jane Goodall Institute's Center for Primate Studies, will discuss this important project, which spans 50 years and is still running today.

Dr. Pusey reviews how the Gombe study has revealed the basic structure of chimpanzee society, the nature of social relationships within and between the sexes, life history patterns, and how these resemble and differ from those of humans.

Despite 50 years of study, chimpanzees are slow to give up their secrets and continue to surprise us. Pusey will discuss how long-term data, coupled with new technologies, have facilitated investigations of previously intractable questions and how new observations of unexpected behavior continually generate new questions.

The evening is illustrated with rarely seen archival photographs, video and recent stories of the Gombe chimpanzees.

Sticks appear as “dolls” in hands of chimps

Interesting short piece about a recent publication by Richard Wrangham and his research group in Uganda. It appears that young females - solely in this chimp community (it has never been noticed anywhere else) - carry sticks as young human females carry dolls. The practice ceases when they become pregnant for the first time. Here is the bounce, courtesy of Cell Press and World Science.

"Young chimpanzees, and most often females, at a national park in Uganda some times play with sticks in a way reminiscent of the way chil­dren play with dolls, scientists are reporting.

The practice might turn out to be the first case among animals “of a tradition maintained just among the young, like nursery rhymes and some games in human children,” said Harvard University researcher Rich ard Wrangham. “This would suggest that chimpanzee behavioral traditions are even more like those in humans than previously thought.”

But he added that the stick-playing is relatively rare, and undocumented in other chimp communities. The findings, by Wrangham and col­leagues, are published in the Dec. 21 issue of the research journal Current Biology.

This is “the first evidence of an animal species in the wild in which object play differs between males and females,” said Wrangham. The gender difference in chimps’ apparent “doll” play also fits the pattern seen across human cultures, he added—suggesting it stems from “bio­logical predilections” rather than socialization.

Although both young male and female chimps play with sticks, females do so more often, and they occasionally treat them like mother chimps tending their infants, the researchers said. Earlier studies of captive monkeys had also suggested a biological influence on toy choice, accord ing to Wrangham and colleagues: when young monkeys are offered sex-stereo typed human toys, females gravitate toward dolls, whereas males tend to go for “boys’ toys” such as trucks.

The new findings are based on 14 years of studies of the Kanyawara chimpanzee community at Uganda’s Kibale National Park. Wrangham and co author Sonya Kahlenberg of Bates College in Maine found that chimpanzees use sticks in four main ways: as probes to investigate holes potentially containing water or honey, as props or weapons in aggressive encounters, during solitary or social play, and in a behavior the re searchers call stick-carrying.

Wrangham said they had seen stick-carrying from time to time over the years and suspected females were doing it the most. Detailed investi­gation has confirmed that, they added. “We thought that if the sticks are being treated like dolls, females would carry sticks more than males do and should stop carrying sticks when they have their own babies,” Wrangham said. “Both of these points are correct.”

Young females some times took their sticks into day-nests where they rested and some times played with them casually in a manner that evoked maternal play, the researchers reported.

It’s not yet clear whether this form of play is common in chimpanzees, the researchers say. In fact, no one has previously reported stick-car­rying as a form of play, despite consider ble interest among chimpanzee researchers in describing object use. “This makes us suspect that stick-carrying is a social tradition that has sprung up in our community and not others,” Wrangham said.

Because stick-carrying is uncommon even in the Kanyawara chimps that Wrang ham and Kahlenberg studied, they said, they won’t be sure until researchers study ing other communities report its absence. They note that chimp play is generally poorly documented because chimp communities are usually small with few youngsters at any one time."

Fearless Woman Lacks Key Part of Brain

The role of the amygdala in social intelligence is well known. It is very important in estimating the emotional valency of facial expressions, for instance - are they happy, angry or sad? It is also the low-level receptor area in the brain for sights of disgust like blood, faeces etc. which are eventually processed into moral emotions. It should be very active when a person is presented with animals to which we humans seem to have evolved phobias - like snakes and spiders. In this fascinating case study a woman who was apparently fearless when presented with these stimuli was found to not have functioning amygdalae. It would be interesting, to me at least, to know whether or not she suffered from any moral deficits.

Genetic and ‘cultural’ similarity in wild chimpanzees

Does chimpanzee behaviour, and does chimpanzee cultural variation track differences in the environment - ecological differences - or are they better explained by genetic heterogeneity? Or a combination of both? In this paper a celestial group of ape researchers including Bernhard Langer, Anne Pusey, Richard Wrangham, Christophe Boesch and John Mitani allow the possibility that genetic differences may be very important after all. Here's the abstract:


The question of whether animals possess ‘cultures’ or ‘traditions’ continues to generate widespread theoretical and empirical interest. Studies of wild chimpanzees have featured prominently in this discussion, as the dominant approach used to identify culture in wild animals was first applied to them. This procedure, the ‘method of exclusion,’ begins by documenting behavioural differences between groups and then infers the existence of culture by eliminating ecological explanations for their occurrence. The validity of this approach has been questioned because genetic differences between groups have not explicitly been ruled out as a factor contributing to between-group differences in behaviour. Here we investigate this issue directly by analysing genetic and behavioural data from nine groups of wild chimpanzees. We find that the overall levels of genetic and behavioural dissimilarity between groups are highly and statistically significantly correlated. Additional analyses show that only a very small number of behaviours vary between genetically similar groups, and that there is no obvious pattern as to which classes of behaviours (e.g. tool-use versus communicative) have a distribution that matches patterns of between-group genetic dissimilarity. These results indicate that genetic dissimilarity cannot be eliminated as playing a major role in generating group differences in chimpanzee behaviour.