The human species
What defines humanity?
Ard: So, Jane, it’s an enormous pleasure for me to meet you. I’ve admired you from a distance for a long time. I want to tell you a little bit about my own story with chimpanzees. So I grew up in Gabon, in Central Africa, and my parents are biologists, and when I was about two – we lived in the jungle – the local hunters had shot a chimpanzee without realising that it had a little baby, a few weeks old, still clinging to its mother. So they brought it to us and my father bought it for its weight in sardines, and so we raised it with a bottle that was at home. You know, gave it a bottle and kind of raised it. He was like a brother to me. His name was Bertje. Here’s a picture of us in the back garden.
JG: You and Bertja?
Ard: Bertje, yeah.
JG: Bertje? Bertie?
Ard: Yeah, Bertie. Bertje is in Dutch. And he was like a brother to my sister and I. He’s just about two. I think he’s about two when I was about four, or maybe three. And it was just amazing having a chimpanzee.
JG: They’re so like children.
Ard: They’re so like children.
JG: But then what happened to him?
Ard: He lived with us for a few years and then when he was about five years old we brought him to a nature reserve where they tried to bring him back into the wild. But unfortunately he got ill at some point and he…
JG: This is the tragedy of these young chimps: very cute, very sweet and… There’s a pet trade in them now. It’s happened in the US where a man, a scientist, Kellogg, he actually brought up a chimp with his son, Donald, as an experiment. But then when the chimp stopped being cute and sweet, he was thrown into a lab and…
Ard: Oh, that’s really sad.
JG: The end is always sad.
Ard: Yeah, I was very sad. I mean, for us it wasn’t because he wasn’t… He was still cute and sweet. We were moving on, and so we…
JG: Yeah, well that’s the problem, and these humanised chimps, they can almost never be reintroduced.
JG: No, unless they’re with a whole group.
Ard: Unless they’re brought in as a group?
Ard: So this was the President’s reserve, and the hope was that they would be able to reintroduce him back. I mean, he was a particularly intelligent… It doesn’t work?
JG: Very doubtful.
Ard: So what should we have done, then? Because he was a few weeks old and he would have died.
JG: Well, no. You did the right thing: you took him and you looked after him. There was nowhere for you to put that little chimp.
Ard: No, I felt very attached to it. I really thought he was like a brother, and we played and he was very… He liked to play hide-and-seek and… Here I have a photo of he and I playing together in the sand pit. He was just very, very, playful and… Here he is with my sister. He and my sister were exactly the same age, and they had a very close bond that I was actually a little jealous of.
So my mother says although we look different, we behaved remarkably similarly. You know, in the morning we fed him porridge and he’d eat with a spoon, which he didn’t actually really like. So if you turned around, he would eat with his hands.
Ard: And when you looked back he’d grab the spoon as if, ‘Of course, I’ve been eating with my spoon the entire time.’
David: That’s quite clever, isn’t it?
Ard: It’s really clever, yeah. He knew what was going on; he could sense things. One of his favourite things of all was to untie knots. So here we have a photo of him untying a shoe.
JG: Oh, yes, well that’s very typical chimp. Many, many zoo chimps, if they get the chance, they’ll spend a lot of time untying your shoes and trying to knot them again.
Ard: It’s amazing. In fact it used to bother me. I didn’t wear shoes that often, but if I did, he would grab them. And then I remember my mother said I once came in very upset because I said, ‘He’s taken my shoes off, but he has hands and feet.’ So I grabbed his hands and pulled them off, but he’d grab them with his feet and then… ‘It’s not fair! He’s got four hands.’
JG: Four hands, yes. But he couldn’t tie the lace, could he?
Ard: I don’t think he could, no.
Ard: His favourite game, in fact, was my father would take a big piece of string and tie him up. He’d just be giggling and giggling and giggling, and my father would make these fisherman’s knots and in no time he would untie himself. And then he’d bring the string to you, like, ‘Do it again, do it again.’ It was amazing.
He was just funny. He liked to make jokes. There’s one story that I remember. We had a kind of rain barrel that he would hide in when it rained, and so my sister – who was then about one and could just walk – crawled into the barrel, and he would sit in front, and so my mother couldn’t find her. My mother panicked, you know. It’s the jungle, there are snakes, there are all kinds of animals and she couldn’t find… And she went yelling and screaming, and he sat in the front and kind of blocked the view for a long, long time until the whole village just went in a panic and eventually they found her hiding behind. They were colluding together – thought it was very funny.
David: I bet your mother didn’t think it was very funny?
Ard: No, she didn’t think it was funny, but they somehow – my sister and he – they were playing a game and hiding from the adults. Yeah, it’s amazing.
JG: That’s how human they are.
David: Did you regard them as very human from early on? Because, of course, mainstream science was at pains for a long time to say, ‘No, no, they’re not human. We mustn’t anthropomorphise…’
JG: Anthropomorphise them.
David: That’s what I was taught when I went to university.
JG: When I got to Cambridge to do a PhD, I hadn’t been to university at all, and I was pretty scared. I got there and was told by these erudite professors I’d done everything wrong. I shouldn’t have given the chimpanzees names.
JG: Some of them said it’s scientific to give them numbers, and I couldn’t talk about personality, mind capable of thinking and certainly not emotions, because those were unique to humans. And at that time – we’re going back now to ’61 – it was still believed by mainstream science that there was a difference of kind between us and the rest of the animals, whereas, of course, it’s a difference of degree.
David: I was taught the same thing in the ‘80s.
JG: Yes. My son was as well. I said, ‘Well why…’
David: I was told off if I said it intended to do something.
JG: Yeah. Intentionality is just linked to us.
David: Yes, for them it had to be some kind of clockwork instinct or something. It just did this, it didn’t intend to.
Ard: That’s so interesting. So do you think the fact that you were, in some sense, unhampered by convention? It sounds like… well, they were telling you to be a spectator, outsider, and not be involved.
JG: Not be involved emotionally at all, yes.
Ard: But in fact that spectator distance would have prevented people from seeing what was true.
JG: Yes, of course. But in those days there were no tools to dissect animal emotion. Now you can do a degree in it. Now it’s mainstream.
Ard: Do you think it was a kind of dogma holding them down?
JG: It was, yes. As I went on with my career I found there was always something which somebody said, ‘Well, at least, we’re the only ones doing this.’ It was desperate. People were desperate to find something which made us truly unique. And so for a long time people talked to me about death and grief, and that, surely, mourning was uniquely human. But, of course, we now know it’s not: elephants mourn and dogs grieve and all sorts of things.
David: Did you see that behaviour in the chimpanzees?
JG: Oh, yes.
David: What? You saw them mourning for the loss of a friend or a…?
JG: The young ones can actually die of grief if their mother…
JG: …if they lose their mother. Even at eight years old. We had one…
Ard: Just of grief? Just being sad?
JG: Just depression. Depression.
David: Crikey! We’d call that a broken heart, if it happened in humans, wouldn’t we?
Ard: I wonder if that’s what happened to Bertje when he…
JG: It could well be. I mean, he lost his whole family.
JG: You know, he was abandoned.
Ard: Oh, man… oh, man.
JG: That’s the trouble. And…
Ard: That’s really tough. I hadn’t thought of that.
JG: But we interfere in animals’ lives, but we interfere in each other’s lives too.
Ard: Yeah, yeah, well...
JG: But you were… you were his family.
Ard: Yeah, and we left him… we left him behind. I felt abandoned when we left him, but I never, until today, thought that that might have happened to him. Maybe he died of grief.
JG: They get the immune system weakened in that depressed state, same as with us.
JG: And that’s what happened to little Flint. He just fell sick in that weakened state. I’ll never forget. This was the saddest thing. His mother was very old and she died. Actually, she was about to cross a stream and she just… Her heart gave out, I think, and first he set off and he travelled with the others, but then he came back – came back to where his mother had been. We’d moved the body by then, and he just sat there. And then he climbed up into a tree where they had made a nest, a night nest, about five days before, and very slowly he walked along the branch. And he got to this nest and he stood there and he looked at it. And then he turned around and walked back, walked down and curled up close to where she’d been and died.
Ard: Uh-huh. Just died of grief?
JG: Died of a broken heart. There’s nothing else you can say, really.
Ard: That’s really sad.
JG: There are a lot of sad things.
David: You all right?
Ard: Yeah. I really loved Bertje. He was like a brother. And, you know…
JG: Well, this is the thing. They are so human.
Ard: Yeah, they’re so human.
Ard: Do we have souls?
AR: Of course not. Not only do we not have souls, but I think that contemporary cognitive neuroscience suggests that we don’t even have selves.
David: Well that’s disturbing because I was sure I had a self when I walked in.
AR: Right. You did have a self, but it may well be different now – a different self in your body.
Ard: Is that the science that’s telling us this?
AR: Yes, I think that a good deal of neuroscience is telling us this. Now, David, you were pretty confident that you had a self when you walked in, and you’re still confident that you have a self, and you will be confident tomorrow, and we, all of us, are victims of a vast range of illusions foisted upon us by conscious introspection, of which the belief in an enduring self is probably one of the most difficult to undermine or dislodge.
David: Why would I want to undermine it though?
AR: In fact, you probably wouldn’t want to undermine it, and it is the result, most probably, of a process that is highly adaptive in our species. Okay? But if you now go on to say, since I have this firm conviction, it must be true…
AR: …you then begin to worry about questions to which the answers are either negative, or they turn out to be pseudo-questions.
Ard: It looks like it’s troubling you, David, if you don’t have a self?
AR: But wait, wait. Look…
Ard: I mean, what does that mean?
AR: We’ve got this word, and we’ve got this continuing stream of memories. It’s fairly defective, broken up, and out of this we cobble together a conception that we call the self. Okay? This conception has important use for us in our daily lives, but it doesn’t have a foundation in the nature of psychological reality. It’s another one of those confabulations of introspection that have a payoff in adaptation, but which don’t have a grounding in reality.
There are many things that we believe, and that humans have believed since we began to have beliefs about the nature of reality, that are highly adaptive and quite false. One obvious one is that things are coloured. Colour only comes into existence somewhere in our visual cortex.
Ard: But that doesn’t make it unreal.
AR: It doesn’t make the sensation unreal, but it makes that belief false and our beliefs about ourselves and the world are widely false in that way. Adaptive, useful, but based on mistakes.
David: I get the sense that you’re saying, ‘Look, what’s real is the stuff that’s out there. And the stuff that’s in here is somehow not real?’
AR: No, the stuff that’s in here is composed of the same constituents as the stuff that’s out there.
AR: Everything’s just fermions and bosons, including the neurology of our brains.
David: But I have thoughts.
David: I’m fairly convinced I do.
David: And I feel that those thoughts, they have a reality as well. So my thoughts, my feelings, my ideas, they seem real, as real as this stuff, just real in a different way.
AR: Well, they’re real in that sense that they are represented in your brain in complex neural circuitry, which fires in a way that produces behaviour in you, including the verbal behaviour that you just engaged in. And so, of course, it’s real.
AR: But the spin that we put on those neural circuits, that’s been pretty consistently mistaken ever since people started thinking that there were minds and that they were distinct from brains.
Ard: I have another story about the chimpanzee, which is that, at some point, as he got bigger, sometimes we had to chain him, if we weren’t around. So we had him on a chain, and some of the local villagers… He would love shiny things, like watches, and so this day, when a lot of people were around, one of the guys had a watch, which was an enormous luxury. So the guy took it in front of him, just at the edge of his chain. So, he was jumping up and down and getting very angry because he couldn’t reach it, and then he went back. He took up part of the chain and held it behind his back…
David: To shorten the chain?
Ard: Shorten the chain. Then he jumped up and down until they got too close and let the chain go. He had this much chain. Out he went, grabbed the watch, ran up into the tree and refused to come down. So, it was a… Everybody was yelling and screaming.
David: That’s clever, isn’t it?
Ard: He sat up there, looked at everybody. My mother went out. He never… In his pecking order, my father came first, he came second and then came everybody else. So he just looked at my mother and ignored her. So they finally called my father, and he saw my father coming round the corner. He put the watch in his mouth.
David: That’s excellent.
Ard: Just like nothing. As if, you know, ‘What watch?’ My father called him down and he finally, grudgingly, came down and pulled the watch out of his mouth.
David: That’s great.
Ard: But I think that story is like… He had theory of mind because he was able to… He realised that he would fool the people with the watches: that they would think he was at the end of the… I’ve asked animal psychologists did he have theory of mind, and they said, ‘Well, we always hear these anecdotal stories, but it’s hard to prove in the lab.’
JG: This is the thing. To me a collection of anecdotes gives you a better feeling for the true nature. And you can’t prove, in a scientific way, every single anecdote, but when you gather them all together, then you start really seeing the flexibility of the behaviour.
Ard: Yeah. It’s amazing behaviour.
JG: We have this lovely story. Pom was about nine years old and her little brother, Prof, was around three – should be riding Mum, but Mum was a bad mother. She was away in the back, and suddenly Pom stops and stares at something on the trail ahead. And she gives a little, ‘Ooh, oh’. Her hair stands up. She rushes up a tree. Little Prof, maybe he doesn’t hear the sound, maybe he doesn’t know what it means, carries on along the trail. And as he gets closer to this place, Pom’s hair stands completely on end and she gets this huge grin of fear, which people think is smiling: fear. And finally she can’t bear it anymore, and she rushes down, she grabs her little brother and rushes up a tree, and there’s this big poisonous snake coiled up at the side of the trail.
David: That’s fascinating, because that suggests that she’s imagining what might happen in the future.
JG: Yes, of course she is.
David: She has a scenario ahead.
Ard: And she’s protecting her brother.
JG: Yes, yes.
David: But it’s that, it’s that notion that… So often the scientists say, ‘Well, we look ahead, but animals live in the moment.’ But that’s a clear example of…
JG: Yeah, and even better, there was another young female, about the same age as Pom, and her little brother, and they were with the mother. And the mother was leading, and then came the adolescent daughter and then the little one following.
So the mother went through, the adolescent daughter started through and then turned back and grabbed the little one, who started screaming because he wanted to follow his mother, and she dragged him around. That clump of grass was absolutely stiff with little tiny ticks. And the mother, who’d been through, spent a long time pulling them off herself. So that, to me, is even more amazing than the snake.
David: Yes, because she’s already played out the whole scenario of the consequence of going through and getting the ticks. The ticks will be on…
David: So she’s got a whole scenario of the future.
JG: I think that’s amazing, quite honestly.
David: So do I.
Ard: There’s a famous quote by Francis Crick I think in his book, The Astonishing Hypothesis, where he says essentially, you – your joys, your sorrows, your free will, your memories – are nothing but the collective motions of neurons and molecules.
DN: Yes, yes.
Ard: What’s your response to that kind of statement?
DN: Well, first of all, it’s sort of a mixture of humour and sadness. If he really thinks that, I’m very sad. If it’s play, then maybe it’s humour. I think Crick did both, actually. I think he really believed what he was saying, and I think he was also partly joking. People do that to provoke.
Ard: And if you’d never thought, or questioned it? If you were to take your brain, for example, and freeze it in a vat and then, with future…
DN: When they can resurrect me, yes!
Ard: At some point in the future when science has progressed, we can, you know, thaw it again and resurrect you…
David: I thought it was only Californians who did that!
Ard: It’s a thought experiment.
DN: They’re doing it already. There are frozen brains, yes.
Ard: So if you froze your brain and then later thawed it and resurrected you, would that still be you?
DN: Quite definitely not. No.
Ard: And why not?
DN: Well, the mistake is to think that there’s some physical thing here that is the seat of my consciousness: that my consciousness is somehow a process that’s occurring only inside here.
First of all, that can’t be right because my consciousness and my interaction – I’m talking about social awareness and so on, not just about whether I’m awake – that depends on interactions with everybody else. So it cannot be the case that it’s only situated here. And it cannot be the case for another reason too.
It is not a thing: consciousness is a process.
David: Process, yeah.
DN: And I think the big problem with this approach – and it’s a big problem with the reductionist approach in general – is that it is mistaking processes for things.
David: Yes. I mean, isn’t reductionism essentially a commitment to say everything will be explained as a thing?
David: Things are made of smaller things, which are made of smaller things, and once we understand the things, then we understand everything. As you say, it pretends that processes don’t happen.
DN: Exactly so. And one can prove that very simply. At the point when I die, my molecules will be, essentially, still there. My consciousness will not. Simple.
David: There’s another lovely example from your book… I know we keep asking you to rehash your book, but when you were talking about reductionism, you used the example of pointing.
DN: Yes, yes.
David: Would you run through that for us?
DN: Yes, well, David, can you point now?
David: Yeah, okay.
DN: Thank you. You put the arm back and I put a set of electrodes here. And imagine also that I’m such a good physiologist that I know exactly how to excite your brain to make you point. I tell you what will happen is, you’ll do that.
David: Right. So you flick a switch and I go [points arm]…
DN: Yes, that’s right. However, you would then say, ‘Denis, this is different. I didn’t point. Something made me point.’ That means that the motion of doing that pointing isn’t the explanation for my intention to point.
David: Yes, everything in my body would have happened the same way.
DN: Exactly so.
David: But I didn’t have anything to do with it.
Ard: But you weren’t really pointing, you were…
David: Well, I didn’t think, ‘I’ll point at him’. So you’re saying that there’s this thing called intention?
David: Which isn’t a thing?
DN: Well, a process which isn’t a thing: it’s a process.
David: I can’t find intention.
DN: You can’t find it in here because it isn’t a thing. Exactly so.
Ard: It’s a process.
DN: Yes, it’s a process. Once you’ve got that explanation, you don’t need trillions of recordings of my nerve cells to ask the question, ‘Why did Denis Noble point?’
David: You pointed because you had an intention.
DN: Precisely. And an intention is part of those processes that are processes that are interpersonal, that are therefore, in a sense, jumping outside my body, and I don’t mean that in a ghostly sense, obviously.
Ard: But to understand them, if you localise them in your brain, you’ve misunderstood.
DN: Exactly so, which is why if you just freeze it and a hundred years later you bring it out of the freezer, you won’t have the same person.
David: It does sound, doesn’t it, that you’re committed to the idea that ideas are real in some sense and have this ability to make things happen?
David: What you call causation.
DN: And the way that happens is what I would call contextual logic.
DN: Because what I’m doing at the moment, in interacting with you, is that everything I say is dependent on what you say, which is dependent on what I say, which is… and so it goes on, and I cannot be outside that process.