Not 42, The REAL Meaning of Life the Universe, and Everything

Ep 5 When David met Jane

October 03, 2022 Peter D Fisher Season 1 Episode 5
Not 42, The REAL Meaning of Life the Universe, and Everything
Ep 5 When David met Jane
Show Notes Transcript

This episode includes the deeply moving story of a special meeting: a meeting between David and Jane.

This was a hugely important event that happened in Africa in the 1960s and it began the process of developing a new way of thinking about what it is to be a feeling creature like a human being. Could there be such a thing as a non-human person, if so why, and what does this mean for the way we think about being human?

The ideas in these podcasts do not belong to me, that’s why they are ad-free, and I don’t make money from them. I have followed reason and the best available science to construct a story about our universe and what it is to be human that I think everyone should hear. Have I missed anything? Have I got anything wrong? Someone cleverer than me might find that I have. If you think these ideas need to be disseminated more widely so we can find out, have your own say, or just want to know more about the ideas, please check out my YouTube Channel, website, blog page, Facebook page or follow me on Twitter/X.

Artwork by Conner Griffin: The Plain Creative Agency.
Music: Land of Destiny, from Premium Beat.

Episode Five: When David met Jane


There were many momentous events during the Twentieth Century, some devastatingly bad like the trenches, Auschwitz and Hiroshima but also positives like the discovery of the structure of DNA, heart transplants, antibiotics and the moon landings. But there was one event that passed comparatively unnoticed. This was a meeting, a meeting between David and Jane, the time was the early 1960s, the place Africa.

There is a sense in which this meeting could be thought of as a reunion. Around about six or seven million years ago there was a group of animals that lived in the African rainforest. They were the kind of animals that, if they were alive today, we would call apes. But their world was changing. As a result of climate change their forests were drying out. This group divided; one left the other in the rainforest to make their way out onto the new grassy plains. It is appealing to think of the two groups looking back over their shoulders wistfully at each other as they parted for the last time, but it may well not have been like that. They might have just drifted apart over time, or it might have been an antagonistic parting, one group driven away into the grassland by the other. However the parting happened, for thousands of millennia, the two groups would stay apart, separately following their own evolutionary trajectory, largely, or completely, unaware of each other’s existence. In time the rainforest apes themselves divided, giving rise to two modern hominid species: chimpanzees and bonobos. There is almost no fossil record for their ancestors; when animals die in the hot wet conditions of the rainforests, their remains don’t stay around long enough to fossilise. The plains apes, however, did leave at least part of their story written in their dry, dusty, petrified bones. They evolved into the hominins: Ardipithicus, Paranthropus, the Australopithecines, and ultimately genus homo including Homo erectus, the Neanderthals, the Denisovans and modern humans.

There would be no reunion between these two ancient groups until the primatologist Jane Goodall met one of her subject chimpanzees, David Greybeard one hot, steamy afternoon in what is now the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania.

While it’s true that there had been extensive contact between chimpanzees and humans before this moment, these contacts were overwhelmingly between humans and captive chimps, creatures either bred in captivity or taken from their forest families as babies. Chimpanzee mothers and other members of their community will risk their lives to protect young chimps, and if the demands of zoos and research establishments for animals in the early Twentieth Century were to be satisfied their mothers and any other protective adults had to be shot dead so that the offspring could be dragged away from their mothers’ bodies. So, any knowledge we had about our nearest evolutionary cousins came from severely traumatised young individuals or chimps brought up in captivity. The meeting between David and Jane that afternoon in the rainforest was not at all like that; it was a coming together of two autonomous, free beings, meeting on their own terms. This wasn’t the first time Goodall had seen David, she had spent months getting the chimps used to her so she could approach them: a process called habituation. David was her favourite, he was friendly, curious and more accepting than his peers and he was instrumental in letting her into their world. Here’s Goodall's account of what happened that day, in full, from her 1999 autobiography “Reason For Hope” co-written with Philip Berman, which is dedicated in part to David Greybeard’s memory:


“What happened […] remains as vivid in my memory now, nearly forty years later, as it was at the time. When David Greybeard moved off along a well-marked trail, I followed. When he left the trail and moved through some dense undergrowth near a stream, I was sure I would lose him, for I became hopelessly entangled in the vines. But I found him sitting by the water, almost as if he were waiting for me. I looked into his large and lustrous eyes, set so wide apart; they seemed somehow to express his entire personality, his serene self-assurance, his inherent dignity.  Most primates interpret a direct gaze as a threat; it is not so with chimpanzees. David had taught me that so long as I looked into his eyes without arrogance, without any request, he did not mind. And sometimes he gazed back at me as he did that afternoon. His eyes seemed almost like windows through which, if only I had the skill, I could look into his mind. How many times since that far-off day I have wished that I could, even if just for a few short moments, look out onto the world through the eyes, with the mind, of a chimpanzee. One such minute would be worth a lifetime of research. For we are human-bound, imprisoned within our human perspective, our human view of the world. Indeed, it is even hard for us to see the world from the perspective of cultures other than our own, or from the point of view of a member of the opposite sex. As David and I sat there, I noticed a ripe red fruit from an oil nut palm lying on the ground. I held it toward him on the palm of my hand. David glanced at me and reached to take the nut. He dropped it, but gently held my hand. I needed no words to understand his message of reassurance: he did not want the nut, but he understood my motivation, he knew I meant well. To this day I remember the soft pressure of his fingers. We had communicated in a language far more ancient than words, a language that we shared with our prehistoric ancestor, a language bridging our two worlds. And I was deeply moved. When David got up and walked away I let him go and stayed there quietly by the murmuring stream, holding on to the experience so that I could know it in my heart forever.”

End of quote. I don’t know how you reacted to that story but reading it always brings a lump to my throat.  Goodall was, and still is, criticised by some in the scientific establishment for her alleged sentimentalism. Maybe you agree. Maybe you think David was just an ape, a mere chimpanzee, but then we are mere human beings. David Greybeard also holds another special place in history. He has the singular distinction of being the first non-human animal ever to be observed making and using a tool; Goodall saw him modifying a grass stem to fish termites out of a termite hill. We now know of dozens of other examples of tool use throughout the animal kingdom, but despite this and what I said in episodes two and three, there will be those who will think I’ve misrepresented the event just described by saying that it was a meeting of people, when it was just a human encountering an animal. I respectfully disagree. This was a signature moment in human history. This was humankind embarking on one of its greatest feats. It was humanity connecting with its roots.

In this episode there is an important question I’m going to consider, and it is this: Is it appropriate to think of animals like chimpanzees as non-human people? Maybe someone should ask Jane Goodall. Well as a matter of fact someone did. It was me. On one of the occasions I met her, I asked her whether we should think of chimps as non-human people. She paused for a moment and said “non-human animals”: something of course entirely different. Her books, and those of other primatologists, however, imply something very different, in their pages you read of friendships and fallouts, kindness, grudges, cruelty, coercion, jealousy, bullying, compassion, humour, (chimps have their own form of laughter), warlike behaviour including coalitions of chimps and the same competition for status that you would find in any human boardroom perhaps even a sense of wonder and, yes, in the middle of it all there is brutal bloody murder. Each and every chimp has its own personality.  In short, reading especially Goodall’s work I found myself reading soap opera. Can you really have soap opera without people?

Context is important here. It is perhaps not surprising that Goodall hesitated about ascribing peoplehood to chimps. When she first returned from the Gombe she was severely criticised by people in the scientific community for ascribing “human” emotions and behaviours to animals. It was quite wrong – it was alleged – to suggest that an animal could express, say maternal love, because love – it was argued – is a human emotion. These were very strange arguments, the people making them knew about evolution, they would have known that closely related species would share similar behavioural responses and that bonding between mothers and their offspring would be of huge adaptive importance in the evolutionary process, and therefore almost certain to be shared across numerous species. These were less enlightened times, and they seemed unable to see that they were applying a double standard. While they insisted on the human/animal distinction in emotional and mental processing, when it came to physical features, they freely allowed the same terminology to be used. For example, they used the same name for a leg in both animals and humans.  To be consistent they should bizarrely, have suggested that we should confine the use of the word leg to humans and force everyone to say that male dogs cock their “canine appendages” to urinate. In their defence, though, they would have seen themselves as scientists with the same commitment to dispassionate argument, rigor, reason and evidence as the non-scientist writing these podcasts. Objectivity in science is essential. The scientific method includes many checks and balances to make sure that the data produced is accurate. Scientists have built mechanisms into the process, such as peer review and double-blind tests, so that we know that, for example, antibiotics, paracetamol and coronavirus vaccines not only work but are safe for the vast majority of the people who take them. Scientists are human too though, and there have been occasional desperately sad and devastating mistakes such as the Thalidomide tragedy, but where the system goes wrong new procedures are put in place to minimise problems in the future. 

Scientists who opposed Goodall’s methods suggested that she had been anthropomorphic. Anthropomorphism is a very big word with no, or at least hardly any, meaning. It is supposed to mean that it is wrong to assume that any animal has human emotion, and we can’t assume that they feel things as we do, and it is alleged that it is unscientific to allow emotional attachment to the subjects of your study. But this was itself unscientific because, even then, the science was in: we knew we evolved, we are animals, so the idea that emotion in humans and animals were in some way different could never have been unsupportable. Goodall knew intuitively that her opponents in the scientific establishment were wrong, and she wisely ignored them.  I have been a bit sniffy about human intuition in these podcasts, but in this case she was right. While it is certainly bad science to develop an emotional attachment to one particular idea or other then to continue to defend it when the evidence shows it is wrong, chimpanzees cannot be understood without seeing them as feeling beings. A dispassionate, objective scientific approach is essential if you want to say, measure temperature, it works rather less well when we are considering feelings and value systems. There are no thermometers for measuring emotion.

As you will have gathered by now, I want to suggest that animals, including the human one, behave according to their response to the feelings they have about the world in which they find themselves. So, if we share similar responses to chimpanzees, we need to consider the question of the peoplehood of chimps and other advanced animals in more detail.

Let’s look at this another way and think about how Goodall might have been right to be cautious about defining chimps as people. This episode has been getting a bit philosophical and heavy. Let’s change tone a bit: let’s talk about sex… in chimpanzees.

Chimpanzees do not have fathers. Ok… Ok… They have biological fathers of course they get approximately half their DNA from their mothers, and half from their fathers in the same way that we do. But in a social sense there is an argument that can be made that they don’t have fathers. When female chimps come into season, they advertise the fact by growing a large pink swelling on their bottoms. At this point they will have sex with many, most, or all. of the adult males in their community. This implies that no female knows which male fathered her offspring, and no infant can possibly know who their father is, so that if chimpanzees had a language, it is unlikely that there would be a word for father, pop, daddy or dad. And it seems that chimpanzee’ soap opera is missing some important storylines. No long-lost fathers emerging from the metaphorical woodwork. Above the chimpanzee awareness horizon there appears to be no concept of fatherhood. 

Or is there? At this point I need to roll back slightly on what I’ve just said because a recent study has shown that adult male chimpanzees spend more time with the mothers of their own offspring than other males do, and another study showed that the adolescent sons of adult males spent more time grooming their fathers than they did other males. Another study, this time of captive chimps, seemed to show that they could recognise their own family members by their appearance. So although my claim that chimps don’t have fathers is not as straightforward as I’ve implied, these studies don’t really prove a concept of fatherhood in chimpanzees, they just show that they seem to know which animals are more closely related to them than others.

While, as I have already suggested, maternal love is certainly part of the chimpanzee’s emotional repertoire, as is love of their mothers, brothers and sisters, romantic love seems to be largely absent. Female chimps certainly have their favourites among the males, and, while they are “pink”, they will sometimes form consortships with a favoured male and wander off into the forest with him, but they don’t seem to pair bond in the way humans and other species do.

There are a number of different ways of defining “people”. You could be pedantic and insist that only humans can be people. This is an easy case to make, if only because there are no Neanderthals or other very closely related species alive today to muddy the water. Beings like these would certainly have had language, and the genetic evidence has proved that they had sexual relationships with modern humans. If such species were alive today it would very much harder to distinguish between people and non-people, but the idea that only humans are people has something of the Nazi about it, “Only people like us count as people”. Alternatively, we could insist that only beings with language should count, or that in order to count as a person you need to be the kind of being that you could invite round to dinner – you would be very unwise to invite an adult chimp into your home you would be putting your life at serious risk. Chimpanzees are famously volatile and immensely strong. And, in any case what would you talk about?

I suppose the argument many people might make is that we are “intelligent”, and animals are not. While it is true that chimps only reach the intellectual level of a human three or four-year-old, Goodall, and another world leading primatologist, Frans de Waal, have both indicated to me that their emotional intelligence exceeds that level. Still, we cannot deny that our intellectual capacity is much greater than that of any other animal. Our species’ scientific name is Homo sapiens, which means Wise Man, and I suppose there will be those who think that our intelligence and undoubtedly powerful linguistic abilities set us apart from non-human animals. Some might say that we are more sophisticated and advanced, and we have a higher status – we have risen above them. In our society, to call someone an animal is to insult them. We think of animals as stupid and inferior: they are driven by instinct and have no moral dimension to their lives. But this is just not so. The argument that we are morally superior is an incredibly easy argument to dismiss; in fact, it is so transparently easy that I can do it with one word… Auschwitz…!

But wait there is a slightly better argument: while we ponder about what chimps think and feel, they almost certainly don’t sit in the trees looking down on us as they reflect on the philosophical implications of what it is to be a chimpanzee as compared to what it is to be a human. There is some anecdotal evidence that chimps might sometimes reflect on the world around them, and that they might have a sense of wonder… Why wouldn’t they? We do. But does the complexity of our thought matter? If you’ve listened to Episode Three in this series you will know that it is not intelligence, but feelings, that count. Feelings make the universe matter, and we share many of the same feelings with animals as they share with us.

Which takes me to yet another argument: some might try to claim that although chimpanzees have emotion, they do not feel it with the same level of intensity as humans. This seems also to be false. There is another example of chimpanzee behaviour observed by Goodall and her team that puts this idea to bed: Flo was one of the first chimpanzees to be habituated, she looked old when Goodall first saw her, although it was never possible to establish her age. She was a high-ranking female and a good mother – not all chimps are – and her last surviving “child” for want of a better word, was Flint. Flint was very attached to his mother, and as Flo became more aged, and frail, she was not strong enough to wean him away from her as mother chimps normally do. Flo and Flint became inseparable; in her weakened condition she depended on him, and he on her. Here’s how Goodall described what happened next in her book, “Through a Window”. You’ll need to know that Fifi was Flint’s older sister, and also that chimpanzees make nests in the trees where they sleep at night. This is where you might want to get your tissues ready:


“Flint […] was eight and a half when old Flo died, and should have been able to look after himself. But, dependent as he was on his mother, it seemed that he had no will to survive without her. His whole world had revolved around Flo, and with her gone life was hollow and meaningless. Never shall I forget watching as, three days after Flo’s death, Flint climbed slowly into a tall tree near the stream. He walked along one of the branches, then stopped and stood motionless, staring down at an empty nest. After about two minutes he turned away and, with the movements of an old man, climbed down, walked a few steps, then lay, wide eyes staring ahead. The nest was one which he and Flo had shared a short while before Flo died. What had he thought of as he stood there, staring? Memories of happy days gone by to add to his bewildered sense of loss? We shall never know. 

It was unfortunate that, for the first few days after Flo’s death, Fifi had been wandering further afield. Had she been there to comfort Flint from the start, things might have been very different. He had travelled for a while with Figan and, in the presence of his big brother had seemed to shake off a little of his depression. But then he suddenly left the group and raced back to the place where Flo had died and there sank into ever deeper depression. By the time Fifi showed up Flint was already sick, and though she groomed him and waited for him to travel with her, he lacked both the strength and the will to follow. 

Flint became increasingly lethargic, refused most food and, with his immune system thus weakened, fell sick. The last time I saw him alive, he was hollow-eyed gaunt and utterly depressed, huddled in the vegetation close to where Flo had died. Of course, we tried to help him. I had to leave Gombe soon after Flo’s death, but one or other of the students or field assistants stayed with Flint each day, keeping him company, tempting him with all kinds of foods. But nothing made up for the loss of Flo. The last short journey he made, pausing to rest every few feet, was to the very place where Flo’s body had lain. There he stayed for several hours, sometimes staring and staring into the water. He struggled on a little further, then curled up – and never moved again.”

End of quote… Is there any other way of putting this but that Flint died of a broken heart? 

When we learned about Nova, we found that feelings make the universe, and especially the living things in it matter. When we think of the gentleness and compassion in David Greybeard’s reassuring touch, and the devastation of Flint’s heartrending loss of his mother, perhaps we are nearing the answer to the question I set in this episode. With certain exceptions like romantic love, Chimpanzees and other great apes feel things in the way that we feel them, in every way that is important, so there seems to be a good case for allowing sentient beings like chimps to be thought of as non-human people. But if we include great apes as people then, for reasons too involved to discuss in this series of podcasts we must also include dolphins, whales and elephants as non-human people too. 

But we also need to acknowledge the differences. Chimpanzees are not people in the same way that we are people – their behaviour is radically different – and what about other animals like wolves and domestic dogs and cats whose social organisation is slightly less complex than the animals we have talked about here and to whom, it is perhaps, harder to claim them to be people? They have feelings too, don’t they? From Episode Three, we already know that it’s the mattering that matters. On the other hand, it might feel important to maintain a sense of our own status, human specialness in the universe. Those feelings of specialness are feelings too. That’s another question we’ll need to return to. 

So, are you convinced? Are chimpanzees non-human people? Hope not! It is not my role to convince anyone of anything. I think it is up to each of us to do our best to match our own beliefs to what is most likely to be Omnitrue, but it is not for me to say what that is, it is up to each of us to look at the evidence and decide for ourselves. The only useful role I might have, is to point listeners to knowledge and evidence that might be useful. To paraphrase the catchphrase of a popular 1990s television series, “The Omnitruth is out there”. Isaac Newton is alleged to have said that the reason he had been able to see so far was because he was standing on the shoulders of giants. This modesty might have been uncharacteristic, as I understand it, the man was something of a monster, but for all his failings, he was a genius and he added new knowledge to the scientific canon, he taught us a lot about the behaviour of light and came up with a theory of gravity that was streets ahead of what had gone before. I am not a genius. I have added nothing. All I have done is to repackage what’s already there. But if we know anything at all about the nature of reality, we know we evolved, we belong to the genus Homo, and the species sapiens, in the order Primates and class Mammalia, we belong in the animal kingdom, and our feelings like those of chimpanzees, tell us what is important.

Reading books about natural history or listening to nature documentaries we look at nature from the outside. We learn that this animal looks like this and behaves like that, and this other animal looks like that and behaves like this. Always the assumption is that they are animals, and we are not… In Jane Goodall’s words “we are human-bound, imprisoned within our human perspective”. If we know anything at all we know that we are animals and we need to put ourselves back into nature, where we belong. In the next episode we will ask what kind of animal we are, and why we are the way we are.

Thanks for help in this episode are due to Professor Stacy Rosenbaum at the University of Michigan, and belated thanks to Dr Jane Goodall DBE who wrote to me early in my research about chimpanzee behaviour. I also rather think that she would want me to mention her very worthy charity, The Jane Goodall institute. And, of course, thanks to you for listening.