Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote:
The wild man, when he is replete, is at peace with all nature and a friend of all his fellow men. If sometimes he has to fight for the meal, he never comes to his hands without first comparing the difficulty of winning with that of finding his livelihood elsewhere; and, since pride does not interfere in combat, it ends with a few punches; the winner eats, the loser goes in search of luck, and everything returns in peace. But for man in society, things are quite different.
Wise words. We wish that was the case all the time but things have never gone this way and probably will never happen. Prejudices and false beliefs have always prevented man from overcoming, first of all, Rousseau's "Noble and Savage" dichotomy and never will you see a glimmer of light. Why so much pessimism? The answer is simple. Cartesian dualism is still persevering, and the dichotomy res cogitans and res extensa has always prevented us from making reasonable assessments of our earthly life, leaving everything prejudicially to a judgment that will never occur on this Earth. It is on this planet that we must instead be good men and good women.
Descartes believed that animals did not have a soul and therefore were unconscious, that they were deprived of intelligence and that they were therefore like machines, even if perfect and autonomous. Descartes believed that man's body was also an inimitable machine devised from the mind of God. This conception survived until the Enlightenment and, if we want, to this day. Between the mid-18th century and throughout the Napoleonic era there were French philosophers, the so-called ideologues, who moved the waters. Among the best known are Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, Leclerc Buffon and Georges Cabanis. They said that one had to overcome the idea of essence as a transcendent reality or non-material substance and begin the scientific study of man. The point, at that time, however, was that we still did not know how our brain worked in reality. Moral and physical were for ideologues part of the same material function, a kind of reductionism ante litteram. The actual reductionism began later and with surprisingly quite devastating results for the study of man and that led nowhere.
We men think that we are the only living beings who know how to distinguish good from evil, moral from immoral, right from wrong, but at the same time we decide which other living species are worthy or not worthy of survival, to select useful ones, for example pets, from those useless, but all living species are useful.
We humans decide to destroy the forests and natural habitats of animals, to pollute the seas and oceans, to reduce biodiversity to our liking, to build cities out of all proportion and to surround ourselves with the superfluous and more seriously, to be able to manage our future.
We also believe that we are the only ones who possess consciousness and noble feelings and never have doubts about our mental abilities. Then it is diseases and pandemics Covid-19 that bring us back to earth and make us think that perhaps we need to review our progress, the laws of our economy and our development1.
And what relationships do we men have with chimpanzees in particular? They are certainly not good, indeed they are worse than those we have with many other animal species, especially so-called pets, like dogs and cats. In truth there are no pets, there are animals that through a long process of domestication have approached man in a relationship of mutual material and even psychological support.
Many centuries have passed and the question of the human-animal relationship is not yet solved so much that even today talking about affinity between us and animals, even of chimpanzees who are the most advanced, always raises huge problems. It has never been easy for us to accept the idea that we resemble animals and that they have high cognitive abilities. We have never thought of asking them what they think of man and what they wish. The idea is not so strange because at least in one species, the chimpanzee, through sign language can learn, more or less, like a deaf-mute, they can tell us what they think of us. Few have done so, only some scholars interested in this matter2. Not others.
When we make these reflections, however, we forget our origins. The fact is, man did not come out of anywhere. There is a common thread that binds us to nature, to the animals closest to us. The similarities are enormous. As Darwin’s evolutionary theories have shown they behave and are physically and psychologically like us. Now, men, while accepting the idea that animals also have intelligence, is it ever comparable to ours? The thing is, we humans have our intelligence and animals have their intelligence. A cat’s or a monkey’s intelligence would be of no use to us and ours of no use to that of a cat or a monkey.
It is true that animals, even the finest chimpanzees, never make final decisions, very often they allow themselves to be conditioned by circumstances, they do not like to think long-term, but this way of life has put them in a position not to cause irreversible harm to nature. On the other hand, our sense of duty, or what we like to call it, respect for the laws, among other things which are made to take care of our personal interests and never of the whole community, have always been a catastrophe, not to mention a sense of duty (for a sense of duty the soldiers become killers). With these principles, we have destroyed everything that had to be destroyed, even our own identity, and committed countless atrocities against ourselves: refined mass infanticides, spreading hunger, disease and the extermination of many wild animals. Our pride has darkened our consciousness. We see wars around the world all the time, but we look somewhere else.
It would be very interesting to open a debate - not between us men - which, by the way, would not take us anywhere, but between us and the animals. Of course, this is impossible to do with our dogs, but with a chimpanzee, the thing would not be impossible. It takes a lot of patience and strength. I believe that in Primatology, the most interesting research that has been done in recent years is that in which some researchers have started teaching chimpanzees sign language. Unfortunately, this was done with chimpanzees who were born and always lived in laboratories, but it would have been much more interesting, although unfortunately, it is practically impossible to do so with chimpanzees living in freedom.
If it had been possible what could these animals have told us? They would certainly have told us that we men are very violent and irresponsible, that we destroy ours and their environment out of selfishness and greed. That is actually what we are doing and what we have always done. Chimpanzees who are in captivity do not know their natural environment, do not know the forest and do not go in search of food. There are no trees in the lab, and the lab workers bring food to them. In short, these animals live in a state of unreality.
This is the most serious atrocity we commit when we imprison mainly wild animals, such as chimpanzees and all other species of monkeys. They live in a kind of virtual reality where we men create a world that does not really exist and in many ways that is also what we humans do with ourselves. We are all too easily getting used to virtual reality and, nullifying the purpose for which we exist.
The most we have been able to demonstrate is that chimpanzees have more sophisticated cognitive abilities than all other animals, that they are self-aware and therefore have a form, even if rudimentary, of consciousness3. Then we were surprised when we observed that they can acquire the meaning of a number of ideograms, basically written words, that some of them know how to count up to nine, that they know how to distinguish colors and that they can make requests like this: I want two pens, one red and the other green. The most remarkable thing for us humans is that these animals have been able to count to nine and that they can distinguish different colors, but that they have a consciousness.
The point that has been overlooked is not the fact that they have consciousness, that they can dominate things that are difficult to imagine and also communicate with us to tell us that they too have dignity, but that they are no different from us men. Unfortunately, this is, and has always been, a problem. Since we became Homo sapiens, we denigrate all animals that are physically similar to us, compared to those that are not comparable at all, and unfortunately, chimpanzees are the ones that look the most like us.
1 Horton, R. 2020. The Covid-19 Catastrophe: What’s gone wrong and how to stop it happening again. Cambridge, Polity Books.
2 Savage-Rumbaugh, E.S. Kanzi. The ape at the brink of the human mind. London, Roger Lewin Doubleday.
3 Tartabini, A. 2020. La coscienza negli animali. Milano, Mimesis Edizioni.