Next of Kin

I’ve been quite busy over the last few days, and haven’t got around to writing anything, though there is a lot that I’d like to write about. Just thought I’d keep the blog going by writing about a book called Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees by Roger Fouts, which I read last month. It’s about a series of experiments about the language learning ability of chimpanzees, by teaching them sign language. Of course we know that chimpanzees are our nearest cousins, but the book reveals just how “intelligent” they are, and how amazingly similar their cognition and social behaviour are, to our own. The author takes us on an intriguing journey that tells us a lot about the nature of our own learning and behaviour, and tackles the question of how language could have evolved, from the common ancestors of humans and chimpanzees.

It’s interesting that for decades, the Western scientific world looked at the chimpanzee as little more than a “monkey”, but the native African cultures look upon chimpanzees with a lot of respect. In fact, the word “chimpanzee” comes from an African dialect, and it originally meant “different man”. Some tribes even supplement their knowledge of medicinal plants by following and observing chimpanzees medicating themselves with herbs.

We often call ourselves “social animals”, which somehow seems to put ourselves on a pedestal above the rest of the animal kingdom. After reading this book, any line of division between humans and the other animals looks really thin. In fact, it makes you even redefine what is meant by “human”.

One thought on “Next of Kin

  1. Interesting tribute to the closest of our cousins.

    I remember seeing some interesting documentaries on Chimpanzees, at a wildlife films workshop organised by British Council, Chennai, a couple of years back.

    One of the films showed people bringing their (banned) meat hidden in carry-bags, in country buses, and respectable middle-class housewives buying them.

    Another scene I recall is farmers living close to a sanctury complaining about their plantain crops destroyed by these ‘cousins’. It looked just like a family feud.

    But the main highlight of the workshop was a long speech given by Jane Goodall, the world famous primologist who actually lived in Africa close to the chimpanzees and studied their social and family life for many, many years.

    Let us not forget our cousins.

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