The big question
Why are we asking this now?
A chimp called Santino in Furuvik Zoo in Sweden has been found to be capable of planning for the future by calmly building up a cache of stones in the early morning hours ready for opening time when he would then hurl them at gawping visitors. According to scientist Mathias Osvath of Lund University, Santinos behaviour shows that our fellow apes consider the future in a very complex way.
It implies that they have a highly developed consciousness, including life-like mental simulations of potential events, Dr Osvath said. They most probably have an inner world like we have when reviewing past episodes of our lives or thinking of days to come. When wild chimps collect stones or go out to war, they probably plan this in advance. I would guess they plan much of their everyday behaviour. This is not the behaviour we come to expect of dumb animals chimpanzees appear to be almost human-like.
In what other ways do chimps show similarities to humans?
There are several different observations that point to their human-like nature. Chimps who have undergone medical experiments, for instance, exhibit the classic behavioural symptoms shown by people who have suffered extensive torture. The hand gestures of chimps such as the open-palm begging posture are similar to those of humans and might derive from a common origin.
Wild chimps have also been found to engage in a form of primitive warfare against neighbouring chimps. They also experience infectious yawning, when one yawning member of a group sets off yawning in everyone else. Chimps are also prone to many of the viral infections of humans, such as Ebola and HIV. All in all, they are really quite human in many respects.
Any specific examples of behaviour in common?
Several. A female chimp called Ai, for instance, was taught to count to 10 and to remember five-figure numbers, just two short of the seven-digit telephone numbers most people can just about recall.
Another chimp called Panbanisha had been trained to understand simple English sentences, although this fell short of being able to communicate in a true, spoken language. The chimp was brought up to remember a lexigram, a computer screen full of symbols which she can press to produce a rudimentary response to a human voice.
Panbanisha became able to recognise certain favourite or key words, such as outdoors and M&Ms, when spoken in the proper context with a certain intonation. Another chimp, called Kanzi, would accurately locate the correct printed symbol on a lexigram for a given spoken word or phrase. This suggests that they can identify spoken sounds, even if the understanding is limited in the context of speech and language.
But are these just tricks or do they suggest a higher intelligence?
Of course animals kept domestically can be trained to perform a wide variety of seemingly clever tricks, although there is mounting evidence that wild chimps have a more sophisticated understanding of the world than scientists once gave them credit for.
Take, for instance, the use of tools, which was once considered to be a defining feature of humanity. Wild chimps are now known to use tools widely, such as the use of sticks to fish for termites or stones to crack open hard nuts. Indeed, a few years ago scientists filmed chimps using a tool kit to fish for termites. They would create a hole in a termite nest with one, thick stick and push another, thinner stick with a deliberately frayed end down the same hole to catch the termites. This was the first known example of chimps using two different tools to perform a given task.
Humans have culture. What do chimps have?
If culture is defined as passing on learning and tradition to future generations, then chimps have it. Ten years ago, scientists published a large study drawing on a knowledge of more than 150 years of chimpanzee observations in the forests of central Africa showing that wild chimps have an array of traditions that they pass on to their offspring. …