The Demonic Ape: A critique of the BBC 2 documentary

Even those who accept the theory of evolution frequently draw reactionary conclusions from the evidence provided by science. In Darwin’s day, natural selection was presented as a justification of capitalism and its dog-eat-dog morality. The fact that such ideas have no basis in what he actually wrote is conveniently ignored. A recent BBC documentary attempts something similar in trying to establish that the violence of human males is genetically determined and can be proved by looking at the behaviour of chimpanzees. Alan Woods explains why this theory is flawed.

The subject of human origins has always been surrounded by controversy. When Charles Darwin first proposed the theory of evolution, he was subjected to merciless attacks by reactionaries, especially the Church, which continued to maintain that God created the world in six days and that the first woman was formed from the rib of the first man.

According to the Church and its defenders, every species was created separately, and therefore there was no possible link between species. In particular, the anti-evolutionists denied any link between humans and the "lower species."

Nowadays the theory of evolution has been completely vindicated. In particular the human genome project has established beyond doubt that humans are genetically related to other species – not just apes, but even flies and bacteria. But this has not prevented the reactionaries from continuing to attack evolution, especially in the USA, where the Creationist movement is demanding that American schoolchildren be taught the first book of Genesis, instead of Darwin. Needless to say, the religious right has many sympathisers in the Bush administration.

However, even those who accept the theory of evolution frequently draw reactionary conclusions from the evidence provided by science. In Darwin's day, natural selection was presented as a justification of capitalism and its dog-eat-dog morality. The "survival of the fittest" was thought to provide the perfect proof of the "inevitability" of capitalism, where the rich (presented as the "strongest", irrespective of their real physical condition or ability to reproduce) crushed the "weak (the working class)" underfoot. Even today these reactionary distortions of Darwin's ideas can be seen in the so-called school of Social Darwinism. The fact that such ideas have no basis in what he actually wrote is conveniently ignored.

Marxism and science

Science cannot separate itself from society, and scientists can be influenced by incorrect political and philosophical ideas. For about a century the study of human origins was completely undermined by the prevailing idealist philosophy. Following the idealist notion that the brain determines everything, it was assumed that our earliest ancestors would necessarily have a big brain. The search for the "missing link" therefore reduced itself to the search for a humanoid fossil that would display this trait.

So convinced were the anthropologists of this that they allowed themselves to be deceived by the so-called Piltdown Man, which was later exposed as a crude forgery, in which the cranium of a human was combined with the jaw bone of an ape. In fact, by basing itself on idealism, science had been following the wrong track for a hundred years. The exact opposite was the case. The brains of the earliest anthropoid apes were the same size as the brain of a chimpanzee.

This was already predicted over a hundred years ago by Frederick Engels in his remarkable work, The Role of Labour in the Transition of Ape to Man. He explained that the earliest ancestors of man first separated themselves from the other apes by the upright posture, which freed the hands for labour. This was the precondition for the development of humankind. But the real qualitative leap was the production of stone tools. This was responsible for the development of society, language and culture that decisively sets us apart from all other animals. The late Stephen Jay Gould pointed out that if the scientists had paid attention to what Engels had written, they would have saved themselves a hundred years of error.

Tools, language and culture

Unfortunately, it seems that science must go from one extreme to another before arriving at the truth. In the nineteenth century there was a tendency to exaggerate the difference between humans and other animals. In recent years, however, there has been a tendency to go to the opposite extreme: to play down the difference between humans and apes, in particular chimpanzees. This leads to other mistakes, as we saw clearly in the BBC Horizon programme broadcast on the second of January.

Chimpanzees and humans, it is true, share many common traits. Genetically chimps share over 98% of their DNA with humans. They are our closest living relatives, and we share a common ancestor with them from over 5 million years ago. From this ancestor both humans and chimpanzees diverged to evolve into the separate species you see today.

It has become fashionable to say that chimpanzees also make and use tools – a trait previously thought to be solely human. Chimpanzees are known to fish for ants, use leaves as sponges to soak up water. They even crack open nuts with a wooden hammer. The programme concluded that "it seemed humans would have to be redefined." But this is really not the case. It is just another case of an inability to think dialectically.

The assertion, which again surfaced in the programme, that chimpanzees use tools is so exaggerated as to become false. It is true that chimpanzees are known to use sticks to catch ants and the like, but this behaviour, while remarkable in itself, hardly bears comparison with the tool-making activity of humans, as I showed in Reason in Revolt.

In their anxiety to eradicate the boundary line between humans and apes, some scientists now maintain that chimpanzees have a primitive form of language and appear to use vocalisations to communicate in a sophisticated manner. Recent research by Professor Sarah Boysen, quoted on the programme, suggests that chimpanzee vocalisations are "word-like".

The experiments used were certainly interesting. The chimpanzees in Boysen's study were shown a choice of pictures of different fruit, while the recorded cries of chimpanzees were played to them. They were consistently able to choose the correct picture to match the sound. This suggests that chimpanzees made certain calls that other chimps understood. They could be interpreted to mean that they have a primitive form of language.

Some would go even further. Chimpanzees are said not only to speak but to possess culture. This is defined as the handing down of learned traits from generation to generation. In this limited sense, it is possible to claim that chimpanzees have a kind of culture. Different populations of chimps had different tools. Even when these diverse groups of chimps had the same tools they used them in different ways. Some groups of chimpanzees eat termites with long sticks and others use very short sticks and eat them one by one. And those are said to represent cultural differences in the chimpanzees.

Dr. Goodall concludes: "It was pretty obvious that chimpanzees have their own kind of primitive culture." (my emphasis, AW) Others have come to a similar conclusion. Prof Michael Tomasell (Max Planck Institute) says in the programme: "Chimpanzees in one location use one kind of tool and in another location use another kind of tool. So that meets the minimal criterion for culture." The implications of such a conclusion would be profound. If chimpanzees use tools, and possess both language and culture, they would have a number of fundamental traits we think of as solely human.

The "theory of mind"

There are other significant differences between humans and other animals. One of them is called theory of mind – that is, we know what other people are thinking. Experiments have shown that even very young children have the beginnings of theory of mind. Since we cannot talk to them it is harder to tell if chimpanzees have theory of mind. But at the Max Plank Institute they have designed ingenious experiments to find out.

From these experiments it would appear that chimpanzees understand the needs and the emotions of other chimpanzees and respond correctly. This implies that they do have theory of mind. The next step was to pose the question: if chimpanzees are so similar to us could they tell us something about humans? Step by step the programme tried to eradicate the difference between chimpanzees and humans and then to derive human behaviour from animal behaviour. But the whole thing was based on incorrect premises. The roots of this error – like the previous error that said that the earliest humans must have big brains – is philosophical and methodological in character.

The experiments concerning language are very interesting, but they do not show what they are intended to show. It seems that the sounds made by chimpanzees in the presence of a particular fruit do, in fact, signify "bananas" or "grapes". That is an astonishing discovery and provides an important insight into the origins of speech. But does it really prove that chimpanzees possess a language and a culture?

According to Professor Sarah Boysen: "this may mean that there is some kind of meaning to the vocalisations they make. They could be similar to a word." (my emphasis) The cautious way in which Professor Boysen expresses herself is sufficient to emphasise the extremely tentative nature of these discoveries – interesting as they undoubtedly are. "Word-like" does not yet mean "words", much less "language", in the sense we would understand it. It means what it says: sounds that bear some resemblance to words, but which are not yet words – a bare potential that has not yet realised itself.

Hegel once observed that when we expect to see an oak tree with its mass of foliage and vast trunk, we are not satisfied if we are shown an acorn instead. An acorn, as we know is not an oak tree, or, more correctly, it is not yet an oak tree. It is only an oak tree in potential – the embryo of a future tree in a completely undeveloped state.

The cries of the chimpanzee are no more a language than the acorn is an oak tree, but under certain conditions they could well form part of the raw material out of which language later developed. Language only arises at a certain level of human development, and this is related to the need to develop a far more complex system of communication, related to the complicated process of collective production of stone tools and the correspondingly complex and sophisticated social and family relations that arise from these.

This brings us directly to the question of culture. Here the makers of the programme make the same mistake. They claim that chimpanzees also exhibit culture. If that were really the case then we would indeed have to completely revise our ideas, and the boundary line between humans and chimpanzees would be eradicated altogether. It is stated that different groups of chimpanzees use their "tools" in different ways. Moreover, this trait involves the handing down of learned traits from generation to generation. What is this but a form of culture?

The same mistake is made as the mistake regarding tools and speech. What we see here is not culture, as in human culture, but only the undeveloped potential for culture – the raw material from which it could later develop. But since true culture is the product of a complex society based exclusively on the production of tools, and since this premises is lacking in the world of chimpanzees, this "potential" can never be developed. It remains an unfulfilled promise, condemned to languish forever in the same undeveloped stage.

The way in which the earliest humans separated from the other primates was explained by Engels, and has been completely vindicated by modern anthropology. The first decisive step was the upright stance that freed the hands for manual labour. Over a long period the use of the hands, first for the manipulation of tools and then for the systematic production of stone tools, produced a revolution. It led to radical changes in the anatomy and brain size of our ancestors. For the first time we see a species that not only produced tools in an organized, collective manner, but which was entirely dependant on this productive activity for its survival.

All the things that make us human ultimately depend on this collective productive activity and originate in it. The need for a complex language and culture arises from this unique form of activity, and from the complex social relations that derived from it. Nothing remotely similar to this can be found in the animal kingdom. By contrast, the production of tools in chimpanzees appears as an accidental activity and not something fundamental to the survival of the species. It does not create complex forms of interrelationships and is usually individual and not social activity.

Even if chimpanzees were anatomically capable of pronouncing real words (which they are not), there would be no real need for developing a complex language system such as humans possess. Evolution is a very economical process and only gives rise to such an extraordinary adaptation when it is demanded by the needs of survival. In the case of human society, that complex system of sounds and meaning we call language is an absolute necessity. For chimpanzees it is not.

The same is true of what we call culture. Human culture arises from the needs of an extremely complex system of relationships that are ultimately based on the demands of collective productive labour. Our species, unlike all other species, does not merely take the natural environment as it is, but actively transforms it through labour. We create an artificial environment, based on collective production, and this tends to an ever greater degree of complexity.

In other species, genetically conditioned (inborn) instinct plays the main role. Certain activities can be learnt (not only in chimpanzees but in many of the lower species also) but these do not play the main role. The role of culture in human society is absolutely decisive. Without it we would perish. Human language and culture therefore arises from a way of life and a system of production that is quite unlike that of any other species.

The source of the mistake is in each case the same: the inability to think dialectically. The fact that we share almost 99 percent of our genes with chimpanzees is very striking. But it is precisely the missing one percent that is decisive: it represents the leap from quantity to quality. This is statistically very small, but from a dialectical point of view (and in real evolutionary terms) it represents an unbridgeable chasm. And all attempts to close the gap will be fruitless.

The "Demonic Ape"

Having "proved" the identity between apes and humans, the Horizon programme proceeded to introduce the question of violence. At one time it was thought that chimpanzees were peaceful vegetarians, but in recent years cases have been reported that show that chimpanzees hunt small monkeys and eat meat. More recently it has been shown that, at least in some circumstances, male chimpanzees kill other males. Chimpanzees have been known even to attack human infants.

The programme cited the following gruesome example. On May 15th 2002 Rukia Sadiki set off to meet her husband. She was with her niece and her baby daughter Miasa. It was a route they had taken many times before from their village, through Gombe National Park to Lake Tanganyika. What they didn't know is that on that day they were being followed. The attacker snatched the child and dragged her in to the jungle. Miasa's body was found in a tree. She had been partially eaten.

This is then used as the basis to show that violent behaviour is something inherent in both chimpanzees and humans, since males of both species supposedly also share similarly violent traits.

The programme states:

"The only other primates that kill their own kind are in fact, us. Humans and chimpanzees show a common aggressive tendency and will actively seek out and kill members of their own species. Chimpanzees and humans are the only other species that, out of 4000 other mammal species and 10 million other non-mammal species, have been observed to hunt and kill members of a rival group."

The demonic male hypothesis was put forward by Richard Wrangham (Harvard University) to explain the violent behaviour seen in both male chimpanzees and male humans. The hypothesis suggests that as only the males of both species display this behaviour, that this propensity for male violence has been inherited from our common ancestor 5 million years ago.

This theory is elaborated in Professor Richard Wrangham's book, Demonic Males, where it is argued that male chimpanzees kill other members of their species in order to extend their territory size to gain access to more fruit, and increase the number of females that might enter their group.

Listen to how Professor Wrangham talks about the hunting activities of chimpanzees:

"You get incredibly excited when you watch chimps hunting, and all the sympathy that otherwise one might expect to feel for the poor prey just goes out of the window because you identify so strongly with the chimpanzee. They are so intent and they are so excited, the passion that they feel is just so extraordinary. Then they settle down in to eating it and you have a time to reflect on, on what is actually happening. And you realise that this is a very extraordinary behaviour because there is far more meat eating going on in chimpanzees than there is in any other species of primate than humans."

At this point science is abandoned in favour of subjectivism and imagination. It was later found that there were cases of chimpanzees killing their own kind. In the sixties the group that Goodall studied split in to two fractions, Kasakela and Kahama. The rivalry between the two turned in to a bloody "civil war". One by one the males in the Kasakela group killed every male and some of the females in their neighbouring group. Only a few years before the victims had been their constant companions. In total a third of all male deaths at Gombe were at the hands of other chimpanzees.

Wrangham speaks of this case with evident relish: "It was in January of 1974 that we first had this report of one of the males in Kahama, Hodi, being attacked by a group from Kasakela. He jumped out of the tree, he ran but they got him, somebody got a foot, somebody got a hand, they pinned him down and then they beat on top of him. The attack went on for more than five minutes and by the time they let him go you could hardly crawl away. And Hodi was never seen again."

The conclusion drawn by some scientists was that chimpanzees were not like us just because they could think, reason and use tools. They were like us because they could be cruel. Here is how Professor Wrangham puts it:

"There is a sense in which this looks sadistic, the, the joy, this is kind of hard to take you know because again it's got horrible echoes of what happens with humans at times. The males who attack, they do seem to take a certain joy in the attack, their drinking of the blood sometimes, or the biting, gripping with the teeth of the skin on part of the arm and then rearing the head back and taking the skin with it and tearing it all the way around. They look as though they're in a state of, of intense excitement and maybe joy."

The conclusion is quite clear: Chimpanzees kill for pleasure, for the joy of killing, and are therefore naturally sadistic. And since chimpanzees are essentially the same as humans, we too are naturally cruel and inclined to violence, murder and savagery. Wrangham's theory is that violent male behaviour is the result of our shared evolutionary past. Professor Wrangham says:

"The demonic male hypothesis is one that just responds to some very dramatic observations. We only know of two mammals in the world in which males make deliberate attempts to guard and kill members of neighbouring groups. And those two mammals are chimpanzees and humans."

The question of the environment

However, this argument is unsound. In other parts of Africa no evidence has been found for aggression among chimpanzees. The chimpanzees at Prof Christophe Boesch's research site on the Ivory Coast appear to be less aggressive towards people.

There are other examples. In a remote part of the Congo in an area known as the Goualogo Triangle, a young American scientist called Crickette Sanz has recently begun to study a group of chimpanzees that had never had contact with humans. But unlike the chimpanzees of Gombe, they do not show any abnormal levels of aggression, and there is no sign of chimps killing other chimps. This might be due to the fact that they are less habituated (familiar with human contact) and that the forests are more pristine. In other words, the environment plays a significant role in shaping the behaviour of chimpanzees.

The programme centred on the case of Frodo, the dominant alpha male of the longest studied group of wild chimpanzees in the world. He is now highly habituated and shows no fear of human beings. He has always ruled his group with force and maintains his high status in the group as a result. His violence has always been apparent - even as a youngster he used to throw rocks at Jane Goodall. His escalating violence as an adult is probably due to a combination of habituation, his alpha status and increased competition for resources as a result of increased human encroachment on his dwindling habitat.

Pressure from humans

The place where most violence in chimpanzees has been witnessed is Gombe, and the circumstances are indeed special. There have been major changes in the habitat and the circumstances over the years. Once Gombe was surrounded by forest but now the trees have been felled. There is a village within the park which is expanding, refugees surround it. The chimps are completely cut off from the rest of the rainforest. Some fear they could become extinct within fifteen years.

The chimpanzees of Gombe are under extreme pressure from humans. Their habitat has been largely destroyed, thus creating pressure and stress in the chimpanzee population, and competition for reduced living space. They have been affected by many serious respiratory infections believed to have been transmitted from humans. Prof. Sussman concludes: "You could look at this much like an animal group that's living in a very stressful environment and in, in some ways it's very much like the difference between a naturally living population and one living in a zoo."

Because of human encroachment some of the chimps are already dying. They have caught diseases from the large numbers of people who have visited, filmed, followed and fed them for forty years. Even the mighty Frodo was laid low. There are now six long-term chimpanzee study sites including Gombe. The chimpanzees in every one of those sites are aggressive. Every site also suffers from human pressure.

Chimpanzees in these long term study sites are losing out to logging companies and to poachers who invade the rainforest and snare them for bush meat. Those that survive are left with injuries that can alter their behaviour. Prof Christophe Boesch of the Max Planck Institute comments: "People are to realise that this encroachment that human do on nature is also doing on the home of many animals who live there and including chimpanzees or any other animal species, and it can present a tremendous stress on them."

It is clear that chimpanzees can be aggressive. The same is true of practically every other species. But evidence from most long term sites suggest that even by chimpanzee standards the violence at Gombe has been excessive. Christophe Boesch works in the Tai Forest on the Ivory Coast. His site suffers from significant human disturbance, a civil war. Yet the chimpanzees do not seem to be as aggressive as those at Gombe. He says:

"I have not seen this kind of killing in Thai Forest. This violence is not always present. Richard Wrangham's ideas originate from his observation in Gombe, and it's obviously something extremely worrying to see the chimpanzees killing other chimps. But I also think we need to take in account in this thinking these huge behavioural diversity that exists between chimpanzee population." In fact, the peculiar behaviour of the chimpanzees in Gombe is probably the result of the peculiar objective conditions that exist there.

Jane Goodall became secretary to the famous palaeontologist Louis Leakey. Precisely because she had no preconceptions about these animals Leakey asked her to study the chimpanzees of Gombe by the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. As a young woman Dr. Jane Goodall befriended a group of wild chimpanzees in the African rainforest. Her observations played a key role in developing our understanding of chimpanzees. As a way to win the chimps' trust, she decided to feed them. At Gombe the chimpanzees were fed so that they would quickly lose their fear of human beings and could be studied, feeding had an enormous impact.

Dr. Goodall recalls: "When we were feeding bananas on a daily basis to anybody who came along there was very unusual aggression between the chimps, and in addition it was attracting the baboons. And although baboons and chimpanzees fight over palm nuts in a ripe palm tree, quite often actually, but this was, was again creating real tension and aggression between the chimpanzees and the baboons, the whole situation was terrible."

In other words, human intervention had so transformed the conditions of life of the animals under observation that it heightened the violence. Nowadays such methods are rightly regarded as unscientific. Feeding may have changed the behaviour of the chimpanzees to such an extent that some have questioned the data on aggression collected at Gombe. In recent years this has been of considerable concern to the researchers at Gombe who are now implementing ways of reducing human contact. Banana feeding finally stopped about two years ago.

By basing their ideas on what they've seen at Gombe, scientists have undoubtedly overstated chimpanzee aggression and therefore also the parallel between human behaviour and that of chimpanzees. Prof. Sussman concludes: "I don't think there's very much evidence for the demonic male hypothesis, it's actually based on a number of instances of chimpanzees killing one another in certain circumstances and the hypothesises are based on the fact, or on the idea, that chimpanzees and humans share genes that are similar that cause them to be violent. I don't think that's very explanatory or helps us understand violence in chimpanzees or in humans."

This is obviously correct. The programme concluded: "This may be the supreme irony of Gombe. In our desire to understand ourselves we may have distorted the very animals we were using as a mirror. We do share much with our closest ancestors, but ultimately chimpanzees are not windows in to the human soul."

Social being determines consciousness

It seems overwhelmingly probable that stress caused by humans can make chimpanzees more violent. This view is backed up by the comments of Dr Jane Goodall herself: "I didn't see aggression to start with. There's no question that chimpanzees become more aggressive as a result of crowding, as a result of competition for food. It took a long time at Gombe before I realised how aggressive chimpanzees could be."

Commenting on the demonic male hypothesis, Professor Robert Sussman of Washington University says: "I think the demonic male hypothesis is basically a speculative idea about how the relationship between chimpanzee and human behaviour might have evolved. And I think it's actually, actually wrong. I think by saying that humans for example have a propensity for aggression or chimpanzees have a propensity for aggression is saying very little, because all animals have a propensity for aggression given different circumstances. And what's really interesting and important is understand the circumstances." (my emphasis)

It is, of course, possible to draw certain parallels between the behaviour of chimpanzees and humans, as long as we also bear in mind the differences and therefore the limitations of all such analogies. In this case, however, the conclusions to be drawn are very different to those of Professor Wrangham.

Just as in the world of humans social being determines consciousness, so in the world of our nearest primate relatives, changes in the environment have a decisive effect on behaviour. The destruction of the natural habitat of chimpanzees as a result of human activity puts great stress on the animal population, which expresses itself in excessively aggressive behaviour. Though the propensity for violent behaviour exists among chimpanzees, as in every other animal species, it only manifests itself in the extreme way described here when environmental changes creates conditions of unbearable tension and the competition for scarce resources leads to conflict.

What applies to our nearest animal relatives also applies to us, at least in the following sense. If men, women and children are deprived of human living conditions, they will inevitably lose part of their humanity. If people are subjected to an environment of scarcity, the result will be a struggle to obtain the means of life. This struggle has gone on uninterruptedly for the whole of written history. It has had a profound effect on the behaviour and psychology of people, and continues to warp and distort their character down to the present day. It is called the class struggle. And the class struggle is neither more nor less than the struggle for the possession of the surplus produced by the working class.

Many people grieve over the lamentable state of modern society: the spiritual emptiness, the cynicism, the nihilism, the escapism, the absence of belief, the scepticism, and cynicism. Of course, such states of mind cannot be attributed to our primate relatives. The kind of "culture" related to different ways of fishing for ants is not sufficiently advanced to give rise to such states of mind. But other features resemble perhaps all too closely the kind of behaviour displayed by the chimpanzees of Gombe: the violence, the cruelty and indifference towards the suffering of others, the inequality, the lack of elementary human solidarity.

The roots of this behaviour, however, are not to be found in genetics but in society. If you place men and women in intolerable living conditions, in overcrowded cities clogged with traffic, noise and pollution; if you encourage a morality based on greed and competition in which the strongest trample on the weakest; if you make people live on inhuman housing estates, amidst uncollected garbage and discarded syringes, then it is hardly surprising if the result is an explosive mixture of violence, crime and vandalism. These are not the unalterable product of our genes but only the symptoms of a society in a dead end.

Marx explained long ago that social being determines consciousness: that is to say, the material conditions in which men and women live and work will eventually determine the way they think and act. In short, if you treat people like animals they will behave like animals.

28, 2004

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