We talk about “nature versus nurture.” Have you seen a parallel in primates?
G: Even among the chimps at Gombe, there are clear examples of good mothers and bad mothers. And the good mothers tend to raise offspring that become significant in the group and turn out to be very good mothers themselves and tend to mate with quite high-ranking males, whereas the bad mothers tend to raise young ones who grow up to become very tense in their interactions with others, and they’re not very successful. The first orphan I studied at Gombe lost his mother at about 31/2. He was completely changed. He didn’t want to interact with others anymore. The other young ones would try to play with him, but he became hostile and aggressive, sort of “Just keep away from me.” He died soon after, and that made quite an impact on me.
People tend to see human qualities in chimpanzees. Does it go the other way too?
G: Oh, quite easily. It’s the body language. We have a smile when we’re happy, but we also have a smile when we’re nervous. Lots of people show the nervous smile. Whenever I see that, I think of the chimp’s fear response. That’s an obvious similarity. And the swaggering walks of some males, you know, that Texan cowboy kind of thing.
You’ve raised a child. Are the human and chimp learning curves similar?
G: Up to about 2 years of age they are very much the same—surprisingly so. But they are every bit as different afterward. With the development of language, spoken language, everything changes. . . . because suddenly there are many new ways of teaching.
Chimps can be pretty aggressive, getting into territorial wars. Do you think war is a primate trait that extends to humans?
G: No, I think what’s happened is that there’s been a disconnect between who we are and what we can do. There isn’t really the same disconnect between spirit and self-interest in primates. Oh, they can be selfish, of course. They have a dark side, and they’re capable of brutality and all kinds of terrible things. And they have that “noble side”—altruism and love and compassion—as do we. But I don’t think they have the same ability as we have to deliberately take control of where they’re going with it. We can choose to suppress the ugly side, and most people do. If we didn’t, we’d have streets filled with gangs like the Crips and the Bloods. And we don’t, by and large.
But chimpanzees do form gangs, don’t they?
G: It’s exactly the same kind of thing, except that with the chimps, I think the behavior really is, in an evolutionary sense, to protect resources for their young. Maybe in a way that’s how human gangs also operate, because my understanding is that many of the conflicts are largely territorial. But what makes us human, I think, is an ability to ask questions, especially of ourselves—which is related to the fact that we have language. What the chimps have is like the beginning of morality. Once you have a sophisticated language, you can teach your children about what’s not present; we can discuss the past. We can sit around and discuss an idea so that it can grow from the accumulated wisdom of the group.
We know how humans and chimps interact, but what about chimps and other primates—baboons, say?
G: It’s the most fascinating relationship between species that I know of outside human interactions. At one end of the spectrum, they play, especially the young ones, and they may even have special play partners that they deliberately seek out. They understand each other’s alarm calls, some of their gestures. At the other end of the spectrum, adult male chimps may compete for food and even hunt, kill, and eat the baby baboons.
Will they play with less similar animals?
G: Yes. We’ve seen them playing with young bushbucks; they play with some adult monkeys as well. They may carry a smaller animal around for a while, but they’ll eventually kill it, even if it’s accidental.
No animal companions then?
G: Captive chimps, if they have the opportunity, form the most extraordinary relationships with dogs, absolutely. I know somebody who has a pet chimp and a little Jack Russell. The chimp is a 7-year-old male, quite strong. The chimp gets the little dog by one leg and starts twirling him around, and you think, “This must be ghastly,” until the poor dog finally gets away. What does he do? He runs straight back for more. You can really see how our own relationship with dogs might have evolved, because you’d think the dog would just chomp the chimp. But they never do. They never do. I’d love somebody to study it.