Today we begin our discussion of In the Shadow of Man, (published in 1971,) an account of Dame Jane Goodall’s observations of chimpanzees in the Gombe National Park, Tanzania. If you haven’t finished the book yet, don’t panic; feel free to join the discussion anyway, or keep the questions in mind and answer them later. Also, remember that these questions are only meant to help inspire you; if you want to discuss some other aspect of the book or propose your own questions, go ahead.
- What did you think of the book? Favorite part, least favorite part?
- Do you agree with Jane’s claim that this was the first observation of tool making in animals, or does something like a beaver building a dam count? What constitutes “tool making”?*
- To what extent do you think the study of chimps aids in our understanding of ourselves? Do chimps make useful human analogues?
- What do you think is the nature of chimpanzee “consciousness”? Do they experience the world in some way similar to ourselves?
What do you think of the role of dominance (and violence) in chimp social life?
- What about the role of play, friendship, and love?
- Do we do ourselves a disservice by comparing humans to common chimps (pan troglodytes) instead of pygmy chimps/aka bonobos (pan paniscus)?
- Do you think Jane’s use of feeding stations, which potentially raised the level of chimp-on-chimp violence in the Gombe, compromised her research?
- I found it very interesting that chimps would fight over relatively low-value bananas, but not over high-value meat. Why do you think they did?
- Is it a good idea to use chimpanzee child-rearing methods with human children?
- Should humans do more to protect chimpanzees, both in the wild and captivity?
- Is it possible for chimps to act “morally” or have what we would call a “moral conscious?” Can we condemn the chimps for their treatment of Old Mr. McGregor?
If chimps (or other animals) have emotions, are we morally obligated to be kind to them?
- After the publication of this book, war broke out among the Gombe chimps, shocking Jane (more on this later.) Was her surprise warranted, or would you have expected it, based on the violence described in the book?
- Why do you think social grooming is so important to chimpanzees?
- Do humans have any behaviors similar to social grooming? If not, why?
- It must take an extraordinary sort of person to sequester themselves in the forest (in the age before cellphones or internet,) for months or years on end. Could you ever do such a thing?
- Should we read another book? If so, which?
*Jane actually notes in the bibliography that reports of chimpanzee toolmaking were published back in 1925, but perhaps these were not well-known outside of the primatology field:
Tool-using is discussed by Harry Beatty in “A Note on the Behavior of the Chimpanzee,” under General Notes of the Journal of Mammalology, Vol. 32 (1951), p. 118, and by Fred G. Merfield and H. Miller in Gorillas Were My Neighbors (London: Longmans, 1956); Wolfgang Kohler reported studies of tool-using and toolmaking by groups of captive chimpanzees in The Mentality of Apes (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1925).
Reports of tool use in apes date back to 1843, or perhaps earlier.
It is most likely true that, prior to the publication of Jane’s research, most people–even those interested in apes–weren’t aware of their tool-making abilities. After all, this was not the age of Wikipedia and easy research, when a few clicks of a mouse could bring you to an 1843 paper on primatology. Jane may have actually changed the body of well-known chimpanzee facts, just as Columbus changed the body of well-known continents facts, even though plenty of people had arrived in the Americas before him.
But I still think this all rather neglects the humble beaver, who cuts down trees, strips them of leaves and branches, and then arranges them into large dams, radically altering riverine environments to suit his needs. The world’s largest beaver dam is 850 meters long and still potentially growing.
But enough quibbling — on with the discussion. (Remember, you are welcome to join in even if you haven’t read the book.)
(I’ll be posting my normal excerpts + commentary next week.)