Next of Kin by Roger Fouts

Next of Kin: What Chimpanzees Have Taught Me about Who We Are
Next of Kin: What Chimpanzees Have Taught Me about Who We Are by Roger Fouts
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Holy moly. This book is awesome.

I can’t remember how we found this book. I think some website (maybe Goodreads) recommended it because my nine-year-old was reading every single thing Jane Goodall wrote. My daughter read it first, and then as she was getting ready to return it to the library said, “Mom, I really think you should read this book. It’s really good.”

Once I started the book, it didn’t take me long to agree with her.

I was probably already primed to find this book amazing. Whenever I go to a zoo or an animal sanctuary, I always have mixed feelings, especially when I see the captive primates, whether they’re gorillas, chimpanzees, golden lion tamarins, capuchin monkeys, or marmosets. I was reminded of this when my family visited the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., last month and observed the gorillas. I recognize the realities of habitat loss and other aspects of modern life that make it impossible to return many of these beings to the wild, but they’re just a little too close for comfort. I empathize with them a little too much to make watching them in captivity completely comfortable.

Reading Fouts’ book emphasized all of these feelings I was already having. It was a very emotional read.

In this book, Fouts (with Stephen Tukel Mills) addresses issues of language acquisition, how learning happens (especially the use of rewards and punishments in learning), the close evolutionary relationship between chimpanzees and humans, the bias of the speaking/hearing population for spoken language, the morality of using non-human animals for biomedical testing, and the arbitrary boundaries we use to define “human” and “non-human.” While imparting all of this information, the book reads like a memoir—a very compelling memoir because it shows how Fouts’ own opinions and ways of looking at what makes us “human” evolved during his years working with chimpanzees.

Fouts talks about how traditionally the ability to produce language has been seen as one of the things that sets humans apart from all other animals. In a study in the early 1950’s, a chimpanzee was raised in a human family and given speech therapy. Because the chimpanzee was only ever able to say four words, Fouts explains, “many scientists claimed that [this study] proved that humans stand above and apart from the apes because of our unique and innate capacity for language.”(25)

This was not a new idea, of course. For centuries, spoken language had been considered the only “real” language, and because our fellow great apes couldn’t produce the sounds necessary to speak a language, that was proof that they were less than human. Thanks to subsequent research, including the groundbreaking work by Fouts himself, we know that apes can use non-spoken language just fine and that their inability to speak is only mechanical, but I wonder how this idea equating spoken language with humanity/human-ness has influenced how we’ve traditionally seen people who cannot speak or have trouble speaking who are often treated as slow or stupid or just ignored entirely because they don’t use spoken language or speak differently when they do.

In what other ways does our desire to define what makes us “human” shape how we think about our fellow humans? If we’re in the habit of categorizing creatures as “human” and “not human” based on arbitrary criteria—like the ability to form spoken words—how big a jump is it to separate out other groups of humans as “not quite human”? I think about the video of the police officer during the first riots in Ferguson, Missouri, referring to the crowd as “animals”. One could argue that he’s not representative of the majority of people, but how many of us have similar thoughts about whatever group of people we’ve classed together in our minds as “other” even though we wouldn’t ever use the words, even in our own minds? Moreover, what unconscious classifications am I using to judge the relative humanity of my fellow humans?

As Fouts mentions, the Great Chain of Being espoused by Aristotle, Plato, Descartes, and others, established a rigid hierarchy of beings, each of which was ranked in a higher-vs-lower relationship to every other. Since Darwin’s discoveries in the 19th century, which suggest that the differences between species aren’t as concrete as we’d thought, we’ve come a long way towards realizing the flaws in the Great Chain of Being, but what residual effects does more than two millennia of that way of thinking leave? What sort of hierarchies do we maintain today, and how do these influence the way we treat one another, both person-to-person and on a policy level?

At any rate, these were some of the thoughts I had while reading Next of Kin.

Near the end of the book, which Fouts wrote in 1997, I started asking “where are they now?” about the chimpanzees. After an internet search, I learned that Dar, Moja, and Washoe have since died, and that Tatu and Loulis are now living at Fauna Foundation in Quebec, only a few hours’ drive from where we live now. My daughter and I are now looking at the adopt-a-chimp and membership options at the foundation, and wondering if we can manage a visit.

I also began reviewing all of my household purchases. I lean towards products not tested on animals anyway, but sometimes—I admit—I am swayed by a good price. There are a surprising number of products in my house that wouldn’t make the cut if I were really serious about avoiding products tested on animals.

So basically, this was a compelling and poignant read that has compelled me to make some changes in my everyday life. I’m now thinking of buying this for a half-dozen people for Christmas. Although since they’re all primates, maybe they’d appreciate dress-up clothes and a bouquet of bananas more.

Here are some (more) of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Once triggered, learning will not stop—unless it is hijacked by conditioning.” (83)

“Creativity and learning are examples of innate behavior that can only be hindered, not helped, by rewards.” (84)

Of a baby chimpanzee: “Until she grasps her groups’ specific gestures and social cues—its dialect—she won’t be able to learn important skills from her mother, form alliances with her peers, attract a mate, and raise her own children.” (87)

“If our ape ancestors communicated gesturally, were early man’s first languages signed? If so, how and when did these signed languages become spoken?” (90)

“In fact, during the first half of this [the twentieth] century, educators tried mightily to eradicate American Sign Language because they thought its gestures were too ‘monkeylike’; speech was seen as the ‘higher and finer part’ of language.” (96)

“Science that dissociates itself from the pain of others soon becomes monstrous.” (372)

“Some scientists love to measure an animal’s mind by comparing it to the human I.Q. In these tests chimpanzees come off like mentally disabled children or adults. But when we are dropped in the jungle, we suddenly test like mentally disabled chimpanzees, and the chimpanzees look like certified geniuses.” (376)

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