Film review: “So Human, So Chimp”

Yesterday, while writing my last entry (Hopelessly Conformist), I looked for the “Ape Genius” video on PBS, so I could include the link in my post. At first, I found the wrong video. It was called “So Human, So Chimp”. After watching this movie (http://video.pbs.org/video/1383599160/), Brian O’Connor asked me about it.

Brian O’Connor: What did you think of “So Human, So Chimp”?

Future Historian: Well, first of all, a more appropriate title would have been “Like Chimp, Like Human”, except that I agree with Jared Diamond (author of The Third Chimpanzee) that we’re really just one of the three species of chimps on this planet: regular chimps, pygmy chimps (i.e. bonobos), and human chimps.

Movies like “Ape Genius” and “So Human, So Chimp” are extremely annoying in showing humans’ exaggerated opinions of themselves. Instead of using the contrast between humans and other primates as motivation to make fuller use of our mental abilities, the humans in these films are satisfied observing how much smarter we are.

BO: Stop talking in such vague and general terms.

FH: One idea that was repeated a few times near the end of the movie is that humans are clearly more collaborative than other apes because we create cities, governments, religions, bla bla bla.

BO: On what basis, does the film claim that apes are not as collaborative? They’re social animals, like us.

FH: I guess, the thinking is that some of the chimps try to attack humans, especially strangers who come near them. (The humans are protected by a transparent wall, so no one gets hurt.) The human reporter and the scientist remarked that they were collaborating in creating this film even though they had never met each other before, something the chimps would be unable to to do.

BO: And on what basis do you claim that humans are equally uncollaborative?

FH: That’s not hard to demonstrate. Just compare the sexual behavior of bonobos and humans. Humans are far more possessive and controlling, and exhibit an extreme unwillingness to share sexual partners.

BO: Why do you use a relatively minor aspect of life as a counterexample? What about the cities, governments, and religions we create?

FH: I don’t think it is minor at all. I think it’s a big part of the reason why 90% of GDP is useless. The worldwide obsession with GDP and jobs growth is better thought of as a symptom of us competing for sexual privileges.

BO: Hold it there one second. Are you saying that if humans were as sexually promiscuous as the bonobos, our economies would collapse?

FH: Absolutely. This is a very important driving force of the world economy. The true reasons people go to work is far different from what they imagine them to be.

Now regarding the cities, governments, and religions, no humans have ever purposely formed a group and decided to collaborate by saying “let’s create a city, government, or religion”. They are primarily things that emerge without a conscious decision. Besides, how many people do you know whom you would credit with a significant scientific or political achievement?

If humans were a collaborative species, then socialist and communist economies would have trumped free market capitalism, which needlessly pits us against each other.

BO: Was there anything else that stood out in the film?

FH: The film mentioned the adage “monkey see, monkey do”. Ironically, the experiments in both films show that it is characteristically human to mimic behaviors, whereas other apes are more likely to accomplish tasks in their own way.

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Hopelessly Conformist

Today, I found myself pulled into yet another heated discussion with my tactical adviser, Brian O’Connor. He was not happy at all to find out that I intended to start a blog. I’ll try to reproduce our dialogue as best as I can remember:

BO: A blog?? This is the dumbest idea I’ve heard you express in a long time. Have you already forgotten the reasons why you despise blogs?

FH: No, I still hold that blogs are a symptom of a kind of attention deficit disorder that plagues present-day society.

BO: So you’re saying you’re the latest victim to succumb to adult ADD?

FH: We don’t really have a choice, but to engross ourselves in low quality ideas. Maybe I should say low quality memes to emphasize the evolutionary forces at work. Just about everything around us belongs in the memetic trash bin. Every conversation I have with every person, every article I read online or at the library, every recording I’ve ever watched or listened to, it’s all pure conformity.

BO: Stop making all those vague and abstract generalizations.

FH: When people steadfastly cling to the idea that real estate is a safe investment, that it never declines in value, that’s pure conformity. What I’m saying is that I can show that everything else is equally foolish.

BO: And I agree with you entirely! That’s why I think it’s such a ridiculous idea to write a blog. I mean, what do you expect people who read your blog to do? Do you think there will even be a single person who suddenly wises up and says “You know what, you’re right we’ve been foolish all along. But I’ve decided that from now on, I’m going to live life smart.” ?

FH: No, of course, I realize that the forces that pressure people to be conformists are too strong for me to overcome single-handedly. Whatever arguments are capable of making people question astrology or the value of investing in real estate are already out there and I have nothing to contribute. I view this blog as more of an exercise to retain my ability to think nonconformist thoughts.

BO: Unlikely. If that was your goal, why publish our conversations for the public to see? Is it not your ego that is seeking recognition from the outside world? But if so, you know darn well that only conformist ideas get positive reinforcement in this world. If you publish nonconformist views, I can assure you that the psychological reinforcement will be negative. Since you are only human, this will have the exact opposite effect from what you claim. Your brain will learn that nonconformist thoughts are not welcome, and you’ll automatically train yourself to become more conformist. If it were easy to be a nonconformist, there would be more than one specimen among 6.8 billion people.

FH: That’s actually a fascinating point you bring up. I think the mere act of seeking knowledge and information from the outside world is highly conducive to conformity. When you know things, you also know how to conform. As it is virtually impossible to resist conformity, any new human nonconformist is most likely going to be ignorant, but in this information age, that’s practically impossible, too.

BO: Give the audience the benefit of specific examples.

FH: And just who is the audience? I thought you wanted this to be a private conversation between you and me because there’s no point in making it public.

BO: You actually convinced me otherwise. This blog’s audience is the future historian, who is perpetually perplexed by our society’s inability to generate more nonconformists.

FH: For a specific example, see this PBS video called “Ape Genius” (http://video.pbs.org/video/1200128615/). It shows experiments where both chimps and human children are asked to solve puzzles whose solution results in a candy reward. There’s one particular experiment where the human children are shown to faithfully solve the puzzle as taught by the adult, whereas the chimps realize that the human adult is teaching nonsense. This is perhaps the loveliest experiment in human psychology that I’ve ever seen. It’s even more remarkable that serious scientists stare the truth directly in the eye and conveniently avoid drawing any serious conclusions from it.

Children are taught from a young age that working for a living is virtuous. This is an idiotic belief because our technology is so advanced that the inevitable result of everyone wanting to work is that 90% do useless things. Smart people stare this truth directly in the eye every day, but manage quite easily not to concern themselves too much with it.

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