Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Human encroachment is obliterating chimpanzee culture
We are destroying who they are.
- A study finds that human impact is decimating the cultures of chimpanzee communities in the wild.
- Unique localized behaviors are being reduced by 88 percent.
- Socialized learning in chimps has finally been established, just in time to be destroyed.
People who enjoy travel have seen this trend becoming more and more pronounced even in human populations: There's an increasing homogeneity among our cultures, a loss of local identity as we increasingly eat the same foods, watch the same movies, and covet the same gizmos. A similar thing is occurring to chimpanzees, but it's even more fundamental. The culprit, though, is the same: Us.
At least we (sort of) intend to be doing it to ourselves — our primate cousins are losing their tapestry of cultures through no fault of their own.
Image source: Ari Wid / Shutterstock
It took some time for field studies of African chimpanzees to mature to the point that a pattern became clear, but by 1999, and a cumulative 151 years of observation, researchers — including Jane Goodall — published compelling evidence that chimpanzee communities develop their own local cultures.
The paper reported: "We find that 39 different behavior patterns, including tool usage, grooming and courtship behaviors, are customary or habitual in some communities but are absent in others where ecological explanations have been discounted."
The idea was not immediately accepted, but by now, a substantial amount of evidence exists of cultures across a range of species. Humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine have taken up "lobtail feeding." A hot trend spreading through the capuchin world is poking each others' eyes. Some orangutans say goodnight by blowing a raspberry. Chimp culture is no longer in dispute.
The irony, of course, is that it's now disappearing thanks to human encroachment. As Ammie Kalan, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and co-author of a new study examining this trend, tells The Atlantic, "It's amazing to think that just 60 years ago, we knew next to nothing of the behavior of our sister species in the wild. But now, just as we are truly getting to know our primate cousins, the actions of humans are closing the window on all we have discovered."
Local chimpanzee behaviors
Image source: Kalan, et al/CherylRamalho / Shutterstock
Chimpanzee behavior diversity has been "documented in a variety of contexts," says the study, "including communication, thermoregulation and extractive foraging. Chimpanzees are also proficient tool-users, using sticks, leaves and stones to access honey, insects, meat, nuts and algae."
Because the observed behaviors are unique to local population groups, they can't be attributed to instinctive behavior, and it's believed that, once introduced or invented, "Many of these behaviors are inferred to be socially learned and therefore cultural," according to the study's authors. (They don't completely rule out the possibility that genetic and environmental influences play some part. Still, the presence of these activities occurs "irrespective of resource or tool abundance," and new behaviors are continually discovered by researchers when observing a new chimpanzee group for the first time. (There's been ample controlled experimentation that confirms chimps' ability to learn new things.)
The study's researchers looked at 31 chimpanzee behaviors that appear in 144 different chimp communities. They observed 46 communities specifically for this study and incorporated existing data from an additional 106 groups, an exceptionally large data set overall.
What the paper finds
The data reveals that in chimpanzee communities experiencing significant human impact, the likelihood of local behaviors appearing drops by a stunning 88 percent. The conclusion was inescapable, even though the researchers employed an extremely forgiving standard: If a behavior was observed even once, they recorded it as present — this means our impact might actually be even more extreme than the study reports.
The authors also questioned whether there could possibly be a mistake in the manner in which the data was being analyzed. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. "However we divided up the data, we got the same very obvious pattern," says Kalan, confirming their worst fears for the "disturbance hypothesis" the study was investigating.
The disturbance hypothesis
The disturbance hypothesis considers that even when chimp populations survive complete decimation, the damage inflicted by human exploitation of their habitat can still be profound "due to resource depletion or a breakdown in opportunities for social learning." With habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation — also, poaching — communities shrink and are dispersed over long distances, and this reduces "population size, gregariousness and long-distance dispersal, weakening behavioral transmission."
The study notes that the world population of the great apes is declining 2.5-6 percent a year. On top of that, "Our results suggest that chimpanzee populations are losing their characteristic sets of behavioral traits, and that a number of not yet discovered behaviors may be lost without having ever been described."
The authors suggest that as we look to do a better job at preserving remaining habitat in the future, we add in a new metric, "culturally significant units." They conclude "a more integrative approach to conservation is needed," a standard that "considers behavioral diversity in addition to population size and trends for wildlife management."
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.
- A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
- Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
- The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to go ice fishing on Europa<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="GLGsRX7e" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4790eb8f0515e036b24c4195299df28"> <div id="botr_GLGsRX7e_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/GLGsRX7e-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Water Vapor Above Europa’s Surface Deteced for First Time<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9c4abc8473e1b89170cc8941beeb1f2d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/WQ-E1lnSOzc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.