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Saturday, December 3, 2022
Dr. Brown: The emotional and moral worlds of chimps and humans
Dr. William Brown. File Photo

Maybe not so much for cats, but many dog owners insist that they can read how their dog is feeling and in turn, their dog can sense how their owners feel.

One of my favourite scientists is Frans De Waal, a primatologist and astute observer and chronicler of chimpanzee behaviour, but not in the wild as with Jane Goodall’s observations.

De Wall works in the more accessible world of zoos designed to give the animals space and privacy while offering scientists like himself opportunities to observe the complex behaviours of chimps living in groups over long periods.

One of De Waal’s more provocative book titles was, “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?”

The very title suggests the answer. De Waal isn’t suggesting animals are more clever than humans, but that the emotional life and mind-reading capabilities of many socially intelligent animals might rival our own.

Chimpanzees and their close cousins, bonobos, are capable of limited planning, solving some novel problems and employing tools in a limited fashion.

But they possess nothing like humans’ sophisticated symbolic thinking and language and will never come up with anything remotely like general relativity or the Hubble and James Webb telescopes, mathematics, or compose music, or write poems and plays.

For De Waal, to watch chimpanzee society is to watch human society in action. Chimps are well aware of who’s who, who’s in charge, who’s allied with whom, who’s on the outs, who has power or not, and who can be trusted in ways that aren’t so different than the behaviour of humans.

Both species are very skilled at sizing up others within their groups.

Going further, chimpanzees possess a well-developed sense of unfairness toward themselves (first order unfairness or fairness) or to others in the troop (second order unfairness or fairness) and will protest unfairness for both.

Fairness toward strangers (third order fairness) is said to be limited to humans, but if so, often isn’t often expressed toward other humans outside our usual social circles.

Just as chimps sometimes cheat on one another, so also do humans, although it’s easier for humans to hide their cheating. That is until investigative reporters find out, as the New York Times revealed on Sept. 11 of this year, that 97 members of Congress traded in companies influenced by committees they belonged to.

If memory serves me right that’s been a recurring “fairness” or in this case unfairness issue for congressional members for some time.

Or what about the scandal not so many years ago about how the well-to-do and powerful sometimes cheat to secure entry for their children into highly competitive colleges and universities.

As I pointed out a few weeks ago, De Waal’s first best selling book, “Chimpanzee Politics,” likened the behavioural traits he and others observed in chimpanzees to the behaviour of members of the U.S. Congress.

I expect the same might be said sometimes for Canadian parliamentary bodies and local politics as well.

The similarities in social intelligence and moral sense of highly intelligent social species compared to those of humans suggests the parts of the brain that underlie social intelligence and fairness are similar among intelligent social species – including humans.

Certainly, the regions of the brain associated with emotion and feelings are similar among intelligent social species. Those parts include the cingulate gyrus, orbital-frontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus and hypothalamus and the connections between these and other regions of the brain – regions often referred to as the limbic system.

No surprise, lesions which involve these regions, may change emotional expression and control, and social behavior.

One classic example involved the case of Phineas Gage, an American railway construction worker in the 1800s, into whose skull and frontal lobes a large iron rod was driven by an explosion.

Before the injury he was a hard-working pleasant man but following the accident, he became foul mouthed, quick tempered and irreverent. Similar disinhibition is common in fronto-temporal forms of dementia and other lesions, which affect the frontal lobes.

The evolution of hominins was associated with successively larger brains. But the most significant change was in the folding and expansion of the neocortex, especially in the regions associated with symbolic thinking and language, and rational creative and imaginative thought processes – not so much in regions related to feelings and emotion.

Therein lies the paradox: Our emotional brain hasn’t shown the same progress as our rational brain in the last several hundred thousand years.

Hence a Putin and the climate mess we’re in and a James Webb telescope – opposites but all too human.

Dr. William Brown is a professor of neurology at McMaster University and co-founder of the InfoHealth series at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.