August 23, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Is a Bonobo a Genius?

A trained bonobo has been filmed making simple stone tools.  Does that qualify for genius status?

In a shameless headline to lessen the gulf between apes and humans, New Scientist reporter Hannah Krakauer announced, “Bonobo genius makes stone tools like early humans did.”   Without diminishing Kanzi’s engineering feats with rocks, it seems a stretch for Krakauer to claim, “he now seems capable of making stone tools on a par with the efforts of early humans.”  Further reading shows that Kanzi had been taught toolmaking skills by trainers, including how to knap flint flakes for cutting.  His bonobo companion did not learn as well.  Krakauer was astonished at the resemblance of Kanzi’s handwork to “early hominid tools.”  Only at the end of the article did she fess up that the headline might be overblown:

Do Kanzi’s skills translate to all bonobos? It’s hard to say. The abilities of animals like Alex the parrot, who could purportedly count to six, and Betty the crow, who crafted a hook out of wire, sometimes prompt claims about the intelligence of an entire species. But since these animals are raised in unusual environments where they frequently interact with humans, their cases may be too singular to extrapolate their talents to their brethren.

The findings will fuel the ongoing debate over whether stone tools mark the beginning of modern human culture, or predate our Homo genus. They appear to suggest the latter – though critics will point out that Kanzi and his companion were taught how to make the tools. Whether the behaviour could arise in nature is unclear.

But if it’s unclear, why did she claim the ape’s toolmaking was on par with that of early humans she never saw?  Maybe those early humans made saddles, too, that left no trace because they were made of wood and leather.  Meanwhile, over at Live Science, Charles Q. Choi leapt to the same conclusion as Krakauer, claiming that the observation “may shed light on the mental capabilities of the last common ancestor of humans and these apes….”  He wrote similar things for an article posted on PhysOrg.  After the flashy headlines come the admissions that the way these animals were raised could be essential to the story, and that such behaviors were not observed in the wild.  Emphasis was also lacking on another question: if apes make stone tools, will this compromise a primary criterion for hominids by paleoanthropologists?

OK, if it is unclear the behavior could arise in nature, why are you reporting it?  Come back when you have something clear to say.  Meanwhile, stop extrapolating this dumb pet trick into an evolutionary story about how humans arose from apes.

If it would be inappropriate to make sexist conclusions out of the observation that Kanzi  made more tools than his female companion Pan-Banisha, then it is wrong to make evolutionary conclusions out of artificial training.  Clearly many animals are intelligent.  If crows and dolphins had hands, they might be better toolmakers than the bonobos.  Human trainers routinely train sea lions, elephants and horses to do all kinds of neat tricks.  Your own dog can be trained to catch frisbees and herd sheep in response to whistles.  The only reason these people get all Darwin starry-eyed over Kanzi is that they need the common ancestry line to emerge from apes, not dogs and dolphins.  Evolution is conclusion looking for support after the faith commitment has been made.


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  • rockyway says:

    ‘Krakauer was astonished at the resemblance of Kanzi’s handwork to “early hominid tools.”

    – It’s hard to believe these people are serious. Their stunt proves nothing at all. If they taught a chimp to make a fire would that prove chimps invented fire?
    I once saw a photo of a chimp smoking a cigarette; does that mean chimps invented tobacco and the ‘art’ of smoking?
    Would teaching a chimp to sketch some letters mean they invented the alphabet and language?

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