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Excerpt from The Myth of Human Supremacy

Chimps Outperform Humans (p. 102)

From chapter "Value-Free Science "

I just read an article about how chimps consistently outperform humans in certain sorts of games that require they pay close attention to, and recognize patterns in, what the other player is doing.

The game the article describes is basically a matching game, where each player secretly chooses left or right on a computer screen the other can’t see, and if the players match, then player A wins, and if they don’t, then player B wins. Chimps imprisoned in laboratories outperformed sixteen university students from Japan and twelve men from Guinea. The chimps moved more quickly in each case to optimal strategies than did the humans. There was no difference in ineptitude between the humans from Japan and Guinea.

What possible implications might one draw from this?

Well, the first implication I might draw could be that chimpanzees seem to be better than at least non-Indigenous humans at paying attention to the behavior of others, and seem to be more sensitive to these others’ actions. The article even quotes a behavioral economist from Caltech as acknowledging, “It seems like they’re keeping better track of their opponents’ previous choices. You can see, compared to the human subjects, they’re just more responsive. They’re keeping better ‘minds’ on what their opponents are doing.”

Please note his dismissive use of scare quotes around the word “minds.” In the “minds” of human supremacists, only humans have minds; the best anyone else can hope for is “minds.”

Doesn’t the insistence on our separation from all others ever get tiring? Doesn’t it all start to seem a little desperate?

The next implication I might draw could have to do with one of the definitions routinely used to declare humans über-intelligent, which is that intelligence is the ability to recognize patterns. But, uh, the chimpanzees are better than we are at recognizing patterns in the play of their opponents, which means, uh, well, maybe we’re not number one. Damn it all.

But of course, neither of those are the implications the scientists and journalists draw from all this. The Caltech behavioral economist quoted above concluded, “One theory is that the humans are overthinking it, and the chimps have a simpler model.”

Extraordinary. He just turned the fact that chimpanzees outperformed humans in this game into evidence that humans are more complex thinkers. Or maybe it’s not so extraordinary. Isn’t it what we would expect from narcissists?

This behavioral economist won a MacArthur “Genius” Grant in 2013. So I guess this means that if I want to show myself a more complex thinker than this “genius,” I need to play games with him and make sure to lose. Following his “logic,” me losing would be evidence I overthought, while him winning would be evidence that his “mind” uses a “simpler model.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, the self-serving stupidity of the genius’s comment, the editor of the newspaper that printed the article used that comment as a pull-quote.

Of course the editor did.

The conclusions of other human supremacists are equally ridiculous. As the article states, “Researchers believe the different outcomes could be the byproduct of a cognitive trade-off in the course of evolution. Humans left the trees and developed language, semantic thought and cooperation, while our distant cousins kept right on doing what made them so successful in the first place: competing, deceiving and manipulating.”

Yes, that’s right. They just turned evidence for an increased sensitivity and responsiveness toward their playmates—the chimps were, after all playing a game, which is not quite the same as, say, stealing someone’s land and extirpating them, which someone we could name has done once or twice or a million times—into evidence that chimpanzees are deceitful and manipulative.

Please note also some of the other propaganda in that paragraph. First, it’s irrelevant that humans “left the trees”; how does leaving trees for grasslands imply the development of “language, semantic thought and cooperation”? The phrase “left the trees” pretty clearly is used here as shorthand to signify humans separating themselves—psychologically and spiritually, since of course it’s not possible physically—from Nature. Second, nonhumans have highly developed “language, semantic thought and cooperation,” which means, much as we humble narcissists like to think we invented everything, that humans didn’t “develop” them. Third, it is this culture that is refusing to cooperate with the rest of the world, but is instead projecting its own competitive mindset onto reality (Selfish Gene, anyone?). Salmon, forests, and rivers seem to cooperate just fine. The paragraph is really just a recapitulation of the Great Chain of Being, nothing more than the tired re-assertion that “At some point in the past, humans crossed some otherwise impassible chasm that now separates Humans from Nature, stopped being another animal that is red in tooth and claw, stopped being matter, and became mind, became elevated, filled with abstract thoughts (never mind that the chimpanzees were playing this game on a computer, and you can’t get much more abstract than that) and became (cue the swell of violins to drown out the screams of this culture’s human and nonhuman victims) cooperative.”

The original paragraph would be far more accurate if it read, “After some humans metaphorically ‘left the trees’ by defining themselves as separate from and superior to Nature—and to maintain this self-definition they must put themselves in perpetual opposition to Nature—they developed patriarchy, wars of extermination, and ecocide; and they traded cooperation for competition, domination, and manipulation; while these humans’ ‘distant cousins’ have been thrown off their lands, ripped from their families and friends, and subjected to stupid lab tests.”

It doesn’t really matter whether any of the human supremacist assertions make sense, so long as they serve our sense of superiority. Chimpanzees are better than are humans at these games, which then somehow means humans are superior, smarter, and more cooperative. And besides, chimps are deceitful and manipulative. They must be; it couldn’t actually be that they are better than we are at something. The big cheaters. So there.