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Russell Tuttle ponders the origins of communication

AAAS Fellow Russell Tuttle studies modern primates to learn more about how humans developed the ability to communicate. (Photo: Beth Rooney)

How did we learn to communicate? It is a question as old as human intelligence, and both philosophers and scientists have been studying our ability to communicate our most complex ideas, our most basic desires, and everything we experience or imagine through a few thousand words. Anthropologist Russell Tuttle is among those who are interested in studying the issue from the ape perspective.

Given a free afternoon and a comfortable chair, Tuttle is happy to have a conversation about apes. He is a professor at the University of Chicago and has conducted research both in the lab and in the field on human evolution and what modern primates can tell us about our development. He edited the "International Journal of Primatology" for twenty years, and will soon release the book "Apes and Human Evolution," in which he discusses topics such as primate communication, race, and the politics of environmental conservation.

"The thing that really distinguishes us is symbolism," Tuttle says. He argues that humans are symbolic creatures, and that our sophisticated communication, cultures, and belief systems are based on our ability to organize the world into symbols. He acknowledges that painstaking experiments by researchers such as Sue Savage-Rumbaugh have successfully taught symbolic expression to apes in the lab, at least enough to communicate at a two-year-old human's level. However, there is not enough research to determine whether they use this limited capacity for symbolic comprehension in the wild.

But research in the wild has its own difficulties. Tuttle has been to Africa many times and seen firsthand the realities of poaching. He thinks one of the biggest problems is that local police forces are totally outgunned by poachers who are running out of places to hunt. Conservationists have a difficult task to motivate local and international support for apes in some of the poorest countries in the world.

Compassion for apes can be a powerful incentive for people to protect natural habitats from poachers and other threats, and other organisms in the area benefit from primate preservation. But while Tuttle wholeheartedly agrees with the spirit of environmental protection, he is not as fond of giving so much privilege to apes, and even less fond of those who would use the argument of kinship to convince locals to protect nearby habitats.

"They are trying to elevate the apes into being more human than perhaps they are," Tuttle says of some conservation efforts. "It is so ignorant to go over to a country in Africa and tell people that you really have to save these animals because they are apes like you. What has it done to save other people?"

Apart from the politics of primate privilege is the possible damage it could do to the science of primatology. Tuttle says that researchers who believe animals are cultural without evidence, or who attribute human emotions and motivations to their behavior, may be missing the point.

"They do not have morals. And to me that's what saves them; they are amoral. We are moral; it's up to us to save this planet for moral reasons," he said.

His faith dictates that human intelligence should be used for construction rather than destruction, and should inform our interaction with nature. Although he does not call for an immediate end to all animal testing, he does believe that any experiment that uses intelligent, social animals such as chimpanzees for painful or restrictive testing should first prove that no other model will suffice.

Ultimately Tuttle is an optimist, and considers the state of humanity to be generally improving. Our final hurdle will be to overcome the limitations of our symbolic nature, especially in terms of race. He considers both race and religion to be scientifically intangible, with the capacity to inspire the worst in people. While he does see merit in compassionate religion, he is not so lenient with supposedly scientific differentiations of race.

"Race is a belief system for which I see no constructive purpose. It doesn't exist," he said.

Representative Image Caption
AAAS Fellow Russell Tuttle studies modern primates to learn more about how humans developed the ability to communicate. (Photo: Beth Rooney)
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