Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Pat Shipman's "The Animal Connection"

Pat Shipman is a professor of anthropology at Penn State University. Her books include Femme Fatale, a biography of Mata Hari, and the award-winning The Ape in the Tree (coauthor).

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human, and reported the following:
Page 99 is an interesting page to take as representative of The Animal Connection because it tells a story about one of the uniquely human traits -- making stone tools -- that marks the beginning of the ancient link between animals and people. As soon as stone tools appear in the archaeological record, so does abundant evidence that the use to which these tools was put transformed our ancestors from almost exclusively vegetarian animals to a role comparable to that of a super-predator, like a lion. What the clever work teaching Kanzi, a highly educated bonobo, to make stone tools showed was that being able to make stone tools -- having the knowledge, the hand-eye coordination, the mastery of types of stone and techniques for striking it -- does not a tool-maker make. That is, Kanzi understood there was a benefit to make stone tools: he could cut a rope, open a box, and get a treat. So he was motivated to learn, but found the task difficult because of his bonobo anatomy. He was smart enough to invent ways of making sharp pieces of stone that worked well for a bonobo and eventually learned to use the human methods, as did his half-sister Panbanisha.

As the next few pages recount, there were some important observations that came out of the whole experiment. First of all, neither Kanzi nor any other bonobo exposed to knapping had any inherent interest in the task until motivation (a treat) was provided. This ties in with the observations in the wild that reveal bonobos hardly ever make any kind of tool. Second, even once the bonobos in the experiment were fairly accomplished makers of stone tools, they showed no inclination to experiment endlessly (as a child might) with what could be cut. Making the tool was a hurdle on the way to getting a treat, but the task could have been something much less related, like say beating a particular rhythm on a drum. The bonobos were not interesting in cutting as an ability.

How different was the reaction of our ancestors! Once they could make stone tools, they left literally hundreds of cutmarks on the bones of the antelopes, zebras, and other animals they lived with and ate. They also used stones to break open bones, extracting fat-rich marrow. Being both a prey animal -- one with no sharp claws, large teeth, speed, or great strength -- and a predator put our ancestors in an ecological position not shared with any other species at that time. Surviving as both predator and prey put evolutionary pressure on our ancestors to focus on the behavior, habits, and biology of other species with an new intensity. Thus began a long evolutionary trajectory in which humans and their ancestors benefited from learning more and more about other animals, to the point that this increasing knowledge spurred the development of enhanced communication (language) and eventually the skills needed to domesticate other species to live and work with us. We carry with us today the legacy of that very long, intimate, and detailed relationship with other species, as I show in my book.
Learn more about the book and author at Pat Shipman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue