Chimpanzees: society, self-awareness, and other special qualities


by Michael P. Ghiglieri

New York: Free Press. 315 pp. $22.50

IT used to be that books about biologists studying animals were basically adventure tales. Readers were free to enjoy the descriptions of the jungles or other wilderness areas, the story about the life and habits of some particular and often strange animal or group of animals. They could fantasize a bit about the hazards and discomforts faced by the author.

There's still that aspect about animal books today. Certainly Michael Ghiglieri is to be admired for the several rigorous years he spent studying chimpanzees in Uganda's Kibale Forest, risking not only the army ants, forest mambas, and poachers, but also the hazards of Idi Amin Dada, then the ruler of Uganda.

Today, though, these books are not fully escapist. Most biologists cannot resist - nor probably should they try to resist - giving their readers a lecture on some aspect of environmental protection and the rights of other creatures that share this planet.

The bulk of this book is adventure. Ghiglieri describes the day-to-day life of chimpanzees, how they find food and communicate. He writes about their sex life, the fatal wars between groups of chimpanzees and with monkeys, and their high intelligence.

It is because of this intelligence that he raises a moral issue. ``My conviction is that purposefully killing them is murder,'' he writes. ``Further, making their existence untenable by destroying their crucial habitat is equally criminal.''

He doesn't claim chimpanzees are backward humans trapped in ape suits. But he does maintain that their advanced mentality and close genetic relationship to man make chimps something special.

``Overall,'' he writes, ``the performance of chimpanzees in increasingly more sophisticated tests has revealed not only insight, arithmetic, conceptualization, symbolic communication, abstract thought, and technological and linguistic inventiveness, chimpanzees in captivity and the wild have also revealed a sense of self-awareness and identity, awareness of the reality of death, lifetime bonds based on friendship, voluntary sharing of rare foods, knowledge of ethical right and wrong, the ability to lie to attain goals, plus an anticipation of the future.''

Chimpanzees are the nearest living relatives to man, differing genetically from human beings by only 1.5 to 2 percent.

Ghiglieri would like to help chimpanzees survive the onslaught of man. He wants to save their habitat. He questions the rights of man to carry out dangerous medical experiments on chimps, such as those dealing with hepatitis or AIDS.

As the human race multiplies on earth, competing for living space with other creatures, the moral and ethical questions of the rights of animals are bound to be discussed more and more. Ghiglieri's narrative reveals a lot about chimpanzees. It also raises questions about human values.

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