'The Monkey in the Mirror', by Rhianna Boyle

Illustration by Charlotte Dumortier.

Washoe the chimpanzee is famous for being the first of her species to learn sign language. Her other claim to fame is coining what is probably the first verbal insult invented by an ape. Washoe was raised exclusively amongst humans and, after meeting other chimpanzees for the first time, she was asked what they were. She infamously replied “black bug”.

Her trainer, Roger Fouts, wrote that “along with everything else she had learned from her foster family, Washoe had apparently learned the lesson of human superiority”. Washoe was familiar with real black bugs—she apparently enjoyed squashing any that appeared in her enclosure—so it seems reasonable to assume that she used the term with derogatory intent, although it’s impossible to say for sure.

Some commentators have pointed out that wild chimpanzees also live in very hierarchical social groups, and that therefore Washoe’s apparent sense of superiority might not be simply an unfortunate by-product of human contact. Rather, the capacity to possess a superiority complex may be as common to both species as the substantial chunk of shared DNA.

There is other evidence that chimps possess a vindictive streak. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, psychologist David Premack designed a series of cognitive experiments with a chimpanzee named Sarah. He came to the conclusion that Sarah understood the concept of cause and effect. For example, when shown a video of her favourite keeper struggling to reach a bunch of bananas, which had been suspended from the ceiling, she correctly identified the next image in the sequence. This image depicted the keeper climbing onto a box in order to reach the bananas. However, when the model in the images was a person she disliked, Sarah instead selected the photo of them climbing onto, but falling through, a flimsy chair seat. The researchers noted that she had chosen a photo that fitted the narrative, in preference to a similar image that merely showed the disliked person slipping and falling onto the floor.

If only dolphins had evolved hands to sign with, it’s possible that they would not bring tidings of love and peace to humankind, as some people might anticipate, but a barrage of bitchy bon mots.

These incidents raise questions about the sorts of jibes other highly intelligent mammals would come up with, given the chance. If only dolphins had evolved hands to sign with, it’s possible that they would not bring tidings of love and peace to humankind, as some people might anticipate, but a barrage of bitchy bon mots. Many of the most unattractive human traits—violence, stealing, cannibalism, rape and infanticide—are found across the animal kingdom. Historically, human vices have been seen to have their origins in the animal-like part of human nature, while more admirable traits, such as logic and empathy, are ostensibly products of an evolved human mind. But there are some vices that are impossible without a level of higher cognitive functioning.

In young children, the ability to lie only comes about as higher cognitive functions develop. Only twenty per cent of two-year-olds are able to lie, but this increases to ninety per cent of four-year-olds. Lying is seen as a sign of intelligence in young children, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the same deceptive abilities are seen in other intelligent mammal species. When Lucy, a signing chimpanzee, pooed on a carpet, she was asked “Whose dirty, dirty?” (the sign for faeces). Lucy answered “Roger’s”, referring to Roger Fouts, who had trained her, and who owned the carpet. Eventually, when asked again, she signed “Sorry Lucy”.

Of course, wild apes can poo wherever they damn well feel like it. It’s difficult to ascertain whether apes use deceptive behaviour in the wild, because if such behaviour were common enough for scientists to gather extensive data on, it would also quickly become ineffective: the apes being deceived would have good reason to develop counter-strategies. However, cognitive scientist Richard Byrne surveyed primatologists for their anecdotal evidence—usually one-off incidents—of ape and monkey deception, and found evidence of deceptive behaviour across several species.

In one reported instance, a young male baboon played too roughly with an infant baboon, making it scream. Several adult baboons then rushed to the infant’s defence, but instead of running away, the young male stood on his hind legs and stared as if at a distant predator. The pursuing adults stopped in their tracks and stared in the same direction, forgetting the initial incident.

In human beings, the ability to lie is considered an important developmental stage because it shows that the child has developed a theory of mind – that is, the ability to understand that other people have separate minds of their own, and may know different things or have different goals to their own. This kind of understanding is the basis for positive qualities like empathy, but it also means you can selectively take advantage of the gaps in others’ knowledge to turn a situation in your favour. The fact that apes and some other primates can lie suggests that they do have a theory of mind, at least to a certain extent. The idea is still being debated in animal behaviour and psychology circles.

Fibbing and coining disturbingly Shakespearean insults like ‘black bug’ are not the only vices of a big brain. In order to be a narcissist, in the most classical sense of the word, an animal has to be able to recognise itself in a mirror. But despite the otherwise high cognitive abilities of many animals, such recognition often proves to be an impossible task.

Despite the stereotype, there’s a lot going on in the minds of sheep.

Despite the stereotype, there’s a lot going on in the minds of sheep. A large body of research shows that sheep have a good concept of what it means to be a sheep. They easily distinguish photographs of sheep faces from those of goat faces, and can distinguish members of their own breed from those of other breeds. They can also tell apart photographs of individual sheep, both of animals they know and, with some training, photos of unfamiliar individuals. Sheep in a large flock typically associate with a ‘consortship’ of a few other individuals, and they are particularly skilled at identifying the faces of their own clique. But despite these abilities, sheep confronted with their reflection in a mirror act as if they are seeing an unfamiliar individual. In fact, keeping isolated sheep with a mirror reduces their normal stress response, as they mistake their reflection for a companion. The sheep selfie will never become a trend.

Monkeys are also skilled at recognising the faces of individual monkeys. For example, rhesus macaques who were shown photographs of familiar individuals reacted according to their memory of the individual’s social status. Male macaques with bold personality traits would give up fruit juice to look at photos of high status individuals, while those with high anxiety had to be paid juice in order to look at the same high-status faces (both groups readily swapped juice to see pictures of female backsides).

Some species of monkey can also use mirrors to solve puzzles – for example finding food hidden in their enclosure in a place that can only be seen in the mirror. This combination of facial recognition and spatial abilities would seem to make monkeys likely candidates for recognising their own reflections. Such ability can be evaluated by means of the spot test, which entails putting a dab of paint or dye on the forehead of the monkey. When confronted with its own reflection, a self-aware animal will bring its hand up to touch the mark on its own head.

No monkey, of the species tested, had ever managed to pass the spot test, until 1995, when biologist Marc Hauser sent ripples through the world of animal behaviour by publishing a paper claiming that he had recorded cotton-top tamarins doing so. This paper was later proved to be scientific fraud, and in 2011 Hauser was forced to resign from his post at Harvard University.

Intriguingly, though, a study in 2010 found evidence that rhesus macaques used mirrors to groom hard-to-see areas like their genitals and head implants (the implants were for neuroscientific research), as well as showing limited aggressive or submissive behaviour towards their own reflections. The contentious field of monkey self-awareness promises some interesting developments in the future.

But unlike nearly all other animals, many adult chimpanzees and orangutans are able to pass the spot test. When Washoe was shown her reflection and asked who the chimpanzee in the mirror was, she answered with her own name. Intriguingly, though, while the signing gorilla Koko is able to pass the spot test, other gorillas tested routinely fail. Given that gorilla intelligence is comparable to that of other apes—some believe Koko’s language skills outrank those of chimps—it’s not clear why this should be the case. Human children typically can’t pass the spot test until they are more than two years old, so in this respect, an adult chimpanzee or orangutan has greater abilities than a human child.

Apes are an “unwelcome mirror” – that is, they provide a reflection of human behaviour that is discomfortingly familiar.

Mirrors loom large in human-ape relationships, both in the literal and metaphorical sense. The writer Eugene Linden, who has chronicled the often tragic histories of signing chimpanzees and gorillas, has described apes as an “unwelcome mirror” – that is, they provide a reflection of human behaviour that is discomfortingly familiar. Apes both reflect humanity’s worst traits, implying that such traits are ingrained in humanity’s origins, and come close enough to some cognitive abilities to threaten humanity’s sense of being unique amongst animals.

This kind of discomfort seems to be behind Richard Byrne’s qualification of apes’ ability to pass the spot test. Byrne writes that while they may recognise their own reflections, “apes do not carry out the full range of behaviours that a human would do in front of a mirror, so their idea of ‘self’ probably differs from a human one.” While chimpanzees may remove material that defaces their appearance, or experiment by, for example, sticking celery leaves up their nostrils, “there is no evidence of modifying the image in a way to change or conform to the views of other individuals. Nothing in great ape mirror-use matches the way [humans] comb our hair or put on makeup or jewellery, whereas human adornment is a universal trait.”

Several commentators have highlighted a common phenomenon in human-animal relationships. Whenever the psychological boundaries that separate the two groups are breached, human beings simply re-draw the boundaries. Shades of this approach seem apparent in Byrne’s argument. Chimpanzees’ ability to recognise themselves in mirrors is evidence of their self-awareness, but now that they have passed the test, the test has been altered so that use of make-up and jewellery is an additional—if somewhat bizarre—hurdle.

In fact, the ape sign language projects of the 1970s have their origins in just this kind of boundary-drawing. According to the pre-Darwinian worldview, animals and human beings were separated by the fact that animals did not have souls. Scientific evidence of humanity’s common evolutionary origins put paid to this neat division, giving rise to human anxiety and the need for new boundaries.

Post-Darwin, the dividing line that has most commonly been used is the fact that animals do not use language. The most high-profile proponent of this view in the twentieth century was Noam Chomsky, who believes that the human ability to use grammar is biologically determined and a uniquely human trait. The ape sign language projects were meant as an interrogation of and, in some cases at least, a direct challenge to these ideas. Nim Chimpsky, a signing chimpanzee who was the subject of the harrowing documentary Project Nim (2011), was named as a playful challenge to the man whose ideas his progress was intended to refute.

Whenever the psychological boundaries that separate human beings and animals are breached, humans simply re-draw the boundaries.

Eugene Linden’s book Silent Partners describes how the discovery that apes could not only learn to sign, but put signs together in original combinations—for example Koko’s use of ‘drink-fruit’ to describe a watermelon—very briefly seemed to bring them into the human fold. But this apparent revelation was refuted by Herbert Terrace, who oversaw the education of Nim. Terrace eventually concluded that the utterances of Nim and other signing apes did were not true language and grammar use, but rote-learned phrases that the apes used in order to beg, in the same way pets perform tricks for food. This interpretation proved to be influential in animal behaviour and psychology circles, effectively reinstating the barriers that reserve a special place for Homo sapiens.

Despite the fact that chimpanzees have eventually done badly out of academic discourse over their cognitive abilities, it’s possible that they would have some concept of what has transpired. Essentially, the outcome of the sign language projects is that Herbert Terrace had called them black bugs.

Rhianna Boyle is a zoologist and writer. A previous column for The Lifted Brow appears in the recently-released Best Australian Science Writing 2013.

This piece originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #23.