Will Your Grandchild Talk To A Raven?

by Michael Bell

One by one, the 'differences' between humans and their primate forbears and cousins are being whittled away. Now researchers have shown that cultural behavioural patterns learned by groups of chimpanzees (not individuals) can be transmitted to other groups.

OK, chimps do not have language to the degree that humans do, their groups are smaller and less developed, and they do not have elaborate facial emotional displays, but evidence is mounting that they have substantial cognitive similarities with humans.

What will happen when we learn to bypass the very specialized (and limited) sensory and communication channels that we have developed and our brains become able to interact directly with those of our fellows? How much in common will there turn out to be between a chimpanzee's sensory processing language and our own? Will an ape's mind-vision of a hill be similar to our mind-vision of a hill? Will an ape's feeling of pain be similar to mine or yours? Will an ape enjoy Mozart, or will she prefer Mick Jagger? Or dislike both? Will an ape's anger be recognizable to a human and vice versa?

Most fascinating of all: how far will an ape's consciousness be equivalent to ours? Will she have a sense of cognitive continuity, as we do? If so, does that imply an understanding of the passage of time?

And after apes, one may suppose, dogs, horses, cats, snakes and birds.

Some researchers believe that consciousness is a basic feature of our universe, in the way that gravity and magnetism are universal building blocks of nature. Once we can talk (sorry, feel) with apes, we will begin to find out whether they are right or wrong.



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