Science and SocietyHeidelberg Forum
Thursday, 19 May 2011 at 18:00 in the Print Media Academy Kurfürstenanlage 52-60, Heidelberg
Mit freundlicher Unterstützung der Manfred Lautenschläger Stiftung
Prof. Dr. Volker Sommer, University College London
Apes like us, confessions of a primatologist
People of all walks of life readily distinguish “humans” from “animals”. The dichotomy not only reflects the common-sense approach of lay-people, but also a deep-rooted intellectual tendency of many philosophers and theologians of various creeds as well as social and natural scientists. The man-animal gap, seemingly obvious and unbridgeable, has been slowly but steadily eroded with the advent and subsequent elaboration of the theory of evolution. Traits once thought to be unique to humans have become fuzzy, in particular due to naturalistic studies of Great Apes (chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla, orang-utan). Thus, not only are humans increasingly zoomorphised, but other animals are increasingly anthropomorphised. Profound gradualist approaches are now established in fields such as cognitive psychology (e.g., with respect to paradigms such as theory of mind, referential communication), technology (manufacturing and use of tools, including planning into the future; self-medication through ingestion of carefully selected plants) and cultural studies (behavioural diversity between populations of the same species). The mental worlds of apes are thus very similar to ours. Apes should therefore be regarded as persons, and our own genus should be enlarged to include chimpanzees as Homo troglodytes. Volker Sommer illustrates these controversial positions with findings from his own field-work on African apes.
Volker Sommer is Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at UCL and one of the Pro-Provosts for UCL's International Strategy ("global citizenship"). VS conducts long-term eco-ethological studies of langur monkeys in India (since 1981), gibbons in Thailand (since 1989) and chimpanzees in Nigeria (since 1999). Founder and director of the "Gashaka Primate Project", dedicated to research and conservation of bio-diversity in West-Africa. VS belongs to the Great Ape Specialist Group of the IUCN and is on the scientific advisory board of the "Giordano-Bruno-Foundation" - a think-tank dedicated to the promotion of secularism and evolutionary humanism.