Kafka's Ape

by Justin E. H. Smith

In his 1917 short story, “Report to an Academy,” Kafka tells the story of Red Peter, a chimpanzee captured in Africa and brought back to Europe to be studied by the members of an institution very much like the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. Red Peter, by some unusual transformation that is never fully explained, develops after his capture into a cultivated, language-endowed gentleman, and the titular report is in fact his narration of his own autobiography, beginning shortly after his first encounter with humans while still in his merely animal stage.

Peter recounts how, early in his captivity, he had been subjected to various experiments in which, for example, scientists hung a banana from the ceiling in order to see whether he had the requisite intelligence to stack blocks together and climb up to reach his reward. This sort of experiment, of course, takes a number of things for granted. Among other things, although it purports to be testing for something human-like, it does not allow for the possibility of individual whim; it does not allow for the possibility of a response such as that of Zira, the fictional chimpanzee in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), who cannot help but exclaim, when the human scientists try a similar experiment on her, “but I simply loathe bananas!”

The fact that experiments such as these require a certain course of action in order for an animal to be deemed intelligent suggests that what is being tested for is not really intelligence in any meaningful, human sense –since humans are permitted to have arbitrary whims and individual tastes– but rather a certain automatism that reproduces the kind of action of which a human being is capable, e.g., stacking blocks, but in the pursuit of a species-specific goal, a goal that a creature is supposed to have simply in view of the kind of creature it is, and that for that reason is not the result of a human-like willing, e.g., the will to obtain a banana. If ‘being intelligent’ is defined as ‘being like us’, we may anticipate in advance that non-human animals are doomed to fail any possible intelligence test.

We may also predict that the more distant a creature is from homo sapiens in its evolution, the greater will be its challenge in demonstrating to human researchers that it, too, is intelligent. A parallel problem has been confronted by researchers attempting to conceptualize what extraterrestrial intelligence might look like. What if, for example, an alien race has evolved that communicates by means of electrical signals?  What if, here and now, we are already surrounded by such species? What if a species of electrical eels has its own Beethovens and Kurt Gödels, communicating their beautiful compositions or penetrating discoveries through media we have not yet even thought to investigate as potential reflections of intelligence? Even if this is a foolish example, it reveals a real problem: as long as it is human beings who are designing the intelligence tests, non-humans are predetermined to come up short.

Recent scientific research is, thankfully, starting to overturn the old criteria for the measurement of the richness of internal life, and rather than asking of animals that they show us their ability to solve puzzles we design for them, researchers are instead focusing on the way different species relate to members of their own group in the pursuit of species-specific ends. One thing that has become apparent is that, in our own species, much intelligence is in fact social intelligence: the ability to interact with other humans in subtle and complex ways. We also know, now, that the mechanisms underlying human social relations are just the same endocrinologically, and much the same neurologically, as those that cause walruses, say, to prefer to live in groups rather than to live alone.

Still, the old habit of standardized testing dies hard, and an important question remains as to what constituency, exactly, an individual animal represent when it takes an intelligence test. When a child takes an IQ test, it is clear that he stands alone, that the results will be considered only as a measure of his intelligence, but not as a measure of humanity. An individual animal, in contrast, in taking a test involving blocks and bananas, is held up as a representative of its entire kind.  Sometimes, individual animals are even held up as representatives of the animal kingdom as a whole.  Consider the BBC News item of 9 March, 2009, concerning a chimpanzee in a zoo in Sweden that had stockpiled rocks as part of a plan to throw them later on at the zoo’s visitors. “There has been scant evidence until now,” the article observes, “that animals can plan for future events.” One chimp in a zoo in Sweden is made to tell us something about animals in general, while a child prodigy, or for that matter a child dullard, tells us in his exceptional or mediocre test results only about himself.

Of course, the Swedish chimp tells us nothing at all about animals: its ability to plan for the future says nothing about whether fruit flies or tapeworms are able to do the same. What is meant by ‘animals’ here, we may suppose, is actually ‘some non-humans’. If capacities that are jealously guarded as the exclusive property of human beings are found to occur anywhere beyond the human species, the thought seems to be, then they may as well occur everywhere. In the end, however, no amount of experimental evidence will suffice to convince those with an a priori conviction that animals cannot plan for the future, or entertain a concept of the self, or of absence, or the like, that they were in fact mistaken.  Anything a non-human animal does can always be explained, if one chooses, in terms of ‘instinct’. Take planning, for example. Of course we all already knew that squirrels, bees, and countless other species go about their business in a way that appears to anticipate future states. Why does this not count as planning for future events? The usual answer is that in squirrels and bees this activity is only instinctive, which is to say programmed into them simply in virtue of what they are, and not requiring any conscious agency in order to execute it. But this, again, means that in an important sense it is impossible by definition to detect the existence of other intelligent species, since intelligence is taken as something that can only show up exceptionally. And yet, again, while whatever is universal is taken to be merely instinctive and so not indicative of intelligence, what is not universal but exceptional, such as the storage of stones, is taken to say something about animals as a whole.

What is going on here?  It seems that in general humans hope to be able to explain everything animals do in terms of automatism or instinct, and that journalists regularly hope to create a sensation by providing evidence to the contrary. But what this scenario leaves out is the possibility that different creatures will manifest different capacities, in part in view of the kind of creatures they are, in part in view of the opportunities and challenges their environments present to them. This scenario leaves out, moreover, the possibility that there is simply no such thing as ‘animals’, conceived as a discrete class of entities that lies between the vegetable and the human in the same way that the human was long thought to lie between the animal and the angelic. ‘Animal’, I mean, is an uninformative umbrella term, one that fails to pick out a set of kinds of creature with similar internal natures and capabilities.

This failure is sustained and encouraged by the great majority of science writing on the topic of animal intelligence.  In an article in Discovery, for example, we find Jennifer Viegas dealing with some purportedly new signs of elephant intelligence. She observes that “[o]ther animals clearly engage in teamwork,” while by contrast one of the scientists involved in the study “thinks they are ‘pre-programmed for it’, unlike elephants that seem to understand the full process.” But what kind of empirical evidence could ever ground such a distinction? Is undertanding, moreover, really incompatible with pre-programming? These are the deep problems left unadressed by most popular writing on the question of animal intelligence, but there is also a problem of style: the condescension and cutesiness of it all: words like ‘yummy’ to describe the fruit desired by the ape; the resorting to easy alliterations that would be an embarassment even in a children’s book. All this inevitably transforms any intelligence animals might display into the same old familiar circus performance, now in print rather than in the three rings of old.

If animal intelligence exists, it is of course a property of living animals. This may appear as a departure from our guiding concern, shared with the comparative anatomists at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, with the study of natural order as reflected through the anatomical evidence of –obviously– dead animals. No one disputes that a human skeleton in a display case is no more or less intelligent than a macaque in formaldehyde. Yet it is hard to look for too long at these different products of nature and not come to the conclusion that they are substantially the same, that they are diverse expressions of the same order, and if the one exhibits a different behavioral repertoire than the other over the course of its brief life, this does not, could not, place them on separate sides of a gaping divide from one another. It is sometimes said that death is the great equalizer, and this is born out by the project of comparative anatomy, which reveals the fundamental unity of structure that, in life, permits such an efflorescence of different sorts of activity. We are in the habit of calling our own sort of activity ‘intelligent’, and of permitting ourselves to be perpetually surprised when animal activity resembles our own too closely, since intelligence has already been defined as uniquely human. It is undeniable that humans are peculiar: as has been said, their crania are greatly inflated compared to their nearest primate relatives, and their teeth are greatly reduced. But a good strong bite is an expression of nature’s reason too, and comparative anatomy helps to see that in the balance between teeth and cranium, there is no absolute reason for preferring the one advantage or the other.

Kafka’s ape and Balzac’s donkey are at once objects of scientific interest, as well as sharp observers and critics of the scientific project that has transformed them into the reflective, but also fallen, animals they are. They are simultaneously the objects of scientific inquiry and the most lucid critics of its motivations and aims. The donkey leads a double life, or better, a triple life, never betraying to human beings that he is in fact not a zebra, let alone that he is a rational animal. Red Peter, by contrast, enters the halls of the academy not as a stuffed and mounted carcass, but rather as a full-fledged member, with the right and the privilege of holding forth upon the academy’s mission. The cost of this privilege is that he is no longer able to be the sort of creature he naturally is, and one explanation of the melancholy tone of Peter’s discourse, the tone of loss, is that he understands that something great has slipped away, and that trading the one behavioral repertoire for the other does not feel, after the transition, like a move upward on any scale of being.

Red Peter probably suspects that, though he is a member of the academy, he will remain until and beyond his death a specimen of the academy, and like Marmus’s donkey his remains will be mounted and displayed. But enough time before the primate display case at a good gallery of comparative anatomy, of the sort one might find in Mitteleuropa as well as in France, cannot fail to convince the attentive spectator that this sort of display amounts to a continuation of the very case Red Peter sets out to make in his discourse: that humanity’s sense of its own uniqueness, which in the scientific age has been anchored to the nebulous concept of intelligence, is in the end nothing but a prejudice.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website