FunNature & AnimalJordi Sabater Pi:

Jordi Sabater Pi:

JOrdi Sabater Pi has waited for a noisy group of schoolchildren to leave the premises to approach the glass behind which Snowflake lives, the only captive white gorilla in the world. He strikes the glass with the palm of his hand and smiles a melancholy smile like that of a father who watches his emancipated son. “Before,” he says, “he recognized me.”
It is not strange: Jordi Sabater Pi was the first Spaniard to see Copito more than 30 years ago. The gorilla lived with him and his wife for months before he went to the Barcelona Zoo. Now, however, the animal frolics and scratches at the bottom of the cage, oblivious to the call of its discoverer, the flashes of the photographer and the rain that falls on the old Catalan zoo.
You don’t like gorillas and chimpanzees displaying themselves this way, do you?
-Someday humanity will be judged harshly for having locked primates in zoos. Our grandchildren will not be able to understand why we did it. Think that we now see slavery as a terrible thing, but in its day it was well regarded.

And what about them? Are chimpanzees aware of this injustice?
-At least, they are aware of their kinship with the man. They know they are our closest cousins. Those of us who have worked with chimpanzees know that they have an enormous interest in communicating with us. They are constantly reaching out to touch you, looking at your face for your reaction.

But that may be mere curiosity …
-There are laboratory tests that demonstrate their belief that we are equal to them. A group of chimpanzees have been given a series of animal photos with the intention of classifying them. They place rats with rats; elephants with elephants; gorillas with gorillas … and when it comes time to classify themselves, they are included in the same photo package as humans. They see us as if we are part of their family.

And they even show certain emotional reactions.
-Yes. Gorillas, chimpanzees and other primates feel joy, sadness, laugh and lie to each other. We have done many studies in which we gave these animals fruits as a reward if they performed a certain test. After time, they ended up hiding the prize as if they had eaten it and took it out at the end of the day. It is as if they said to the researcher: “Now I am going to reward you so that you continue playing with me.” That is the foundation of deception.

In what state is ethology in Spain today?
-In a very poor situation. Keep in mind that I am the introducer of this science in the country and that was only 25 years ago. However, the study of animal behavior is of increasing interest. We already have ethology teachers in Barcelona, Madrid, Oviedo, Valencia …

And what does ethology study?
-It is the biology of behavior without cultural filters; behavior as it is when we compare ourselves with nonhumans. If we have to mention culture, we do it from a purely biological point of view.

In other words, the study of animals can teach us the keys to human culture.
-Yes, especially the study of primates. There are many human cultural behaviors that we find in monkeys. For example, the manufacture of elementary instruments. If chimpanzees today build tools to obtain termites or medicinal lands, it is because these abilities are very old. Australopithecines and possibly other earlier forms already made things.

In that sense, contemplating animals can help us to know why we are intelligent.
-Well, the term “intelligent” is very relative. All animals are intelligent in their measure. Chimpanzees show great intelligence and do very complicated things in the laboratory. For example, they can establish an advanced system of communication with humans in which they use up to 500 different words. On the other hand, we still know very little about the way they communicate with their peers. That is, they have learned things that we teach them but we do not know anything about what they want to teach us. Who is smarter then?

I will ask you the question in another way: can ethology establish when culture arises?
-Culture is a complex evolutionary process that has to do, simply, with adaptation to the environment. It arises just as the first mammals appeared after achieving the ability to control body temperature, or the first amphibians when certain animals became accustomed to living on air. Human culture is nothing more than another adaptive biological phenomenon derived from the need to transmit acquired knowledge to survive. I don’t know why we attach so much importance to it.

In fact, ethologists think that cultural behavior is not unique to human beings …
– Much work has been done in the search for cultural patterns in the behavior of primates. For example, in the custom of making tools. Many years ago I anticipated that this habit is different in some chimpanzee families and in others according to their geographical location, with which we could say that there are something like different cultures in monkeys. Today, the data obtained in observations made all over the world and, above all, by Japanese ethologists, begin to prove me right.

And do these differences have to do with the environment in which each family lives?
-Yes and no. It is not a mere question of adaptation to the environment because with the same environmental possibilities we see that some chimpanzees do some things (such as using branches) and others do others (such as using leaves as a container). They are behavioral differences that have been learned and depend on the family to which one belongs. An individual discovered them one day and passed it on to their fellow human beings, making them part of their own culture. Something very similar happened with human beings when our culture was born.

Are these behaviors essential to survive or are they capricious?
-They are not exclusively related to survival. It is a mere behavioral enrichment. They are useful learning, but if they do not develop them, nothing happens either. This is seen, for example, in the use of stones to break certain fruits. In some geographic areas, chimpanzees have enriched their diet because they had the technology to crush certain shells. But these fruits are not necessary to survive and, in fact, in other families they can do perfectly without them. That is not survival, it is simple cultural evolution.

You say that mathematics is nothing more than a reminder of our origin in the trees.
-The ability to make numbers is the abstract expression of our arboreal origin. When climbing the trees, the primates placed their eyes in a certain place on the face and generated a three-dimensional and chromatic vision of the world. All mathematics is born from three-dimensionality. But that is nothing more than a conditioning of our brain descended from that of the primates. We know that there are more dimensions in the cosmos, although we cannot know them. So that high calculus ability turns out to be imperfect. At the end of the day we can only work with the tools that evolution has given us, without forgetting that this evolution makes us related to monkeys.

Tell us about your life. You have spent 30 years researching in Africa. What do you remember of your first contact with the continent?
-Ah! … I arrived in Africa on San Juan’s day in the year 40, in the morning, to the island of Fernando Po. He was on a coal ship that had to circumvent the controls of European military ships in the middle of the World War. I was 16 years old and I still remember the impressive image of Mount Cameroon. It is an extraordinary show! Nor will I forget my first day in the jungle and the song of the turtle doves. These birds are everywhere: you can tell if a movie is really shot in Africa because the turtle doves are in the background. I always get excited when I hear them.

And the first time you saw a gorilla?
-That was later, in the year 54, in continental Spanish Guinea. They warned us that there were gorillas in the region and, although I do not work with these animals, curiosity prompted me to look for them. The show is unique. Then I have seen them hundreds of times and it has always seemed emotional to me. They are so big, so slow, so majestic … you see the males with silver backs, the little ones, the females and you think: “These guys are so close to us.”

Being in the most beautiful places in the world will have helped you to be a great draftsman.
-Well, the truth is that I knew how to draw before I could write. Afterwards, I have always used drawing as a work tool. A good ethologist must know how to draw. That allows you to capture movements and situations without having to describe them. Furthermore, drawing is like apprehending reality: you capture it and it is for you; you can save it in a notebook and make it yours. In the Spain of the last century there were fantastic cartoonists of nature but now the profession is being lost.

Maybe today it is easier to take a photo …
-But, man, if a drawing is an irreplaceable thing!

Can you do ethology in a zoo?
-Is not the same. In a zoo, certain laboratory tests are done on certain cognitive abilities of animals. And in many cases conclusions of great scientific value are drawn. But only in the jungle can we see what gorillas and chimpanzees really do. In fact, the classic zoos tend to disappear.

Jorge Mayor

This interview was published in January 1998, in number 200 of VERY Interesting.

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