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Human Origins
Chimpanzee tools and language

Can a Chimp become a Stone-age Man?

Have you heard dog-owners speak of how their pet understands the way they are thinking? When it's something to do with food or going for a walk, our canine friends can communicate remarkably well. And those eyes: how appealing and sympathetic they appear! If people think like this about their pets, it is not surprising to find evolutionists with an obsession for finding human-like thinking and behaviour in apes. Chimpanzees, of course, have been the subject of intense interest for years: people have even brought them up alongside their own children in order to give the maximum opportunity for discovering their potential. Although questions of language and communication have been at the forefront of these investigations, more recent work has considered the abilities of chimps to make and use stone tools.

At the 1991 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (reported in New Scientist, 23 February 1991, 21), the achievements of Kanzi, a male pygmy chimpanzee, were described. Kanzi had been taught to use a sharp stone to cut string around a box which, when opened, provided a reward. Then he was taught to throw a cobble hard to the floor and search among the broken fragments for a suitable sharp edge. When Kanzi was taken out into the chimp enclosure, however, the ground was soft, and the throwing technique was useless. After further tuition, Kanzi learned the art of striking sharp flakes off a cobble held in one hand with a hammer stone wielded by the other. According to the archaeologist involved with the project, "This is the first recorded instance of a nonhuman species making tools in this very human-like manner."

Of course, there are other examples of animals, including chimps, using tools to get food, but this is the first time an animal has manufactured a tool for the purpose. So what are we to make of this report? Is this a step forward for evolutionary science: have we obtained experimental data casting light on the relationship between the human species and our alleged evolutionary ancestors? The answer at present must be no. This is because there is no evidence that Kanzi is developing the skills to influence the shape of the tool rather than just producing angular fragments of stone. It is very much a case of: `hit the cobble hard and see what is produced'. Stone tools manufactured by humans show that their creator had an ability to control the flaking or fracturing process to achieve a superior cutting edge. According to evolutionists, the earliest stone tools were made by Homo habilis, and these tools can be distinguished from broken fragments because skilled hands can be inferred from the observed fracture surfaces. However, it is said of our pygmy chimp, "Kanzi still is less skilled than Homo habilis was at flaking stone, but it will be very interesting to see how far he can progress". 

The scientists training Kanzi believe in evolution. They assume that chimp-like animals evolved into humans in the past. This assumption colours their thinking, and provides the motivation for developing a research programme like the one involving Kanzi. These investigations with chimps provide an interesting illustration of how presuppositions can not only control the types of experiments that are undertaken, but also the interpretation of the results. Creationists maintain that there is a created gulf between mankind and animals, and that language and creativity are aspects of man being made in the image of God. When we look at the attempts to communicate with chimps, we conclude that the natural emergence of language from primate ancestors is impossible. This conclusion was reached by about 1980, when most experts thought that the ape-language researchers were either self-deluded or perpetrators of fraud. An excellent review of the evidences is provided by Clifford Wilson and Donald McKeon in The language gap (Zondervan 1984). However, Kanzi is also making a reputation for himself as a communicating ape (New Scientist, 27 April 1991, 48-52), and it looks as though the last word has not been said on that subject. But we must return to the theme of this article. On the grounds that creativity in making tools is a distinctively human characteristic, we can confidently predict that the unskilled Kanzi has reached his limit.

On a more general point, we note that evolutionary humanism, which qualifies as a religious commitment, provides the guiding philosophy for many people investigating human origins. Scientific work is never `purely scientific', but is always built on a foundation of beliefs about life. Presuppositions govern the way we look at the world, the way we identify problems and the way we go about solving them. Biblical teaching on the nature of man must never be restricted to a `religious compartment' of life, but should transform our thinking about every aspect of being truly human.

David J. Tyler (1991)