Sue Savage-Rumbaugh – Kanzi: The ape at the brink of the Human mind
I can hear my critics speaking right now… “What exactly has THIS got to do with Business, Graham?” Well, almost every month, I find myself in conversation with someone (sometimes a client, often a sceptic, occasionally an academic, but usually a business-person) who will tell me that leadership is a quality that is so intrinsic, a combination of genetics, environment and upbringing, that they (because it is rarely someone else), the leader, deserves some kind of special treatment or privileges. “It’s not so much a question of ‘superiority’,” they’ll say, “as a recognition of a kind of uniqueness.”
When I try to drill down, to get them to identify specific skills, knowledge, or attitudes, they may manage a few (usually related to learning and communication), but they’ll often resort to a spiritual argument; “Well, this may sound a little odd, but I actually think it is a kind of Blessing” or “I was put on this earth to achieve things and, inevitably, that involves taking charge.”
I try to explore this a little by getting them to draw a spectrum from chimpanzee to statesman. Most will use educational attainment as a way of distinguishing between ‘levels’. To add finess to the upper part of the scale they may talk of size of impact. Mention of Hitler often causes a raised eyebrow. I’ll get them to suggest where different ethnic groups fit and you can imagine the kind of hesitant but eventually racist opinions that emerge.
Sooner or later, I will draw a few painful conclusions about their world view and point out the logical consequences of what they are saying. Sometimes confused, sometimes defensive, a few will cite brain scanning results which they say show that the brain of a leader is different to that of, say, a taxi-driver. I have yet to track down the publication that this appears in!
The human mind is undoubtedly different from that of the ‘great apes’, but is it sufficiently different for us to assume that any of the things we pride ourselves on, are actually uniquely human, let alone an evolutionary step forwards even within the human species? Of course, I am not suggesting that a chimpanzee could compose AND document a symphony of the complexity of something that Beethoven or Mozart might have achieved. A huge amount, though, of leadership depends on the ability to communicate our ideas effectively so that others can understand, and commit to, the same ideas. Just how much this is truly a higher function of a set of more highly evolved humans I do question.
Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has spent her professional career studying communication and learning among a particular ape species, Pan paniscus, or the Bonobo. The Bonobo is an endangered species only found in the Congo where it lives to the south of the River Congo. The genetic evidence is still being gathered, but there are a number of other characteristics that suggest that the Bonobo is more closely related to humans than the common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) – the females have more highly developed breasts, they walk bipedally roughly 25% of the time, and when they walk quadrupedally they do using their palms for support rather than their knuckles which suggests less propensity to put weight on the uppoer part of the body. However, the most exciting aspect in some ways is that their faces are more highly individuated. This is an important evolutionary trait as it reflects the use of facial recognition in social interactions.
So, why am I recommending this book by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh? Well, in it (and in the video clip that follows) you’ll begin to see how Bonobos raised in proximity with humans demonstrate phenomenal powers of learning and communication. I don’t pretend that this is an answer to the leadership conundrum, but I do think it needs to be considered the next time someone puts forward a line of ‘evidence’ to suggest that leadership is a ‘higher’ calling.
Sue Savage-Rumbaugh speaks at the TED talk in Monterey in 2004 – one of the few speakers to receive a standing ovation. Watch and then ask yourself what makes you different from your fellow man and from one of these experimental subjects.
Kanzi: The ape at the brink of the Human mind was co-authored with Roger Lewin, an anthropologist and science writer. Lewin was a staff member of New Scientist in London for nine years. He went to Washington DC to write for Science for ten years as News Editor. Lewin wrote three books with Richard Leakey. He became a full-time freelance writer in 1989 and concentrated on writing books. In 1989, he won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books for “Bones of Contention”. He is a member of the Complexity Research Group at the London School of Economics.
Graham Wilson – 07785 222380
PS My previous Business Book of the Week was “Connected: The Amazing Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives” by Nicolas Christakis (05/12/10)
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