Saturday, October 23, 2004

AUSTRALIAN APE ARTIST

Human league

WHEN Lisa Roet was expecting her first child, she joked that it would be born half human, half orang-utan. She had just returned from six weeks in the wilds of Borneo, where she lived with a group of French scientists studying the behavioural patterns of primates....

Roet is studio artist and field worker, having undertaken residencies in Borneo, at a laboratory in Atlanta in the US and at zoos in Atlanta and London. (She has also spent time at zoos in Antwerp, Berlin and Kuala Lumpur.)

In Atlanta, Roet taught a chimpanzee to answer her questions: she would speak and he would reply by typing his answers on a keyboard. Rearing her son Buster, now two, has cast this experience in a new light - particularly the equivalences scientists found between the intellect of a chimp and that of a three-year-old human....

"All that research which said we [humans] are supreme because we're able to build this or that, because we use tools where no ape uses tools, because we are the only ones who have language, it's so ridiculous," she says. "They have a whole vocalisation - we just don't understand what they're saying. And the hand is evolutionary, the thing that joins us very distinctly with other primates is the ability for the thumb and index finger to touch each other, which allows tools to be used."

Roet sees similar reasoning in the racist use of differences in brain, skull and forehead size to argue that white people were more intelligent than black....