What if somebody had told you that in the future, animals would have used smartphones?
I would have probably told the prediction impossible to be right: smartphones are a human thing, and so they have to stay. But I proved wrong.
There is a video having a big success on the internet, that shows a young exemplar of chimpanzee acting like a modern human, while casually using a smartphone and the Instagram platform: the animal scrolls along the contents, then chooses the photos it likes the most, visits profiles, puts likes and then goes back to the general feed to keep on using the app with clear ease and interest.
The clip, posted by the American influencer Mike Holston a few days ago, has become viral, arousing conflicting feelings and reactions from people all around the globe, experts and animalists included.
The most shared feeling seemed to be the one of the surprise: what shocked the most and boosted a disproportionate number of interactions to the clip, was the incredible human-looking appearance of the gestures of the animal using the social media, the nonchalance and self-awareness with which the chimpanzee acted like one of us, its fingers’ movements resembling ours, its capability of showing preferences and choosing among different contents, not at random.
Despite these amazed reactions, a contrasting opinion came from the famous anthropologist Jane Goodall, who intervened underlining the negative impact that the circulation of such a video could cause. According to the primate’s expert, the commerce of exotic animals could be firstly fostered by the diffusion of images and contents showing animals which we are used to consider wild and dangerous, from a distorted perspective. Indeed, watching the frames of a video in which a chimpanzee shares our movements, habits and behaviours could let many people think they can consider these animals in the same way as cats, dogs or hamsters, therefore as domestic or domesticable.
She also emphasised how promoting such an unfiltered interaction among humans and chimpanzees, can reveal itself as extremely dangerous and noxious for both, if not mediated by the advises of experts and scientists as, despite what the video might let us wrongly deduce, these animals cannot be domesticated. The circulation of this kind of content promotes the affirmation of an altered and inappropriate idea of the natural behaviour of complex and intelligent animals like chimpanzees and can lead to an underestimation of the danger.
Along with these ethical and ethological considerations though, a more philosophical question raises: many people have been surprised by the human-like intelligence showed by the chimpanzee in the video. But let us consider it from a different perspective.
Is it the chimpanzee that is developing a human type of intelligence, or is it humankind that is adjusting to a new, lower level of intellectual activity that can be performed by monkeys too?
The evidence tells us that our society has been going through evident changes over the last decades. Technology now dominates each sector of the human activity and, despite being our creation, is also replacing humanity. For sure, this is a controversial issue: from a certain point of view, technology is a magic creation that enables us to overcome the limits of human nature and to reach goals that we would have never achieved alone. From another point of view, it seems like we are starting (or maybe we already irrecoverably are) to be ruled and controlled by our Frankenstein, that is also weakening us, making us more passive and “less intelligent”, considering that our active intellectual participation is no longer necessary for many activities that, once upon a time, were entirely performed by human beings, requiring the dynamic use of our brain.
To make an example: do you remember when the GPS navigation device didn’t exist? I personally have a far and childish remembrance of that time, when my father spent several minutes trying to understand which road itineraries to drive. Road atlas where hard to understand, but my father always managed to find his way among all those tables that reminded me of Battleship. Now we use the GPS. Just a few seconds and the polite, registered voice will tell us where to hang a right or a left, which road to take to go where we want to go.
With researches also, everything has eased: if we need to collect any kind of information, whether it is the meaning of a word, the recipe for a cake or knowing where to buy a certain product, we just need to tap the screen of our smartphones with our fingers and the answer will appear on it. No longer wasting of time on vocabularies or encyclopaedias. We are smart, we save our time and we potentially have infinite knowledge available for us.
What we forget, is that the knowledge we now exploit has been put together with unimaginable effort by other humans, that in most of the cases didn’t have the tools we have today. People that used their brains a lot more than we do today.
Science also agrees on this point. According to a research, published on the prestigious scientific magazine PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), the progressive growth of the average value of the Intelligence Quotient of the population, phenomenon known as Flynn Effect, has suddenly stopped since the second half of the 70’s. A loss of 7 points has been registered for people born between 1962 and 1991 compared to people belonging to the previous generation. For the next generations, no growth of the IQ is forecasted. How is this happening?
What we can deduce by observing the severe changes that have been affecting our society and our lifestyles, is that we are adjusting to performing activities that progressively require less intellective effort to be activated. The social media we love and use have very intuitive and simple patterns, that do not need our brains to work very much. This is the reason why we find it so easy and relaxing to waste major portions of our day scrolling images and double tapping likes. This is the reason why children, always more frequently, learn how to navigate at a very young age. There is no need to be very surprised by the capacities of the baby: more likely you are not in the presence of a genius, but just of a digital native that has all the knowledge necessary to make use of that technology. This is also the reason why that chimpanzee knew how to use Instagram.
It is no secret that chimpanzees are extremely intelligent social animals, under many aspects more similar to us than any other animal. The science is now suggesting us a new truth: that maybe we are the ones that are progressively becoming more similar to chimpanzees.