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Almost Chimpanzee: Searching for What Makes Us Human, in Rainforests, Labs, Sanctuaries, and Zoos

4.7 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0805083071
ISBN-10: 0805083073
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

How are we different from chimps? That's the question that Cohen (Shots in the Dark) sets out to answer in his absorbing account of current chimpanzee research. Too often, Cohen argues, scientists have focused on the similarities between the two species, when in fact it is an understanding of their differences that can reveal "what, exactly, it means to be human." Cohen's survey spans investigations into the chimp genome, brain, and physiognomy, with a fascinating chapter on chimp sex (one captive female chimp was observed "flipping through Playgirl, sometimes using a vacuum cleaner hose for stimulation") and a colorful portrait of Richard Lynch Garner, a 19th-century adventurer who lived in a cage in the jungle for 112 days, studying and recording chimp and gorilla language. The technical jargon of some sections can be difficult, but the book is otherwise readable and replete with surprising theories for the origins of human traits from "concealed ovulation" to endurance running. One scientist, for instance, believes that humanness derives from the simple fact that our babies, unlike their ape counterparts, can lie flat on their backs, which allows them to gaze into their mothers' eyes.
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From Booklist

What are the dividing lines between human and chimpanzee? What makes the first “us” and the second “them”? Science writer Cohen (Shots in the Dark, 2001) points out that with the mass of genetic data now available to researchers, it is no longer imperative to stress the similarities between humans and our closest cousins to bolster the argument for evolution—it is the differences between us that answer the question of what makes us human and not chimpanzee. By examining the blood (and DNA extracted from it), the brain (with language as the Rubicon that apes do not cross), and the body (why we are bipedal and the other apes are not), Cohen describes not only how we differ from chimpanzees but some of the theories of why. Talking with scientists from all walks of primate research, comparing and contrasting findings ranging from laboratory work, behavioral studies, attempts to teach language to apes and chimpanzees in zoos and other captive settings to what has been learned from the study of chimpanzees in the wild, the author has created a vital look at not only what makes us human but also what makes us almost chimpanzees. Cohen’s humorous writing style, combined with his ability to make complex scientific theories comprehensible, makes for a book that is hard to put down. --Nancy Bent
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Times Books (September 14, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805083073
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805083071
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,224,615 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Dawn Forsythe on October 13, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Chimpanzee lovers everywhere are familiar with the t-shirt motif "98% chimpanzee." It simply and aptly points out the close genetic relationships between humans and chimps. We delight in seeing pictures of chimps enjoying the toys that we played with, or having a birthday party, or acting out in ways that seem surprisingly and lovingly human. With that background, I picked up Almost Chimpanzee, by Jon Cohen, expecting to be outraged and offended. As someone who looks into an ape's eyes and sees a spark of humanity looking back, I knew the book's premise - examining the differences between chimpanzees and humans, rather than the similarities - would cause me no end of aggravation.

Instead, I found myself drawn further and deeper into the science that Cohen presents.

"Goodall was pursuing noble and worthwhile goals, and indeed she, along with Yerkes and other pioneering chimpanzee researchers, deserves much credit for making people more aware of the intelligence, social needs, and emotional depth of our closest cousins," Cohen writes. "But I think the need to emphasize our similarities has abated."

Ah, I can imagine my friends' exclamations of disagreement, even as I write this. Before I read the book, I would have added my own exclamations. (In fact, I probably did at some point.) But hear me out...

I wasn't totally converted to all of Cohen's positions (I will never support the use of chimpanzees in research, for instance, and he hints that he favors some research as long as high standards of compassion are imposed), but the book challenged many of my convictions. That is a good thing, since sound policies in chimp care and conservation require us to consider the depths of scientific inquiry.
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By vernon on September 1, 2011
Format: Hardcover
This book represents a remarkable achievement. Cohen manages to review all the major current areas of research in chimpanzee studies, something no other book has hitherto attempted to do. What's more, he does this in his easy-to-read, catchy style - he is a well known science writer - which swings the reader along from page to page. We learn as we go along. There is a lot happening in the world of our closest living relatives. It's an area of enquiry that has burgeoned from its early beginnings with the works of Robert Yerkes, author of "Almost Human" published in 1925. Cohen nicely counters the idea that chimps are almost human with a series of telling chapters that show that chimpanzees, while almost human in the sense that they are our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom, are not at all human in a number of ways, just as we humans are not chimpanzees.
Cohen looks at chimps in their natural habitats, across Africa. He visits many of the sites where chimp research is going on and interviews the fieldworkers he finds out there. From this we see the chimpanzee as a distinct species, living a complex social life and communicating in ways we are only just beginning to understand. He moves into the area of language studies, showing that chimps cannot learn human language, and why should they? They have their own system of communication that baffles us. As he shows, the heroic efforts of psychologists to teach chimpanzees human language have only served to underline their distinct nature as another, very intelligent species, sensitive and with feelings and emotions like our own, but nevertheless not human.
He is at home in the field of genetics, exploring why the numerically small difference in the genomes of humans and chimps is realized in the emergence of two very distinct species.
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Format: Paperback
Cohen is a good science reporter who understands his material. Section II, "Brains", got bogged down in documenting controversies about chimp language or lack thereof, but I learned a lot even in that section. Cohen's basic approach is to give a fair hearing to different scientists when there is a controversy, but I wish he didn't feel the need to give so much attention to scientists with outdated views, and he does not in Sections I and especially Section III. The bottom line for language is that chimps can communicate, even orally, and some modest amount of oral communication is apparently cultural; however, you can define language so as to exclude chimp capabilities if you include the ability to use recursion, or any but the most rudimentary grammar. Not just chimps but dogs can learn hundreds of human words, and also be taught to use symbols to communicate (see book by Brian Hare, a careful scientist, on dogs).

Cohen also claims that chimpanzees do not have a "Theory of Mind" - but later in the book he sympathetically discusses the views of Michael Tomasello, who is a convert and now believes they do, based on various studies. Franz de Waal unaccountably does not even make the index, although he is mentioned at least once(the index is not very good but de Waal is an important primatologist with an emphasis on primate capacities). Cohen himself has an experience in which he is following a chimp: Cohen stops to try to whack down some figs from a tree, but is unsuccessful, so the chimp comes back and helps him.

Cohen uses the latest science to discuss all the ways in which our genomes differ from chimps - there were originally some misleading statistics on how close the genomes are. There are also some very interesting, although not fully accepted nuggets.
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