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Bananas! Kafka’s Ape by Justin E. H. Smith

In animals, biology, Europe, nature, science on April 27, 2013 at 20:20

From: Bananas! Kafka’s Ape by Justin E. H. Smith, Berfrois, http://www.berfrois.com

In his 1917 short story, “Report to an Academy,” Kafka tells the story of Red Peter, a chimpanzee captured in Africa and brought back to Europe to be studied by the members of an institution very much like the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. Red Peter, by some unusual transformation that is never fully explained, develops after his capture into a cultivated, language-endowed gentleman, and the titular report is in fact his narration of his own autobiography, beginning shortly after his first encounter with humans while still in his merely animal stage.

Peter recounts how, early in his captivity, he had been subjected to various experiments in which, for example, scientists hung a banana from the ceiling in order to see whether he had the requisite intelligence to stack blocks together and climb up to reach his reward. This sort of experiment, of course, takes a number of things for granted. Among other things, although it purports to be testing for something human-like, it does not allow for the possibility of individual whim; it does not allow for the possibility of a response such as that of Zira, the fictional chimpanzee in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), who cannot help but exclaim, when the human scientists try a similar experiment on her, “but I simply loathe bananas!”

The fact that experiments such as these require a certain course of action in order for an animal to be deemed intelligent suggests that what is being tested for is not really intelligence in any meaningful, human sense –since humans are permitted to have arbitrary whims and individual tastes– but rather a certain automatism that reproduces the kind of action of which a human being is capable, e.g., stacking blocks, but in the pursuit of a species-specific goal, a goal that a creature is supposed to have simply in view of the kind of creature it is, and that for that reason is not the result of a human-like willing, e.g., the will to obtain a banana. If ‘being intelligent’ is defined as ‘being like us’, we may anticipate in advance that non-human animals are doomed to fail any possible intelligence test.

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Reposted with permission from: Berfrois

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