Primates’ Evolutionary Relationship to People

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on May 26, 2012
Featured in News to Know

Psychologists say observations of chimpanzee and orangutan behavior in zoos support the primates’ evolutionary relationship to people.

Do chimps in zoos have the same personality types as people? Or do humans project their own perceptions onto ape behavior? Psychologists using surveys collected from observers around the world say they have proven ape personalities really have evolved like their human cousins. “All too human? Chimpanzee and orangutan personalities are not anthropomorphic projections”1 declares their study, published in the journal Animal Behavior. Dr. Alexander Weiss, the lead author, asserts the results are a natural consequence of the primate evolutionary relationships with humans.

“[Chimpanzees] have the same social problems that we do, they want to make friends and find mates and sort of gain position within their society,” says co-author Mark Adams. Dr. Weiss says chimpanzee personalities are “highly similar” to humans in that they can be described scientifically in five categories: “neuroticism, extroversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness.”

Because orangutan personality can only be accurately rated in three of these categories—extroversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness—chimps can be considered more similar to humans than orangutans.

Because orangutan personality can only be accurately rated in three of these categories—extroversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness—chimps can be considered more similar to humans than orangutans. And, he says, the number of “shared personality dimensions are best explained by our genetic similarities.”

“Humans and chimps share a common ancestor about 4 to 6 million years ago,” Weiss says. The orangutans are supposed to have diverged from the primate evolutionary tree 15 million years ago, however, which explains, Weiss says, “why chimpanzees and humans are more similar in personality than orangutans and humans.”

Humans tend to anthropomorphize animal behavior. As psychology professor Clive Wynne of Florida explains, “Human beings have a very natural tendency to project human agency into almost anything that moves. It’s very deeply ingrained into our ways of trying to understand the world around us.”

This research team actually did this study to test the degree of observer bias that influences human assessment of animal personality. “There’s sort of a fear that human observers and ‘raters’ are projecting their own ideas about personality on to these animals,” says co-author Mark Adams. This study was designed to rate the “raters” of great ape behavior.

To do this, the team asked 230 people visiting zoos in the US, Canada, Australia, and Japan to rate chimps and orangutans on 40 to 50 personality traits using a seven point scale. Then, statistical analysis was used, researchers say, to eliminate observer bias. “What we found,” Adams says, “is that controlling for these differences among observers made no difference, which suggests that the observers are not projecting their own ideas about personality onto the animals.” Weiss says this study “vindicates both the view that chimpanzees have personalities and perhaps the more controversial statement that their personalities are quite similar to those of humans.”

Since human perception of personality influenced the design of the questionnaire, it might be fair to say that the 230 people filling out the surveys tend to see things the way humans do. It is unlikely that any observer actually knows what the apes were thinking, though we might puzzle over how the apes would design a questionnaire to rate their human observers.

Of more significance, however, than amusing musing about how much humans anthropomorphize anything that moves is the fact that this study is being offered in support of the evolutionary relationships between primates and humans.

Evolutionists claim genetic similarities between primates and humans are the results of common ancestry. Biblical creationists—and even intelligent design proponents of other persuasions—understand genetic similarities as the natural result of having a common Designer. Furthermore, much circular reasoning and bias are built even into the claims of genetic similarity. God’s own Word tells us that He made Adam and Eve in His own image on the sixth day of Creation week, the same day He made land animals.

Our Creator has made it clear therefore that there is no evolutionary relationship between apes and humans. To consider the human surveys of animal behavior in any setting—much less the unnatural setting of zoos—evidence in support of an evolutionary tree of unverifiable past events while rejecting the eyewitness account provided by the Creator of the universe seems to represent the height of elevating man’s fallible opinions over the Word of the infallible omniscient God. Using such anthropomorphic games to continue justifying the replacement of the Creator by evolution represents a denial of truth that every person—according to God’s Word (Romans 1:18)—knows in his heart. Scripture teaches in Romans 1:18–20 and Romans 2:14–16 that every person understands he is morally accountable to his Creator no matter how much he suppresses that truth.

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  1. Alexander Weiss, Miho Inoue-Murayama, James E. King, Mark James Adams, and Tetsuro Matsuzawa, “All Too Human? Chimpanzee and Orang-utan Personalities Are Not Anthropomorphic Projections,” Animal Behaviour 83, no. 6 (June 2012): 1355–1365, doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.02.024.


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