Preview: Will Self

October 27, 2006

What sets us apart from the animals? Not a lot, Will Self tells Michael North.

Will Self doesn't have pets. "I live with over 9 million animals in London," says the writer and broadcaster. Self will share his views about the primitive nature of man in a public discussion at the Royal Society in London on November 28. He will be joined by the veteran novelist Doris Lessing and animal behaviour scientists Nicky Clayton from Cambridge University and Andrew Whiten from St Andrews University.

The panel, chaired by Maggie Gee of the Royal Society of Literature, will discuss the following: are our human abilities and instincts so very different from those of other animals, and how have human attitudes to animals changed over recent decades? Self explored the similarities between man and our nearest animal relatives in his book Great Apes . He believes that "people are deceived by the phenomenon of consciousness" into thinking that humanity is distinct from the animal world. But he says that the advances of science have led inexorably "to get us back to our rightful position in the cosmos - as just another animal".

Whiten, a professor of evolutionary and developmental psychology, has shown that destructive Machiavellian political alliances are one aspect of human behaviour that is shared by our nearest animal relative, the chimpanzee.

His research into chimpanzee's tool use and self-awareness also shows the closeness of the two species. He looks forwards to the exchange with the novelists. "Good science is a very creative process. Science feeds into art and vice versa," he says.

Whiten has had to use his creativity in his research; his experiments involve constructing "artificial fruit" that chimps have never seen before and cannot know how to open. He then teaches them how to use a tool to open the fruit and observes how quickly they pass on the knowledge to other chimps. Similar experiments tried on four-year-old children have shown that chimpanzees can sometimes be the more rational species.

"Scientists who have studied animal cognition have discovered there is more to animal minds," Whiten says. His observations will be backed up by Clayton, a professor of comparative cognition, whose research focuses on members of the crow family and their extraordinary capacities for memory.

Whiten contends that the results of such observations have led people to be more sensitive to animal welfare: one of the subjects under discussion might be whether the great apes should be accorded "human rights".

Self, however, disputes that attitudes have changed. "Sentimentalist attitudes towards animals mask the cruelty. Factory farming is the flip side to animal charity," he says.


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