Next of Kin; What Chimpanzees Tell Us about Who We Are by Roger Fouts

Next of Kin by Roger Fouts

In Next of Kin, Roger Fouts writes a wonderful autobiography, biography (of Washoe a chimpanzee), and scientific review of the evolution of language and intelligence in primates. He writes on a level that all can enjoy--even those in their early teens. The reader becomes involved from page 1 in a educational journey lasting almost 30 years in which Fouts himself 'evolves' from a scientist to an activist. Along the way, there are many adventures and insights which most humans will never have even a remote opportunity of experiencing first hand.

Fouts sees in chimps things that humans think they have a monopoly on. For instance, his American Sign Language chimps are very capable of simple human-like communication. From their adaptations on signs taught to them, it's obvious that there is more communication going on than simply parroting human signals. At least one of the chimps looks forward to and knows that Christmas is just around the corner when Thanksgiving is over. They are certainly able to use deception, manipulation, and advanced planning--all characteristics philosophers tend to agree make humans unique in the animal world. Most of all, (and in many cases most unfortunately), chimpanzees are quite capable of experiencing human-like feelings. This is unfortunate because so many are living in captivity in conditions that even the most violent, worst offending criminals aren't subject to in human society. The chimps do experience the psychological problems that humans would suffer should they be forced into such a lifestyle.

Fouts (aided by wildlife writer Mills) raises many fascinating issues. I'd like to see the thoughts of people like Dennett, Pinker, and Leakey on this book and subject. Although I was riveted to just about every page in this book, I did see a drawback to Fouts' style. He emphasizes the similarities but tends to omit discussions of the differences. Surely there are many differences between the species which he could have enlightened the audience with. This would not only have made the book more even handed and honest--but it would have also made it seem less like a piece of propaganda, and it would have made it better from a scientific standpoint.

Next of Kin is a sad story in many ways. Humans are very capable of making the world a better place, and it appears that we may be making some headway with captive chimps (thanks in large part to Fouts and others like Jane Goodall). It will be a shame if humans are ultimately responsible for causing our 'next of kin' to go extinct.

Those who have raised children or who are currently trying to teach their little kids (like me) will find much of the content and teaching techniques to be particularly useful and insightful. Fouts' original career goal was to teach children. He is doing so--just not in the way he originally envisioned.

I highly recommend this book. It will change your outlook on your own life and your own species forever. If you liked this book, next on your reading list should be Among the Bears: Raising Orphan Cubs in the Wild.

from Richard Wrangham:
... Next of Kin is more than a book about the theory and practice of science. It's a love story.... Scientists aren't supposed to have their objectivity ruined by emotional involvement. But Next of Kin shows that the ape experiments that fail are those that forbid human sympathy for their subjects. For Fouts, chimpanzee and human minds are fundamentally alike, so it makes sense to care deeply about one's chimpanzee subjects.

You cannot read this book and stay neutral.

In February of 1998 PBS's Nature aired a program entitled Monkey in the Mirror which was excellent.