When a viral video of a chimpanzee scrolling through Instagram went viral this week, social media users couldn’t help but see themselves. In the video, the chimpanzee mindlessly scrolls through a feed, pausing to look at certain videos and impatiently clicking out of others. The video garnered an array of wowed reactions, but Stuart Watson, Ph.D., a primate researcher at the University of Zurich’s department of comparative linguistics, says there’s only one important takeaway.
“Chimpanzees are capable of many amazing things that teach us a great deal about ourselves but smearing their thumb against some asshole’s phone isn’t one of them,” Watson tells Inverse.
This video can be originally traced to Mahamayavi Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, the founder of Myrtle Beach Safari — a wild animal attraction in Florida that has been criticized in the past for poor treatment of their animals. It’s been left out of this article in order to help curb its spread.
Watson adds that this video elicited outrage from the primatologist community all the way up to the Jane Goodall Institute, who condemned it as an “awful portrayal of a captive live juvenile chimpanzee”.
“I absolutely understand why this was fascinating to the public - chimpanzees are enchanting animals and seeing them engage in human-like behaviours can make us feel closer to them,” Watson adds. “Primates have extremely specific social, dietary and housing needs which simply cannot be met by those without professional expertise and resources. Unfortunately, videos like this conceal tragedy and abuse.”
In that sense, the fact that this video has gained so much ground is a shame, but it is especially so, because chimpanzees have already demonstrated their ability to beat humans at their own technological game in challenges that are far more stimulating than instagram.
One of the most famous examples of this comes from a 2007 paper published in Current Biology describing the remarkable performance of Ayumu, a Chimpanzee who routinely out-performed several human participants on a memory test.
In that experiment, headed by Sana Inoue, Ph.D., and Tetsuro Matsuzawa, Ph.D., of Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute, six chimpanzees and nine human university students were given a split second to memorize a numerical pattern on a screen. Once the numbers disappeared, they had to try to remember exactly where on the screen each number was and tap them in numerical order.
Overall, the top performer in that task was Ayumu, a young chimpanzee who performed far better on the screen-based test than the university students. “We were very surprised to find this,” Matsuzawa told the New York Times in 2007. “But it’s a very concrete, simple fact. Young chimps are superior to human adults in a memory task.”
Compared to feats like Ayumu’s and other impressive performances by primate species, Watson adds that this video really lowballs the incredible things that chimps can do. They have as many as 66 different communicative gestures that they use similarly to human language. They have outperformed older human children in tests of rationality. They even use unique patterns of vocalization to warn one another of impending danger.
Given previous research into the incredible lives of chimps, it’s absolutely clear that they can and have done remarkable things, especially when they’re given the proper care and resources to embrace their full potential. But it’s up to humans, who control most of the resources on the planet, to rise to their occasion and make it possible for them to do so.