Saturday, May 26, 2012

Hidden Mickeyisms 5: Disney’s Chimpanzee and Animal Tool-using

It was probably not a hidden agenda in Disney’s nature documentary “Chimpanzee,” but it is still a learning opportunity. I doubt that Disney was attempting to present animals in comparison to humans as tool-using animals. Nevertheless, Kenneth Burke does define the human in one respect--in a tool-using sense--as being “separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making” (Language as Symbolic Action 13). Animals may “adapt” to their natural environment through mutation, but humans can separate themselves from the limitations of their natural environment by making instruments that remove the limitations of nature. I point out on page 78 of my book Disneology: Religious Rhetoric at Walt Disney World:
It is true that sea otters can “use” tools (that they do not make). They can “find” rocks and use the rocks as tools to break open the shells of shellfish, so they can eat the meat inside. It is true that apes will use sticks they “find” to place in holes and crevices to retrieve insects and other foods. However, the sea otters and apes do not “make” these instruments—they “find” them in their natural environment. Humans, on the other hand, “make” the instruments that separate them from their natural condition. While sea otters may “use” rocks as tools, humans “make” the rocks into cutting instruments. They chip away edges of the rocks to make sharp knives. Humans did this—even in the Stone Age. Then, humans realized that they could use vines to tie their sharp rocks to sticks and they “made” axes. The humans, next, realized they could put the sharpened rocks on the ends of longer sticks, so they did not have to come into close contact with the animals they hunted. They had invented spears. They noticed they could throw these spears, but if they tied vines to each end of a willow stick and bent the stick, they could use this bow to propel smaller spears (arrows). Every single human culture, it seems, has learned to “make” bows and arrows. But, it did not stop there. If humans are too cold, they “make” clothing, insulated homes, fireplaces, central heat, thermal underwear, etc. If humans are too hot, they “make” electric fans, backyard swimming pools, central air conditioning, etc. If humans desire to travel fast, they make chariots, bicycles, automobiles, motorboats, airplanes, jets, etc. If they are Earth-bound, they make rockets and space shuttles. Chapter 3 of my book Implicit Rhetoric: Kenneth Burke’s Extension of Aristotle’s Concept of Entelechy, is entitled “The Human as Super-Natural.” The human is the only animal to have the ability to transcend natural limitations by his rational thought, symbol-use, and inventions. Even so, it is fascinating to view the tool-using aptitudes of the chimpanzees in Disney’s film. As I suggested in Disneology, they “use sticks they ‘find’ to place in holes and crevices to retrieve insects and other foods.” Just as sea otters “find rocks and use the rocks as tools to break open the shells of shellfish, so they can eat the meat inside,” the chimpanzees in Disney’s film were caught on camera using rocks (and, less successfully, pieces of broken tree branches) to break open various shells of nuts so that they were able to consume the meat of the nuts. Sometimes, the “tools” they found (such as the pieces of broken tree branches) were discarded as ineffective tools. Sometimes, the rocks they used broke, but they did not have the mental capacity to see that broken rocks can serve as knives and axes. They stole effective tools from one another, but they did not “make” them, as humans do. The closest the chimpanzees come to “making” tools is stripping the leaves off of the twigs so that they might use them to poke into various holes, to gather insects and honey. I do not believe that this constitutes any type of symbolic invention capacity—any more than birds building nests and spiders fashioning webs. There is no hint (in the scenes of the movie, at least) that the tool use of chimpanzees is anything more than instinctive behavior.


  1. I would argue the same for humans - many of them have used tools, but they didn't create them.

    1. I assume that you are using the term "create" as a synonym for "make," since Burke and I never used the term "create" as it applies to human tool "making." And, I agree with you that frequently humans use rocks as hammers, etc. But, the point I make here is that humans, unlike chimpanzees, are able to go beyond tool use. They are capable of "making tools." Knives, Axes, Arrows, Automobiles, Airplanes, Air conditioners, Space ships, Computers, etc. Other animals simply cannot make these tools. See my blog or my book for further discussion.