I spent a year some time ago working on a wildlife project in Malaysia, and one idyllic, crepuscular morning, a colleague awoke to find the windscreen wipers had been deliberately ripped from his car and left on his doorstep.
He’d had a clash with a colourful local character the previous day, so it was obvious to him who was responsible. What made it indisputable was that the suspect was sitting defiantly on the roof of his now wiperless car, staring smugly at him, legs casually crossed, lips pursed, without even the slightest hint of remorse.
Under normal circumstances this might have been the start of a significant feud, or even police involvement, except that my colleague was a wildlife ranger, and the culprit, an orangutan. The former had chastised the latter the day before, and our hirsute primate pal had taken umbrage, and made his feelings very clear.
Animals are better than us at honest reactions; if they want something or feel uncomfortable, you’ll know about it immediately. They don’t overthink their behaviour, or hide behind social norms or mores, and in general live life on their own terms.
This week, academics studying how to decode non-verbal ape interactions released their findings. When they showed various gestures made by chimpanzees to a random selection of us non-academic folk, 50pc of people correctly interpreted the different meanings of signals, including “groom me”, “give me that food” and “let’s mate”.
That must have been a kicker for those academics. It turns out it doesn’t take years or a PhD to work out what a chimp wants, you just have to pay attention.
A busy creche worker, as they quickly decipher what their newest, wildly gesticulating, pre-school charges want, could no doubt tell you that perhaps these actions from our closest relatives might once have been the starting point for language.
I’m being facetious, and of course we need learned experts with impressive titles before, or letters after, their names to formally confirm these things.
The idea of what, and how much, separates us from animals is a constantly evolving area of research, but the older I get, the more I believe it’s just indoor toilets and clothes — having said that, there are dogs I pass every morning with wardrobes more impressive than my own, so maybe it’s just indoor toilets.
I started this column with the intention of using this recent research to segue seamlessly into a pithy commentary about how we interact with each other on social media, how very damaging it can be when communication is uncensored and people can essentially say whatever they like without consequence.
But within the space of a few paragraphs, I’ve realised social media has in fact facilitated a more animalistic approach to communication, without the constraints of manners and accepted codes of behaviour we humans have applied to life.
Inevitably, when any new research is released on communication in the natural world, the same topics arise. Animals are primarily concerned with food, sex, shelter and survival, and when you think about it, virtually every post on social media could fit neatly under one of those headings.
A disproportionate number of social media posts involve images of something edible, and an unsolicited photo of a man’s genitals in your direct messages is arguably the human equivalent of a libidinous chimp’s “let’s have sex” gesture.
Pretty much everything else slots in under one of those four considerations, from photos of a new couch, to right-wing rants, anti-establishment tirades, aspirational holidays, good old-fashioned name-calling, and how to do a smokey eye.
Like great apes, we tend to spend our lives in specific groups, but social media is like one giant, untethered, cross-species experiment. It connects us to those with contrasting beliefs, from very different backgrounds, people who are more direct, less self-deprecating, brimming with sarcasm, or cursed with none at all.
It’s much less complicated with non-human primates (although I can tell you, hand on heart, I met more than one orangutan with a genuine sense of humour, notwithstanding our wiper-vandal).
So maybe we’re coming at social media all wrong, and we need to rethink how we let it affect us. It doesn’t separate us from the animals — quite the opposite.
Despite all our technology and advancements, it removes the social constructs we have built up over millennia, and lets us be more like them; immediate and reactionary, fight or flight.
That is not to diminish vitriol, hate speech or violent threats, but perhaps the best way to respond is as non-human animals would; after all, evolution saw to it that water would roll off a ducks’ back, so maybe it will do us a similar favour with social media slander.
“Like an insult on Twitter” might soon come to mean something that has little to no effect on a person. I’ll start the academic research now.