Evolution News and Views (ENV) provides original reporting and analysis about the debate over intelligent design and evolution, including breaking news about scientific research.

Evolution News and Views
Nature NEWS

Orangutan Discusses Environmental Impact of Palm Oil Harvesting

Mike Flannery's close encounter with a Bornean orangutan, following in the footsteps of Alfred Wallace, prompts me to bring this to your attention. I've heard of lightning-fast evolution, but this is too much. Is it really possible that orangutans have developed the intelligence to comment on the environmental impact of deforestation in their native Malaysia and Indonesia?

This slick video from the Rainforest Action Network half suggests as much -- though in the very end the narrator takes it back, depending on how you interpret what he says. A deaf girl, Lena, communicates with a beautiful, sad-eyed orangutan, Strawberry, by means of sign language. It's presented straight and, despite the suspiciously perfect production, and the very near-human intelligence of Strawberry, it had me wondering if it was real.

Until the final moment, anyway, when Strawberry starts discussing (in ASL) how palm oil harvesting is destroying her native habitat. The narrator then chimes in to say that orangutans "can't speak for themselves" which is why they need our help to rescue them from extinction.

Is saving these wonderful apes a good cause? It's a great cause. But does it justify fooling people, even just a minority of those who watch this? Despite the narrator's admission, some viewers are indeed apparently misled. Read the accompanying comments at YouTube. The headline supplied by the Rainforest Action Network certainly encourages misunderstanding: "AMAZING! Orangutan Asks Girl For Help in Sign Language." After all, sure, Strawberry can't "speak" but the video leaves artfully ambiguous the possibility that the conversation with Lena in sign language, which isn't speaking, happened just this way. (CNN concedes the video was "staged." Sadly the ape's name isn't even "Strawberry.")

This is disturbing. Here is a message potentially worthy of support, but it's ruined by the implicit assumption -- one we're familiar with from our study of the Darwin lobby and its tactics -- that deception is permissible in the service of good intentions.