Tuesday, February 19, 2008

PBS: Nova: "Ape Genius"

Tonight, PBS aired a most interesting Nova series presentation called “Ape Genius,” produced and directed by John Rubin. The link is here.

The program started with some footage that showed chimpanzees engaging in complex recreational play and in making small pointed wooden spears with which to call very small primates as food. To a human, it may be disturbing that chimpanzees would “canalbalize” another primate.

It seemed that chimpanzees could conceptualize goals and repeat patterns of observed behaviors to obtain those goals, a process related to what humans call culture. Chimpanzees actually have the beginnings of culture/

It then asked the question, what makes us different? Why do we study them (Twilight Zone style perhaps) rather than the other way around?

The program moved into a series of experiments that tested the ability of chimpanzee social interaction and cooperation. It would was more difficult for chimpanzees than children to suppress emotions and obtain goals by delayed gratification. But some chimpanzees could do this. Bonobo chimpanzees especially displayed some socialization.
Chimpanzees also displayed skills in arithmetic, as in sequencing numbers.

Staged experiments, especially in Germany and in Texas, finally established that chimpanzees, compared to humans, lack “staged” cooperation. That is, they lack the ability to “teach” each other in sequential communications. Toddlers typically learn this social skill by age 4. (It’s interesting to note that age 3 to 4 is when most prodigies, such as in music or art, or even acting, show the first signs of their gifts.) “Teaching” involves a “communications triangle.” Curiously, some domesticated animals (carnivores) learn “teaching”. Dogs do, cats do not in the usual sense (although it seems lions can “teach” each other in the wild). Cooperation and communication skills are essential to all sophisticated learning; in humans, autism represent the failure of these to develop. Animals that hunt for a living or that need to go through complicated activities to get food are more likely to develop intellectual, problem solving, and even eventually cooperation skills as these confer an eventual reproductive advantage. But extended “teaching” seems uniquely human, enabling one generation to build on the knowledge gained by past generations.

Also, check out the March 2008 National Geographic. The link is here, let the "almost human" on the slide slow appear. Cover is "Inside Animal Minds: Birds, Apes, Dolphins and a Dog with a world-class vocabulary"; Story by Virginia Morell is "Minds of their Own: Animals are smarter than you think." In 1993, Time had run a cover story, "Do animals think?" Yes.

Picture: (unrelated): near Dupont Circle, Washington DC

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