Sunday, October 30, 2016

Our Primate Cousins Are Smarter Than We Thought

Here is some more cool information that shows just how smart non-human animals are.

In the October 7th issue of the journal Science, there is an amazing new study about the intelligence of chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans. But it's not amazing for the reason you might think... (see the last paragraph).

The study from Duke and Kyoto Universities and the Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology used some simple experiments (with a guy in a King Kong costume!) to show that apes can anticipate what someone is thinking.

This, of course, is just like us. But some people (including scientists) are slow to realize this because we think we're special.

The basics involved the King Kong look alike (presumably just to get the apes' attention) hiding a stone in a box. However, the apes can see that there is a person watching where the stone is hidden. So of course, the apes know that the person knows where the stone is. But to add a worthy plot twist, when the watching person goes away for a bit, King Kong switches the stone to a different box. The apes also witness this.

So the question is whether the apes are tracking all this tricky business. We expect them to keep track of where the stone really is. But will they also keep track of where the person thinks the stone is?

The researchers used cameras and software to watch and record where the apes' eyes focus. And they can use these cameras to easily demonstrate that the apes always know where the stone is. They also used the cameras to track what happens as the person comes back into the room to look for the stone. What happened was that the apes always look toward the box where the person will go to find the stone, even though the apes know that the stone isn't really there. In other words, the apes can anticipate what the person is thinking even when the person is wrong. The apes totally get when the person is operating on incorrect information.

So what is amazing about all of this? Any animal lover will know that it isn't that apes are really smart. That's very much in the "duh" category. What is amazing is that it has taken so long for people to realize that we're just not that special. Sure, we're clever, and we can count the ways. But apes are probably talking about us behind our backs.

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