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Hearts and Minds of Chimps December 6, 2007

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Animal Intelligence, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.

The Kyoto University cognitive scientist Tetsuro Matsuzawa has just  published a study where he demonstrates that a group of chimpanzees have better memory functions than a test group of college students. That ought to interest our students, here close to the finals…

“Matsuzawa showed a computer screen grid of nine numbers to six chimpanzees, all trained to recognize the ascending nature of arabic numberals, and nine college students. When subjects touched one number, the others disappeared. Then they had to touch the squares in the order of the numbers that used to be there. When the original numbers remained on-screen for seven-tenths of a second, the college kids fared as well as Ayumu, the most prodigious of the chimps. Both had a success rate of 80 percent. But when the numbers flashed for just four-tenths of a second or less, Ayumu’s success rate stayed the same, while the others plummeted to 40 percent. Even with six months of training, three students still couldn’t beat Ayumu.”

So what does this mean? The Wired headline asks, “Are You Smarter Than a Chimpanzee?” but that is not the key question. Memory and intelligence are not the same—birds and squirrels have a fantastic capacity for remembering where they hid the nuts the year before.  It is what we do with our memory that makes the difference. It is entirely conceivable that other animals may have skills that supercede our own; eidetic memory may have been more necessary in the wild for the chimp ancestors than the human ancestors. What is truly interesting about this study is that we barely bat an eye anymore at the suggestion that chimps are smart—and the sea change has happened really fast: In 2000 a Chicago conference on animal behavior chaired by Jane Goodall concluded that there would no longer be any legitimate reason to claim that animals had no emotional life, nor any form of intelligence. In contrast to what was considered an appropriately skeptical academic attitude in most of the 20th century, a new generation of researchers is now weighing in, from the notion that animals may have a natural morality (see Dwight’s blog below) to the concept of animal rationality. Some of us are saying, “It‘s about time,” after a century of critics across the board have disregarded the clear evidence of animal minds based on two cases of animals who weren’t as smart as first assumed, the horse Clever Hans and the ape Nim Chimpsky. As Frans de Waal, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Roger Fouts have pointed out in recent books, the ape capacity for morality as well as abstract thinking expressed in verbal and nonverbal language is real, and not a matter of researchers superimposing their own interpretations on animal reactions in a training program, as the Nim Chimpsky critics used to claim. As late as the 1980s I myself heard the influential linguist Thomas Sebeok lecture that animals have no rational mind activity or language comprehension whatsoever, and now, 20 years later, we are more than willing to accept the thought that not only apes, but dolphins, elephants and perhaps even dogs have some form of self-awareness, through the mirror self-recognition test.

             Add to this paradigm shift the case of Matthew Hiasi Pan, highlighting the fact that these debates about ethics and capacity for reason aren’t just academic ivory tower discussions: As of late September 2007 Pan was in danger of being sold unless the Vienna Supreme Court grant him personhood, because Pan is a chimpanzee, and the animal shelter where he has lived for 25 years is in bankruptcy. Echoing Kant’s infamous dichotomy, the Austrian legislators only recognize the status of a person, and the status of a thing, and as of now, Matthew Hiasi Pan is a thing. In England, New Zealand and Australia apes are considered hominids with limited rights. It seems that Austria is about to have a debate about personhood on their hands. Stay tuned.




1. S.K. - December 6, 2007

The topic of this blog was very interesting to me. While it is impressive that the chimps used in this research study seem to have a better memory than college students is impressive, the thing that really drew me in is the topic of how intelligent an animal is directly effects the rights of its species. I think it is astounding, as you pointed out, that 20 years ago, the idea of chimps, or any other animal for that matter being “intelligent creatures” was totally unheard of. And thanks to the research sparked by Jane Goodall’s findings, we now have counties were animals have rights too. I honestly think it is so sad that it has taken humanity so long to see animals as creatures that deserve rights, and not simply regarding them as “things”. And I find it even sadder that certain countries still regard animals as “things”. I very much hope that one day all living creatures are given the same rights as humans, or at least the rights to be treated as a living, breathing, creature, and not as a “thing” where they pretty much have the same rights as a stapler.

2. BorZu - December 8, 2007

Lets face it! Humans are a transformed version of monkys and chimpanzees … and to me its no surprise that a chimpanzees might be smarter in some situations … but over-all humans are wothout a doubt smarter from a far view , cause if we wouldnt get better and smarter there was no need of the transformation … and about the same rights!?! … im Not Sure!

3. L'etranger - December 8, 2007

I see no reason to give much significance to the idea that a chimp can remember an arbitrary set of numbers better than a selection of college students. I don’t even see it as an issue of intelligence but rather as an issue of the utilization of on e form of memory that college students may not have much use for. The chimp’s brain is more specialized towards the quick processing and recovery of short-term memory because that may be an advantageous trait for the environment it comes from naturally. Whereas the college students can better utilize the long term memory and critical thinking abilities it takes to survive in the highly competitive intellectual environment of The Kyoto University. I agree with Professor Rosenstand when she points out that significance is not in the laughable sensationalism put forth by Wired’s headlining question, “Are You Smarter than a Chimpanzee?” The real issue is what this waxing, or could it be waning, border of personhood could mean for the future of, well, people and all those which may be considered so. Does this mean that if we learn enough about the cognitive processes and abilities of animals to see that dogs, cats, and maybe pigs have sufficient memory and emotive capabilities, that owning a pet would just be another form of slavery and eating bacon a punishable crime? What if we were to develop an advanced form of A.I. capable of feeling some artificial pain of, in that case, life? Who are we to say then that we have the right to take that life?

4. L'etranger - December 8, 2007

*What if we were to develop an advanced form of A.I. capable of feeling some artificial pain or, in that case, life?

5. S. Buchanan - December 10, 2007

I also think that is it absolutely astonishing that chimps have this sort of memory. We sometimes as human beings disregard that fact that there can be creatures as smart of not smarter then us on this planet. Like you had referred to in the blog, times are ah changing and we need to take in to consideration that these creatures are intelligent and do hold a great capacity to learn. With this in consideration we need to as US citizens maybe follow Australia and New Zealand’s lead of giving these animals- hominids rights.

6. Evangelisti - December 11, 2007

The main thing we have to learn from this is not to jump to any conclusions. When I was born the scientific community felt animals, including apes, were incapable of thought, memory, or emotion; now we see that is not that case. The danger is that we go from denying animals any credit of thought to recognizing them as thinking, and thereby rational, beings. Which if becomes the case then we would grant them certain rights with regard to their own decision making, and hopefully they would make decisions that do not endanger themselves and those around them. We keep large apes in cages around people because we do not know what they will do to the people, especially in cases of extreme emotional strain, and are capable of hurting them. If we remove those cages because they are now fully thinking beings capable of decision making, we just better be right about that, because those bars between you and that ape are gone. We do not execute people who do not fully understand their actions, such as mentally challenged individuals, but we do for those fully aware of their right or wrong actions, where would you put the ape?

7. matt correct to be right - December 11, 2007

Clearly many animals hold some cognitive ability, whether memory, social interaction, learning, or otherwise. The issue is what becomes of that ability. The monkeys had to be taught the ascending nature of the numbers, and although almost every human is taught the same thing, if only for the sake of time, it was humans, not apes, who originated the logic and gave order to the numbers. The apes could memorize a few numbers, the same way lost animals find their way home, or others remember where they placed food, but none of the apes can process the information. That is what makes humans unique, our ability to not only understand, but to understand why, and to understand why why, et cetera; or at least attempt to understand. Perhaps with time and evolution animals could begin to grasp ideas about ideas, but that is even more unlikely has human dominance has all but overtaken evolution. We fight every day to halt extinctions and preserve the state of every animal in our world, and with human physical evolution all but over, and our mental evolution accelerating, the gap between the thinking! and the “thinking” will just grow larger…

8. Moriae - December 11, 2007

That was a pretty odd comment about our “physical evolution all but over.” It doesn’t even take much of an expert to tell the difference between two skulls which are in fact only about one hundred years apart. Nature is indifferent, and will change simply for the sake of change–some changes will seem to be improvements, and others will seem atavistic. Yet all of that will be the result of human projection. Progress is a human hope, not a natural concern. Our mental abilities will follow suit, witness Julian Jaynes’ book. Our minds are not designs put into place to solve problems; our minds are designed to compete with other minds, thus we spot deceptions much more readily than we do errors of judgement. Nature doesn’t care, it simply created a restaurant where all the diners eventually end up on the menu.

Also, do we, as people, really understand the ‘why’s’ of our lives? Do criminals really understand what they are doing? Socrates thought not. How do we account for the so-called errors people make? Are errors of judgement really done knowingly? Do men and women really choose mates they “know” they won’t like or enjoy later? Is a man who loves a woman at night really in a position to know he won’t love her in the morning? It will take a lot of human evolution before we’ll ever get a handle on what makes us “tick.” At this point the ‘ticking’ only makes our neighbors nervous.

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