Stuff I Found

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Another stupid article on animal intelligence

According to this article:

Researchers in Japan have pitted human adults against five-year-old chimpanzees in a test of mental agility and memory - and the chimps won.

In a test of short-term memory involving numbers flashed on a computer screen, the apes comfortably beat their human opponents.

This astonishing result, published in the journal Current Biology, shows that in at least some respects our position at the top of the intellectual tree may be a bit shakier than we thought.

So what is going on here? Are chimps really brighter than us, even in this sort of memory test?

And if so, what does this mean for the way that we treat them? After all, how could it be right to lock up creatures more intelligent than ourselves in zoos or laboratories?

Yeah... ooooooh...

Firstly, the article doesn't go into the specifics of the test. Then they conclude that since chimps "won" that they are (or might be) smarter than us. Almost every animal can beat us in something; that doesn't mean they're smarter than us. You might as well say "dogs recently beat humans in a smell recognition contest... so should we really be keeping them on leashes?"

And again the article brings that "apes can learn sign language!" ... uh ... there's still not any very good evidence of that. They can learn to make signs with their hands that can mean something, but there's a huge difference between that and the scope of human language. Dogs can scratch on doors when they want to go outside and relieve themselves, but that's quite different from them trying to talk to you.

And then there's the "mirror test" ... if an animal reacts to itself in the mirror then some conclude that the animal must be self-aware! What exactly does that even mean?

The stupidest thing about this article is that it blathers on and on about what this ground-breaking test must mean for us... we have to change laws and give chimps some human rights! We have to stop thinking of ourselves as so smart compared to animals! Give me a break.


  • The only mildly compelling things I've seen on the subject are related to the use of language. Not just symbols, rather - syntactical language ...

    For example, Alex the Parrot, who died recently, had "the lingual power of a 3 or 4-year-old". Rather simple things, of course; "What material?", pointing to a tray full of wood shapes. "Wood," it answers. "How many cubes?" ... "Five," it answers after counting. The thing even played simple childish head games - "Let's play a game." "I go back to cage?" "No, we're going to play now." " ... I'm thirsty." "Are you really thirsty, or do you just want to go back to your cage?"

    (Of course, some power of logic is required, even if it's really lousy. But, for example, a gorilla could be trained to use three symbols for "Myself", "Want", and the specific object. Even that may just be sequence, of course - but then when someone signs to it, "Want trade my banana your rock?" They answer yes, but the reverse - uh-uh! Bad deal!)

    By Blogger Luke Anthony, at 5:32 PM  

  • Which is not to say, of course, that they're human, or should be seen/treated in any regard the same as humans...

    By Blogger Luke Anthony, at 10:24 AM  

  • But even with Alex the Parrot, there doesn't seem to be much evidence that he could use language creatively to express new thoughts. He might sound like he's saying "I go back to cage" ... but does that really mean the same thing to him as it would to a human? Is he really thinking of the words as separate, each with their own meaning? Or is he remembering phrases "Igoback" and "tocage" ... or is he remembering the entire phrase "Igobacktocage"? Would he understand how the phrase could be changed to mean something new, like "You go back to cage," or "I go back to thirsty"? I'm very skeptical that this is really evidence of a bird understanding syntactical language.

    That said, it's strange that we humans can think of animals as being smarter when given language. Our dog shows us what she wants in different ways. She scratches on the back door when she wants to go outside or come back in. She sits by the pantry door when she wants a treat. She flips over her food or water bowls when she's hungry or thirsty. She barks when she wants something and nobody's around. It's probably possible to build a machine that would read her brain signals and translate them into phrases: "I want food" ... "I want treat" ... "I want outside" ... "I want sleep" etc., but that won't really make her smarter.

    Likewise, birds in the wild have to be smarter than we may give them credit for. They search for safe and edible food, search for things to make a nest with, make and remember where their nests are, find food for their children, etc. Categorizing colors and textures and counting probably already plays a part in just surviving in the wild. So that a parrot could link words with these things is indeed an impressive feat, but not really a sign of any greater intelligence than they display just surviving in the wild. Language and/or symbols may just provide us humans with a different way to understand their intelligence. Same goes for chimps, apes, dolphins, etc.

    By Blogger Sean Hannifin, at 4:09 PM  

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