Monday, September 15, 2008

Chimps 1, Human children 0

I just saw a documentary on TV. They were explaining the differences and similarities between the mental abilities of apes (especially chimps) and humans, showing in experiments how chimps have culture, use tools, and can be taught to co-operate.

Besides the obvious evolutionary implications, there was something else. The scientists did an experiment using a 'black box' (one cannot see the inner workings of the box) from which you can get a candy. They taught the chimps to execute a procedure using parts of the box, moving sliders, tapping it, etc. They then opened the little door at the bottom and found a candy there. The chimps learned to copy the procedure to get the candy. The human children (about 3-5 years old or so) also learned to do the procedure and get the candy.

They then changed the 'black box' into a 'transparent box' (one can see the inner workings), which was otherwise identical to the old box. Now that the insides of the box were visible, it was clear that the procedure of moving the sliders and tapping on the box did absolutely nothing to make the candy appear at the door at the bottom of the box. In fact, the candy was always there, and all that had to be done was to open the door and take it. However, the chimps and children were not taught this.

The chimps learned to just open the door and take the candy, skipping the procedure after seeing that the steps did nothing. However, the human children weren't able to figure that out, and continued to execute the procedure of steps, even though it clearly had no purpose.

The scientists interpreted the results by suggesting that human children have an expectation to be taught things by the adults, and so blindly did as the adults did. Basically, they're saying that human children will do whatever they're taught to do by the adults around them.

This has obvious implications for our purposes. It suggests that no matter how silly a belief or ritual is, even if it clearly does nothing, a child will believe it and continue to follow it as long as the adults teach them to do it.


Thesauros said...

Your post reminded me of an article that was printed in Time Magazine in 1995. I dug it out of my filing cabinet. It’s by Andrew Lansdown. Here it is.

“No single, essential difference separates human beings from other animals.” So began a feature article on evolution in Time Magazine (“How Man Began,” March 14, 1994). The more I thought about this sweeping statement the more I began to warm to it.

For example, like humans, apes have well formed rational faculties. Their ability to develop an argument, follow a line of logic, draw conclusions and frame hypotheses is quite remarkable.

Also like humans, apes have a marked faculty for language. (This, of course, is intertwined with their powers of reason.) Their vocabulary is enormous, their grammar complex and their conversations deep and meaningful.

The apes’ ability to codify language in writing is further proof of their close relationship to humans. In this respect, it was most gratifying to see the number of apes who wrote to Time magazine in response to the article on “How Man Began.” I was particularly interested to follow the line of reasoning of the orangutan who argued that apes had evolved from humans, not vice versa.

Like humans, apes also have a strong spirit of inquiry. Their research in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, medicine and physics is noteworthy.

Apes also (again, like humans) yearn for meaning in life. This is why they devote so much of their time to philosophy, theology and ethics. The religious sentiments and practices of all apes can be traced back to their intense and endless quest for meaning.

Apes are concerned about questions not only of origin but also of destiny. The best proof I can offer for this claim is the maxim by one famous ape philosopher who said, “Whether my life leads ultimately to the dirt or to Judgment, either way, I’ve got a problem.”

Apes also have, like humans, a refined aesthetic sense. They admire beauty and long to surround themselves with it. When an ape cultivates a garden, puts flowers in a vase, or hangs up a painting, what is it doing if not expressing a love of beauty?

Again, like humans, apes have a strong creative impulse. This is seen in their poetry, painting, dance, drama and music. To a lesser extent their creativity is also evident in the way they gather in weekly craft groups to weave baskets, spin wool, knit shawls, and cover photo albums.

The sense of humour shared by all apes is another proof of their close kinship to humans. Their delight in the ridiculous and their love of a good laugh is plain from the popular ape jokes they tell.

Reason, language, inquiry, wonder, longing, religion, morality, aesthetics, creativity, imagination, aspiration and humour . . such intangible but fundamental qualities are by no means unique to humans, as I hope I have conclusively shown. Therefore, in the profound words of Time magazine, “No single, essential difference separates human beings from other animals.”
This being the case, Christians are plainly wrong to insist that humans and animals are vastly different. And they are also obviously wrong to insist that this difference arises from the fact that God created humans in His own likeness. And if they are wrong to insist that God made us in His own likeness, then they are wrong to insist that God has any claim on us.

Admin said...

Nice comment, but this was not the point of this particular post. The point was to show that humans will blindly follow what they're taught, ie. religion, even if it clearly has no purpose or effect on the result.

Now, apes do have limited forms of those human qualities. They CAN make connections between written/symbolic language and reality. Numerous experiments show this. And they can communicate in sign language with humans. In the documentary, they also showed one ape who had learned to recognise and interpret 3,000 English words which were spoken orally.

So yes, while apes share some abilities with humans, humans are better at it. I find this no more surprising than to realise that cheetahs are the fastest land animal. Something has to be smartest, something has to be fastest, something has to be tallest, etc.

Your vast mistake is in concluding that the only reason for that is the work of a god (which I assume of course, must be YOUR god, is that right?). Evolutionary processes are perfectly capable of creating a diversity of creatures.