Apes Much Cleverer than We’ve Been Told – And Other Monkey Business

I doubt I’m alone in thinking that when it comes to scientific studies, researchers do have a tendency to find what they’re looking for. And if you believe as a human that you sit astride the topmost rung of the evolutionary ladder, your ‘scientific’ view of other animals’ abilities is already skewed out of true.

This is exactly what has happened over two decades’ worth of studies into apes. Yes, the scientists did say apes are clever – just not as clever as us. But conducting a new analysis of all those studies, Dr Leaven¹ discovered that “what we think we know about apes’ social intelligence is based on wishful thinking and flawed science.”

“The fault underlying decades of research and our understanding of apes’ abilities is due to such a strongly-held belief in our own superiority, that scientists have come to believe that human babies are more socially capable than ape adults. As humans, we see ourselves as top of the evolutionary tree. This has led to a systematic exaltation of the reasoning abilities of human infants, on the one hand, and biased research designs that discriminate against apes, on the other hand.” 

Staggeringly, even when apes clearly outperformed young human children in tests, researchers interpreted this as a result of apes’ inferior mental abilities!

How did the scientists get it so wrong? Basically, all these years their inbuilt bias meant they weren’t comparing like with like. But if you’d like to find out more, click here

A few of the ways science has misled us into thinking apes are dumber than we are:-

1. Apes can’t ‘ape’

Not true! ‘Aping’ is one of the many words and sayings taken from the animal kingdom, presumably for good reason. Yet current theories hold that apes – in spite of having given us the word – aren’t actually much good at aping at all. In fact, we’re told they are worse at imitating actions they see than children are. Hmm, I wonder if the studies that established that ‘fact’ were included in Dr Leaven’s review. Because it does appear that studies up till now have ignored an important area of imitation – social interaction.

A new study from Lund University, published in the journal Primates, found that in social interaction, chimps and humans playing the imitation game scored an even draw. The research team “systematically observed the spontaneous interactions between zoo visitors and chimpanzees at Furuvik Zoo in Sweden”, and discovered that humans and chimps imitated the other exactly the same proportion of times.

So in fact, apes are pretty good at aping. (Interestingly, some of the Furuvik chimps at least must have been having fun because “several times we observed prolonged interactions that took on a game-like back-and-forth character”) Want to know more? Click here

2. Chimps have to imitate others to learn new things

Not true! Once again scientists have been maintaining for who knows how long another wrongful idea about apes – that chimpanzees learn how to use tools not by working it out for themselves, but only by watching their elders and betters. Which is kinda strange considering they also thought that apes weren’t much good at aping. Researchers noted that in the wild, chimps use sticks to scoop edible algae from the surface of water. So in a new study they provided chimps at Twycross Zoo – who’ve never had the chance to watch this being done – with some sticks and pieces of food floating on the surface of water in a container. The zoo chimps had no trouble retrieving the food with the sticks, and spontaneously used the same scooping action employed by their wild cousins.

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I’m guessing the real test was a little more challenging than this!

“Given these results, the long-held assumption that apes must observe one another in order to show these behaviours may have been due to an illusion of cultural transmission – created by the apes arriving at the same independently”, concluded Dr Claudio Tennie. More here

“Increasingly, we see their inner lives as very similar to that of humans”

3. Chimpanzees can’t reflect on their own state of knowledge & work out how to fill the gaps, like humans do

Not true! Yet one more way science has underestimated apes’ abilities for years. Another new study discovered that apes are able to assess in their minds if they don’t have all the facts they need to make a decision, and try to get that missing information, so they can make that decision.

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Study co-author Christoph Völter says: “Our study indicates that great apes seek information particularly when they miss a critical piece of information such as the location of a required tool. The results suggest that great apes monitor their own knowledge states and that they use this ability flexibly to fill gaps in their knowledge.”

Find out more about the test here

4. Apes can’t tell what others are thinking like humans can

Not true!“Understanding when someone else has a false belief [eg about where an object is hidden] is a mark of advanced social cognition in people” but yet again, “researchers had believed that great apes lacked this capacity.” Now it looks like “great apes, like people, may have the capacity to “read” the minds of others in social interactions.” 

Find out the fun way they discovered this by watching the video especially made for the apes to watch. “By using eye-tracking technology, the scientists showed that 17 out of 22 apes tested switched their gaze to show they had correctly anticipated when the man [believing he knew where his assailant in the ape suit was hiding] would target the wrong haystack.” The red dots I think represent the eye-tracking.

“This cognitive ability is at the heart of so many human social skills,” said Christopher Krupenye of Duke University. “I think our findings start to suggest that maybe apes have a deeper understanding of each other than we previously thought.”
Prof Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, who was not involved in the study, said that the findings confirm that theory of mind is not an exclusively human ability. “Increasingly, we see their inner lives as very similar to that of humans,” he said. Report from The Guardian. Jeez, science has been underselling our nearest relatives for so long.
But there is one surprising difference. The dating game – opposites attract

True! But only for chimps. This is one way our primate cousins, our closest living relatives, are quite unlike us, because in spite of our frequent assertion that opposites attract, it’s just not true – not for us. We humans it seems, make a point of assortative mating – choosing a partner with a similar genome to ourselves, maybe to give us a better chance of passing on to our offspring the good stuff – brains and beauty etc.

Chimps are not averse to a bit of monkeying around with a variety of partners. But when it comes to making little chimps, the female is more picky in her choice – it’s what is known in the scientific world as negative assortative mating. Never heard of it? I certainly hadn’t, and I doubt the chimps have either. But the female does it anyway. And she’s good at it. She seems to know not just how to avoid males she grew up with who might be related to her, but how to discriminate between outside males, to get herself the most dissimilar daddy for her chimplings.

How does she do it? Researchers just don’t know, but“a best guess [would be] based on appearance, smell, or sound”, says senior author of the paper Professor Anne Pusey. More on chimp dating and mating here

Ponso’s Tragic Story

A new appreciation from these various studies of just how very little apes differ from us (apart from in the way they choose a mate of course), somehow makes Ponso’s story even more heartwrenching. Ponso is one of 20 chimps – many of them captured from the wild – used for research in the 80’s by the New York Blood Center in Liberia. The Center infected the chimps with viruses, performed biopsies on them, and kept them chained up by their necks.

When NYBC had finished with the chimps, they left them, then aged 7-10 years, on an island off the Ivory Coast. Eleven died within months, and the remaining nine were moved again to another island.

Soon after, a further five chimps died of disease and hunger, leaving only Ponso, his mate and their two children. There is no natural source of food on their island, and the little family hung on to life only through the remarkable kindness of Germain, a retired farmer from a nearby village. Every day Germain pushed his makeshift boat through the shallow water the short distance to the island, with bananas, bread and water. His was the only kindness they had ever experienced.

But in spite of that, at the end of 2013 Ponso’s mate and children all died within days of each other. Germain says Ponso helped him bury them. And ever since, Ponso has been completely alone. The rapturous welcome, enormous hug and showers of kisses he gave a new visitor Estelle Raballand, director of the Chimpanzee Conservation Center² when she visited is a measure of his grief and loneliness.

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Ponso’s dedicated carer Germain Djenemaya Koidja says the ape is “like my child” Image Phys.Org

What next for Ponso? Germain who loves Ponso like his own child, would like him to stay on his island, but with a new mate so he need be lonely no more.³ Others wish to see a sanctuary created in Ivory Coast, for Ponso, and for the rapidly dwindling population of chimpanzees still remaining in the wild. But it’s looking like he will be transferred to Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia where he will have company at last, of it is said, at least two females.

Ponso’s story reminds us that it’s not just in mental abilities that apes so closely resemble us, but in the love, grief, loneliness and suffering they experience too. So my hope is that Ponso will find chimp paradise at Chimfunshi, and he will relish the new companionship awaiting him there. God knows, he has suffered enough in his 40+ years of life. Doesn’t he deserve some happiness at last?

If you would like to donate to help Ponso and the Wildlife Orphanage, you will find the SOS Ponso gofundme page here


PS Despite conflating apes and monkeys in the title, I now know, rather belatedly, that apes are not monkeys and monkeys are not apes. Easiest way to tell which is which? Apes, like us, have no tail. Monkeys do. Apes and humans have 95% DNA in common.


 

¹Dr Leaven of Sussex University, lead writer of report “The mismeasure of ape social cognition”

²The Loneliest Chimp in the World – Mail Online

³Helping Ponso, sole survivor of ‘Chimpanzee Island’ – PhysOrg

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6 thoughts on “Apes Much Cleverer than We’ve Been Told – And Other Monkey Business

  1. I know we need research to achieve greater understanding of people, animals, and natural phenomena and to move beyond often false perceptions.

    The research on primates has advanced the careers of the scholars, but how much has it helped the animals who were exploited in the process?

    Most of the studies of monkeys and apes have compared them to us. When their metrics fall short or their performance does not match our own, their abilities are deemed inferior. So when people, at the top of the Chain of Being, appoint themselves judges, the verdict is inevitably in our favor.

    For me, the question is, Why should we expect apes and monkeys to compete with us? Why put them through years of trying to teach them a language they will never need? What difference does it really make if they are at the intellectual level of a 2-year-old or 5-year-old human being? They evolved for millions of years in their own environment. Why test them to function in our culture? Why should they be deemed not up to our abilities when they have never needed them? They are all remarkable, sentient, intelligent beings, all successful survivors of their own evolutionary history.

    It’s time to stop withholding personhood and moral/legal status of the apes (and other animals, as well) because they are not of our species. Our human exceptionalism has been convenient and profitable—for us. It has caused incomprehensible suffering for other animals. It is wrong. It is unfair. And it is time for it to end.

    NOTE: The story of Ponso is sad beyond words. I’m so grateful for that farmer and Germain. They were the only ones who cared for Ponso and the other chimps after all the normal years they were robbed of while they were exploited for our medical benefit. So then we dumped them on an island to fend for themselves. Human exceptionalism in action.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, you are absolutely right, and in an ideal world we would respect apes and all other nonhuman animals as the individuals they are, and admire their amazing abilities, a very many of which we don’t share. I suppose our fascination with apes arises precisely because they are our closest relatives. My hope is that these new studies will help to break down our conceit of exceptionalism, and lead to an acknowledgement of our abject failure to accord these brothers and sisters the rights which should never have been stripped from them.

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  3. A very fascinating article, thank you . I think many animals are intelligent in ways we probably do not understand, maybe even more than us in some respects. We tend to compare animal intelligence to our own but I tend to think that animals have their own intelligence suitable to the environment in which they live and intelligence various between individual animals in a species as it does with us of course. Though monkeys and apes are closer to ourselves so I expect there are more similarities. I also did not know the difference between apes and monkeys and always used the two words interchangeably. Indeed the story of Ponso is sad as is our continuation of abuse towards our closest relatives and to any sentient creature whether highly intelligent or otherwise. I think regarding both human and nonhuman animals intelligence is too much emphasised and made too important and sadly both humans and non human lives are valued in accordance how intelligent they are.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comments. I completely agree about ‘intelligence’, which is in any case an artificial human construct. Humans aren’t very good even at measuring human ‘intelligence’. Agree too about nonhuman animals’ awe-inspiring capabilities. The main thing I would want to take from these various studies is, how little we humans and our great god Science understand our fellow creatures, and even when we think we do, our belief in our own superiority is a lens which distorts what we see.

      Liked by 1 person

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