Sunday, January 17, 2010

Intelligence and Socialization

The Animal Planet channel is currently running a series called "Extraordinary Animals". This is a highly interesting series and coincidentally, it's about the exact opposite of that Human Spark series on PBS. While PBS is working with ancient notions and trying to prove the non-existence of animal intelligence, each episode of Extraordinary Animals focuses on one particular research study that shows just how intelligent animals really are.

AzyThis week, they showed an episode about Azy, an orangutan at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa. The researchers there have taught Azy a language based on abstract symbols (sort of like hieroglyphics), and also demonstrated that orangutans have long-term memories of companions (just as Christian the lion demonstrated) as well as self-recognition, all qualities that others have denied possible in animals.

The following describes some of what was shown on Extraordinary Animals, and is partially adapted from the Great Ape Trust web site:
Scientists at Great Ape Trust are exploring the abilities of orangutans to use symbols and syntax to express their thoughts. The orangutans are learning to use a symbol-based language that is presented on a computer monitor. The touch-screen monitor has large "buttons" that are big enough for orangutan fingers.

The symbol for apple.This symbolic language contains about 70 "words". All the symbols are abstract and have no visual relation to what they represent. There are seven categories, each containing ten individual symbols. The categories are: foods, non-food objects, proper names of people, proper names of orangutans, verbs, adjectives and numbers.

There is a logic to these symbols. Each category has its own unique exterior shape. For example, a rectangle means "food" and a circle means "non-food object." Individually, the interior components of each symbol are meaningless. It's the arrangement within the exterior shape that gives each symbol a specific meaning. In addition to the major categories, there are symbols that mean "send," "clear," "yes/good," and "no/wrong." The dictionary can be expanded as the orangutans learn more symbols.
Using this system, Azy is able to identify objects, ask questions, and even give commands.

The self-recognition test involves surreptitiously placing a mark on the subject's head, then seeing if he reaches for his own head when he sees the mark in a mirror. Sounds simple enough, but the test can disprove the old notion that animals have no idea of "self" and "other" (as they contend over on PBS).
Mirror self-recognition (MSR) has been a controversial topic in the field of comparative psychology since it was first reported by Gordon Gallup in 1970. He provided behavioral evidence that chimpanzees were able to understand the nature of their mirror image, meaning that they recognized themselves in the mirror. Consider the phenomenon. A mirror image is a representation of the world, like a picture or a photograph but unlike a still image, it is dynamic and mimics the behavior of the viewer. An ape who demonstrates MSR must understand that the mirror image is an actual representation of herself in both time and space, and that it is not simply another ape looking back at her.
Again, it sounds too simple, but children under 3 fail the test.

I have seen only 4 episodes of Extraordinary Animals so far, but there is a pattern emerging, that explains why on Animal Planet they are showing us that animals are smarter than they are generally given credit for, while on PBS they are mired in old and untrue notions.

The animal experiments shown in The Human Spark are very rigid, very lab-sterile, and (as I pointed out in my last article) do not take into account the socialization of the animal. A chimp living in a zoo environment with other chimps is not going to be attuned to human society and so is not going to act according to human society's ways--a requirement demanded by the way those experiments are set up.

The animals shown in Extraordinary Animals are treated as individuals and the ones I've seen so far have all been hand-raised from infancy. This means they are socialized in human ways and thus are more likely give reactions in ways that we recognize.

What I'm saying is that interpreting an animal's actions means understanding the way the animal has been taught to act--this is not a reflection on intelligence; it is social training. When an animal has been brought up with close contact with human society, it will react in ways that are more recognizable to humans, thus revealing the intelligence that is always there, even in an animal that reacts according to a different society's teachings.


  1. I think chimps have quite a bit of abstracting ability, especially in the visual area.

    The only reason they do not make sounds as human beings do is that their larynx is structured differently.

  2. I definitely agree with you.

    And while I understand why people would desire that they communicate in the same way humans do, no one expects any animal to communicate in the same was as any other species.