Thursday, January 14, 2010

Looking vs. Understanding

On last night's "The Human Spark", an experiment was set up to prove that chimpanzees can't think in terms of abstract concepts, like "heavy" vs. "light".

Alan Alda brought a box into a room by himself, tossing it around to demonstrate that it was light. Then, 5 people brought in another box, struggling with it to demonstrate that it was heavy. A piece of fruit was placed on top of each box, and a rope was fastened to each box and then positioned so that a chimp could reach through a partition, grab a rope, and pull the box closer to grab the fruit.

The chimpanzee had one chance. The film showed him grabbing the rope on the heavy box, which he could not move, so he got no fruit.

Stupid chimpanzee -- doesn't know what heavy and light are.

But... what if the chimpanzee has a different view of things? What if (and this is not unreasonable, based on chimpanzee society) he sees the fact that 5 people clustered around one box, all grabbing it and manipulating it, means that the box is better than the one that only one person handled? Five people were all interested in that heavy box at the same time; only one bothered with the light box. Why wouldn't the chimpanzee go for the more interesting box first?

In my opinion, the experiment proved more about preconceived notions, than learning how things really are.

Light vs. Heavy -- or is it?