Tuesday, March 09, 2010


I never completed my review of the 3-part PBS series The Human Spark. Truth is, the last episode was so unfocused that it was nearly incoherent. But the overall problem with the series was that they started with an incorrect idea (that humans are different, separate from, and superior to every other life form on the planet) and concocted seriously flawed "experiments" to "prove" this idea. (See Looking vs. Understanding)

(What strikes me as strange, given PBS's ban on religious programming on their member stations, is that idea behind their series seems to me to be rooted in religion. But that's another matter for another time.)

But while Alan Alda was trying to prove how stupid chimpanzees are, on another channel (Animal Planet) there was a show (Extraordinary Animals) that showed that chimpanzees can out-perform humans in a key area of intelligence: memory.

At the Primate Research Institute in Japan, it started with teaching a chimpanzee named Ai to use a touch-screen computer, then to count, and to read. (Videos here and here.)

Then Ai had a baby (named Ayumu), and she taught him to do the same things. (BTW, that is the definition of culture [a person's learned, accumulated experience which is socially transmitted]).

As the tests progressed, they went on to memory games and discovered that the chimpanzees possessed photographic memory. They could remember a sequence of numbers that was flashed on the screen for less than a quarter of a second--too fast for a human to even scan all the numbers.

In various tests, the chimpanzees vastly outperformed a world memory champion (yes, there are world championship memory games) at the institute's memory games.

Video of the chimpanzee and the memory game:

Here is some commentary on all this, from New Scientist magazine, December 3, 2007:
The finding challenges human assumptions about our uniqueness, and should make us think harder about ourselves in relation to other animals, says anthropologist Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University, Ames, US.

"Observing that other species can outperform us on tasks that we assume we excel at is a bit humbling," she says. "Rather than taking such findings as a rare example or a fluke, we should incorporate this knowledge into a mindset that acknowledges that chimpanzees - and probably other species - share aspects of what we think of as uniquely human intelligence."

The results are "absolutely incredible" says Frans de Waal, at the Yerkes Primate Center at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, US. He says that chimp intelligence is chronically underestimated, and one reason is that experiments stack the deck against the chimps.

In the wild, this memory skill might be useful for memorising fruit locations at a glance, or making a quick map of all the branches and routes in a tree, he says.

Matsuzawa emphasises that the chimps in the study are by no means special - all chimps can perform like this, he says. "We underestimate chimpanzee intelligence," he says.
So, why the totally different perspectives from two supposedly reliable sources (PBS and PRI)? Well, for one thing, the PRI perspective derived from observation rather than preconceived notions.

And, in my opinion, the real "human spark" that tends to separate us from all other life is not only the ability to distort reality to suit our purposes (yes, I'm talking about the PBS series) but the desire to do so.

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