Of Chimp & Child – And Aesop’s Fable

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How smart is your four-year-old? Not as smart as a chimp,  or maybe even Aesop’s rook. Watch these videos in the BBC News report  Spitting and Urinating Chimps ‘Replay Aesop’s Fable.  to see how a chimp and a rook solve problems – for a reward, of course.

According to researchers in the Max Planck Institute in Germany,  chimps presented with a problem of a tantalizing  peanut floating near  the bottom of a fixed narrow glass tube were able to take water from a nearby dispenser  and spit it into the tube to float the peanut so they can retrieve it. Thirty-three percent of the chimps in the experiment got the idea to try, and  half of them (16% ) actually succeeded. By contrast, in a slightly modified experiment only  8% of the four-year-olds succeeded. But the children improved rapidly with age:  42% of six-year-olds and 58% of the eight-year-olds figured that out and got the peanut. It is a solution that not even adults are quick to see. (Sample size in each group was 24 subjects).

However, in the ‘dry’ version of the experiment – where the peanut sat at the bottom of the glass tube without any water, none of the  24  four-year-olds succeeded.  But  about a third of all those  6 and 8-year-olds  and  chimps who succeeded overall belong to the ‘dry’ condition. (See the original research report). 

The researchers called this ‘insightful behavior’  in  problem solving  and suggested that some cognitive processes must have occurred.   

OK, it may be fun to try some cognitive processes of our own.

It appears to me that in the ‘wet’ condition,  the floating of the peanut in water  may have provided  a visual link, a hint or suggestion to the solution of the problem at hand;  the ‘dry’ condition on the other hand would require the chimp or child to come up with a mental link – an insight – that water can float peanuts.

This insight may come from memory of previous observations (seeing peanuts floating in water); or it can come from memory of an abstraction (that water is a fluid which can float things in general);  or it can be evolutionary (something innate that is inherited through our genes).

What is really astonishing is how this insightful behavior in children improves  so dramatically with age, while that of chimps (of all ages) remains at about the level of a six year old child. More research along this line could shed light on how we abstract ideas and how we learn.  Perhaps to find out about ourselves we need the help of chimps.

And surely, there was one truly exceptional chimp: he got tired of carrying bits of water in his mouth to the glass tube repeatedly and started urinating into the tube – and got the peanut much more quickly.

Do you call that insight or ingenuity? Or just plain gross?

UPDATES TO BLOG

10/2/2015     How crows views death & who cares?  reports new research about crows’ social behavior  and its significance.

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