Monday, April 17, 2006

More smart folks

A few days back I wrote about where the smart people are. (Everywhere.) By coincidence, the next morning I saw a story in the Wall Street Journal titled “How Animals Decide Things” (By subscription only. Sorry.) The piece described interesting ways that buffaloes, bees and other critters come to a group consensus about, say, which direction to head. And it’s not just follow-the-leader.

Shortly after I read that article, someone sent me a pointer to an article in the April issue of Scientific American titled "Why Are Some Animals So Smart?” by Carel van Schaik. I had already read van Schaik’s book, Among Orangutans: Red Apes and the Rise of Human Culture, so I was familiar with his discussion about the culture of tool use among orangutans in high-density populations.

Early in the article, he discounts the role of social complexity as adequate explanation for the evolution of intelligence:

This Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis suggests that success in social life relies on cultivating the most profitable relationships and on rapidly reading the social situation--for instance, when deciding whether to come to the aid of an ally attacked by another animal. Hence, the demands of society foster intelligence because the most intelligent beings would be most successful at making self-protective choices and thus would survive to pass their genes to the next generation. Machiavellian traits may not be equally beneficial to other lineages, however, or even to all primates, and so this notion alone is unsatisfying.

He posits that “social learning” is another key factor:

Our analyses of orangutans suggest that not only does culture--social learning of special skills--promote intelligence, it favors the evolution of greater and greater intelligence in a population over time. Different species vary greatly in the mechanisms that enable them to learn from others, but formal experiments confirm the strong impression one gets from observing great apes in the wild: they are capable of learning by watching what others do. Thus, when a wild orangutan, or an African great ape for that matter, pulls off a cognitively complex behavior, it has acquired the ability through a mix of observational learning and individual practice, much as a human child has garnered his or her skills. And when an orangutan in Suaq has acquired more of these tricks than its less fortunate cousins elsewhere, it has done so because it had greater opportunities for social learning throughout its life. In brief, social learning may bootstrap an animal's intellectual performance onto a higher plane.

So what does all this have to do with the theme of this blog? Well, it’s just that I am mystified that some people are so viscerally offended to be compared to apes. Or to be classified as animals. What’s the big deal? We are all part of nature, and there is so much we can learn from observing animals -- from orangutans and tamarins to snakes and spiders. Of course, we don’t know how chimpanzees feel about our claim to be their cousins. I sure wish we could talk it over.


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