Ideas that add up #77

Chimpanzees can far outperform humans in some mental tasks, including rapidly memorising and recalling numbers, Japanese scientists have shown.

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, Tetsuro Matsuzawa, of Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute, showed remarkable video footage of chimpanzees displaying mental dexterity that would be way beyond most people.

Prof Matsuzawa said a few exceptional people, such as those with savant syndrome, might be capable of such memory feats, but they are far beyond the average human brain. “One person in several thousand might be able to do this,” he said. “All the chimps I have tested can do it.”

Clive Cookson, FT February 16th, 2013

The Prof’s experiments found that chimps can take in an accurate, detailed image of a complex scene or pattern, useful for example when they need to assess and remember the distribution of edible fruit in a forest canopy. So, what have I got against my own species that I love this kind of news so much?

A charitable slant would be this: the more science satisfies itself that the circle of consciously lived experience extends far beyond us lot, the wider the family we can count ourselves a part of. Not just us alone — it’s us and all our crazy, fantastic siblings, the whole damn clan of life clinging to this mossy ball spinning through space. And that’s good because, among other things, it means we’re not the sole, tortured subject of cold Nature’s cosmic experiment.

(An uncharitable slant would be self-loathing blah blah blah. I don’t buy it.)

Actually, when you spend time considering the preferences and prejudices of your cat or dog, or returning the quizzical gaze of a peckish crow, or monitoring a clutch of ants as they haul a cockroach carcass towards their nest, you cannot, in all honesty, not credit other creatures with mental capacities that are in some way analogous to ours. To varying degrees they all communicate and cooperate in ways that are unmistakably intelligent. People have always known this, I’m sure, but off-the-shelf anthropocentric thinking from both religion and science seems to have gotten in the way of that basic knowledge — persuading us instead to accept, as a given, that dominion over the others is our birthright.

That Prof Matsuzawa’s chimps have a superior capacity to recognize and recall certain kinds of complex pattern isn’t itself amazing. All other animals can so something better than us. It’s that they could, all along, carry off mental feats that we assumed — never having troubled to “ask” them before — were uniquely human.

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