Friday, August 13, 2010


Who are you calling a dumb animal?

Chimps that can understand English, crows that have mastered physics and a very shrewd shrew: New research shows how we’ve woefully underestimated so many animals' intelligence

By Sarah Chalmers
Last updated at 9:07 AM on 12th August 2010

Sitting on the floor, surrounded by an assortment of objects and utensils, Kanzi the bonobo pauses for a moment, a look of contemplation flickering across his warm brown eyes, before picking up a knife with his left hand and beginning to chop the onions in the bowl in front of him.

He has done exactly what the researcher asked him in English, in much the same way as one might expect a toddler to react to a series of basic commands.

Next, the ape, which is a close cousin of the chimpanzee, is asked to 'put the salt on the ball'. It may not be a particularly useful skill, but nevertheless Kanzi understands the sentence and begins to sprinkle salt on the multi-coloured beach ball beside him.

Impressive: Researchers have taught a twenty-nine-year-old ape how to understand English

Impressive: Researchers have taught a twenty-nine-year-old ape how to understand English (generic picture)

In exactly the same manner, he carefully executes a series of other requests - from 'put the soap in the water' to 'could you take the television outside please?'.

Kanzi has an extensive vocabulary - 384 words at the last count - and not all of them easy nouns and verbs such as 'toy' and 'run'. He understands what the researchers call 'concept words' - words such as 'from' and 'later' - and he can cope with grammar, differentiating for example between past tense and current.

Kanzi cannot exactly talk - his voice, though loud, finds difficulty in forming words. So when he wants to communicate with his keepers, he does so by pointing at the hundreds of colourful symbols on three laminated place-mat-like sheets that represent all the words he has learned.

Twenty-nine-year-old Kanzi has been taught English at the research centre of the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa. He is one of seven apes there, and their incredible progress is forcing us to reassess everything we thought we knew about animals and intelligence.

But Kanzi is not the only reason for such a reassessment. Only this week, Canadian researchers at Glendon College, Toronto, reported that orangutans use mime to act out elaborate messages to other apes - and, indeed, to people - to get them to do what they want.

Dr Anne Russon's team of scientists examined 20 years of recorded data on orangutans moved from captivity to semi-wild forest conditions in Indonesian Borneo and recorded countless incidents of mime.

'We used to think humans were the only species to use tools, now we know birds and apes and other mammals can do so, too'

In one of them, a female named Siti used a stick to mime cutting a coconut to her human companion, to indicate that she wanted the coconut sliced open with a machete. Another female acted out how a researcher had dressed her foot when it had been cut, perhaps to show that she remembered the incident.

Mime was most often used when an initial attempt at communication failed. The scientists said this might explain why it happened so often with human interactions.

'My impression is that they think we are idiots for not getting a perfectly clear request, and then a bit disgusted that they actually have to spell it out for us,' Dr Russon said.

Whatever the reason, it is clear that these orangutans have cognitive abilities which hitherto have been considered uniquely human.

Dr Russon says: 'Mime is based on imitation, and imitation is already considered cognitively sophisticated in the sense of learning behaviour by watching rather than practice. This shows orangutans have the mental ability not only to imitate, but to use imitation for broader purposes.'

We have, of course, been communicating with animals and bewitched by the question of their intelligence ever since they were first domesticated.

And a fascinating article in the current issue of Time magazine examines animal intelligence in the light of Kanzi's extraordinary ability. It points out that the Great Ape Trust raises apes from birth, with spoken and sign language as a constant feature of their existence.

In much the same way as we human parents take infants on walks and chatter to them about what we see around us - even though the baby does not yet understand - so do the scientists at the trust chat away to their bonobos.

Kanzi is the first ape to have acquired language as children do, simply by being exposed to it. And it is clear this total immersion method is helping the apes to communicate with us better, faster and with a greater degree of complexity than ever before.

Some of the 'speech' of the Iowa apes is astonishing. When primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh asked Kanzi 'Are you ready to play?' after a delay in finding the ball he liked playing with, the bonobo pointed to the symbols for 'past' and 'ready', displaying a near-human talent for sarcasm.

Empathy: Elephants linger over a member of their herd¿s body with what looks like sorrow

Empathy: Elephants linger over a member of their herd¿s body with what looks like sorrow

When Kanzi tried the vegetable kale for the first time, he found that it took longer to chew than the lettuce he was familiar with - and pointed to his laminated glossary and dubbed it 'slow lettuce'.

Another of the Iowa bonobos, Nyoto, loved to get kisses and to eat sweets, so he worked out a way to ask for both. Pointing at the words 'feel' and 'kiss', then 'eat' and 'candy', he got what he wanted.

As a group, the apes worked out a term to describe the flooding they had seen in Iowa, pointing to 'big' and 'water'. And when it comes to their favourite meal of pizza, the apes simply point to the symbols for 'bread', 'cheese' and 'tomato'.

Until now the view was that man alone possessed true abilities for rational thought, culture, morality and language. But Kanzi and the apes like him are forcing us to rethink our long-held assumptions.

The assumption has typically been that animals don't suffer in the way we do. They don't think in any meaningful way and they don't worry. They have no sense of the future or of their own mortality.

This view dates back to the biblical assertion that humans were granted 'dominion over the beasts of the field' and compounded by Rene Descartes, the 17th- century philosopher and physiologist, who opined: 'But they have no thoughts.'

However, over the years, our preconceptions about the animal kingdom are being washed away one by one.

We used to think humans were the only species to use tools, now we know birds and apes and other mammals can do so, too. Otters have mastered the pretty basic art of smashing molluscs with rocks to get the meat inside. But corvids, the class of bird that includes crows and magpies and jays, are astonishingly adept with tools.

In experiments, crows have bent wires to create hooks so they can fish a basket of food from the bottom of a plastic tube. Last year, a zoologist at Cambridge University found that a rook could work out how to drop stones into a pitcher partly filled with water in order to raise the level so that it could drink.

More astonishingly, the bird seems to have grasped Archimedes' principle. It selected the larger stones first, understanding that they would raise the water level fastest.

We have always believed that intellect falls as brain size diminishes. Killer whales have huge brains at 12lb, and dolphins very large ones at 4lb, compared with the human brain of 3lb.

We’ve always acknowledged the intelligence of killer whales and dolphins — and anyway, in proportion to body size, our brain is bigger, so surely we must be the most
intelligent animal species?

'Scientists are learning that some of the things they thought animals could not do were simply things hey had not been given the opportunity to perfect'

Again, research is increasingly raising questions about such assumptions. The
brain of the Etruscan shrew weighs just 0 . 1 grams , but relative to the shrew’s body it is bigger than a human brain.

And how do you explain the fact that corvids are among the most adept tool users in the animal kingdom? Their brains are tiny.

Time after time, science suggests we have deeply underestimated the intelligence of animals.

We thought humans were the only ones that could show empathy and generosity, but
recent studies have shown that elephants mourn their dead and monkeys practise

Elephants linger over a member of their herd’s body with what looks like sorrow, and
they can remain close to a dead elephant for days. They show extraordinary interest — even respect — when encountering elephant bones, gently examining them, paying special attention to the skull and tusks.

Even rats show empathy for each other, says Marc Hauser, professor of psychology and anthropological biology at Harvard. ‘When rats are in pain and wriggling, other rats will start wriggling in parallel,’ he explains.

And a 2008 study by primatologist Frans de Waal, at the Yerkes National Primate Research Centre in Atlanta, showed that capuchin monkeys exhibited generosity.

When the monkeys were offered a choice between two tokens — one that would buy two slices of apple and one that would buy one slice each for them and a partner monkey — they chose the generous option, provided the partner was a relative
or at least well-known to them.

The Yerkes scientists concluded that this was due in part to the simple sense of pleasure experienced in giving. This is consistent with studies of the human brain which show activity in the reward centres of the brain after subjects give to charity.

And now the final barrier between humans and the animal world appears to be blurring with the revelation that apes can indeed communicate using speech.

Scientists are learning that some of the things they thought animals could not do were simply things hey had not been given the opportunity to perfect.

Pointing is one such example. Dogs know what to do if you point at something, such as a morsel of food on the floor. They understand innately what pointing means:
that someone has information to share and that your attention is being draw to it so that you can learn, too.

However, great apes, despite their impressive intellect and five fingered hands, do not seem able to point. Some have concluded that this is because they never had an
opportunity to practise because baby apes rarely let go of their mothers, clutching her abdomen as she knuckle-walks from place to place.

Kanzi, by contrast, who was raised in captivity, was often carried in human arms, leaving his hands free for communication. ‘By the time Kanzi was nine months old, he was already pointing at things,’ says Savage-Rumbaugh.

In a similar vein, apes which have learned a word to describe a feeling are better able to understand it. This sounds extraordinary, but imagine as a human trying to
explain, say, satisfaction, if the word didn’t exist.

Psychologist David Premack, of the University of Pennsylvania, found that when chimps were taught symbols for ‘same’ and ‘different’, they later performed better on analogy tests comparing whether certain objects were similar or dissimilar.

What then does all this teach us humans? The truth is that the research into the subject of animal cognisance is only just beginning.

But it is already clear that we have grossly underestimated how innately intelligent so many species are.

Strikingly, it is in captivity and through close association with us humans that animals are finally allowing us to realise what their brains are capable of. And as we learn
more about their thoughts, let us hope it will lead to a better relationship between man and beast.

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