This is in response to Sydni Moser's comment asking for suggestions on simultaneous humane/atheist discussions.

Has anyone seen the NOVA special Ape Genius? A couple things really struck me about some of the studies.

In one puzzle-box study using chimps and children, both sets had to figure out this somewhat complicated series of steps to open a trap door in an opaque puzzle box in order to get a treat.

When the test was repeated with a clear puzzle box, the children still went through the same steps, while the chimps saw they didn't need to go through the steps and just went to the trap door.

The takeaway: The chimps were showing themselves to be more rational than the children. (There were other examples of ape rationality, not just this one.)

The other test showed that children -- and dogs, actually -- have the ability to be taught. They can triangulate between an authority figure, and object, and themselves, and learn to understand the meaning the authority intends. Take dogs: If you point at something, the domestic dog will follow your finger to the object you point at. Wolves don't do this; they'll keep staring at your hand, even if they're raised domestically.

Apes, like wolves, don't seem to be able to "follow the finger" and be taught. They can mirror behaviors and will learn, but being taught is something else. One ape in the documentary had a lightning-fast, near Rain Man -like facility for numbers, and a photographic memory far stronger than most humans, but the scientist working with him had a hell of a time getting the ape to learn the number 4, then the number 5, etc. He didn't get the idea of just adding one digit to the previous digit.

The suggestion was that since apes lack this kind of pro-social capacity for being taught, this may be one reason why humans have evolved to the point we are at today, and apes haven't.

So that got me thinking: The chimps proved to be more rational than 4-year-old kids, but they can't be taught. However, if you turn the capacity to be taught around, it can also be seen as a capacity for uncritically following an authority figure. This can be useful when you're young, small and vulnerable, but as a social trait, it may facilitate either a tendency towards religious thinking, or a tendency to follow authorities like religious figures.

So in short, it seemed like a kind of weird evolutionary trade-off; giving up instinctual rationality for the capacity to be taught, at the price of possible religiosity. This is not to say that rationality and religiosity are necessarily connected, and the documentary never suggested so, but I wonder if there is any connection.

Tags: apes, rationality, religiosity

Views: 7

Replies to This Discussion

Hi Sydni,

I probably took that bit for granted, and in the the show, they demonstrate it so it makes more sense. But let me take a whack at it: I just got home, and I took my beagles out. I want them to bang a bell on the door before we put on the leashes, so I point at the bell. Both dogs and humans will follow the line of sight between my finger and the bell -- they will identify what it is I'm pointing at (the bell). One gets too excited to bang the bell, and the other can't believe he has to do it again and bangs it as lightly as possible. But I could point at the bell from across the apartment, or a toy, or one of the other dogs or upstairs, and their eyes will track the invisible line from my finger to the object I'm pointing at. They/we are born with this facility; it doesn't have to be taught.

Wolves don't do that; they'll just keep looking at the hand, even if they're raised by people from birth. The show/research suggests that apes don't do this either. You could teach an ape to follow the line of sight by taking the ape to the object you're pointing at, and the ape will pick it up quickly. But that seems to only work in specific instances; you could move to a different context and point to a different object, but you'd have to take the ape to the new object you're pointing at, just like you did the first time. So it seems the ape can be taught what the pointer means in a specific context, but doesn't gain an abstract idea of what "pointing" means. (This is similar to how the one ape who was good with numbers had to learn each number anew; he didn't get the concept of just adding 1 to the previous digit.)

The argument, then, was that when a human (or dog) follows the pointing finger, they're participating in an abstract relationship established between three points in space -- the pointer, the object, and the interpreter -- and they recognize themselves within that relationship. The pointer is trying to convey information by pointing at an object; the interpreter understands that information is being conveyed by the pointer about the object; and the interpreter then tries to interpret the intended meaning about the pointed-at object.

I know this is a fine line, but the claim seems dependent upon the difference between the ability to be taught and the ability to learn. To abstractly understand "pointing" in itself in order to gain information about the world, they suggested, may have something to do with why humans and dogs are some of the most social and successful creatures on the planet, and also indicates our facility for learning. First we can participate in that abstract pointer-object-interpreter relationship, which reflects our sociability. Second, we can apply that model to a variety of circumstances, which indicates the learning facility. Humans and dogs don't have to be physically taken to the object being pointed at in order to get the intention, like an ape, and we can repeatedly apply that same model in order to gain information.

Did that make any sense? This isn't to say that apes and wolves aren't social creatures, just that humans and dogs possess this extra thing they don't which allows us to learn and operate in a wider variety of social contexts.
That's the question -- why do some still adhere to the need to be led, and why do some find no need for it whatsoever?

If both dogs and humans evolved into beings with this ability to learn, and that trait proved successful and was thus selected, then I wonder if we could see the trait diminishing as it becomes less and less necessary for survival. In fact, it almost seems like the trait is more predictive of people getting themselves killed in religious-based battles (which would effectively play a role in diminishing the trait, I guess).

Some of the other apes they look at in the documentary were unique for the way they used tools, and one group of chimps who went swimming. Somehow that behavior was picked up, and then passed on/taught to the others. It made me wonder if the ability to learn could emerge in some groups of apes, and where they could take it.

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