The more we study animals, the less special we seem.
Baboons can distinguish between written words and gibberish. Monkeys seem to be able to do multiplication. Apes can delay instant gratification longer than a human child can. They plan ahead. They make war and peace. They show empathy. They share.
“It’s not a question of whether they think — it’s how they think,” says Duke University scientist Brian Hare. Now scientists wonder if apes are capable of thinking about what other apes are thinking.
The evidence that animals are more intelligent and more social than we thought seems to grow each year, especially when it comes to primates. It’s an increasingly hot scientific field with the number of ape and monkey cognition studies doubling in recent years, often with better technology and neuroscience paving the way to unusual discoveries.
This month scientists mapping the DNA of the bonobo ape found that, like the chimp, bonobos are only 1.3 percent different from humans.
Says Josep Call, director of the primate research center at the Max Planck Institute in Germany: “Every year we discover things that we thought they could not do.”
Call says one of his recent more surprising studies showed that apes can set goals and follow through with them.
Orangutans and bonobos in a zoo were offered eight possible tools — two of which would help them get at some food. At times when they chose the proper tool, researchers moved the apes to a different area before they could get the food, and then kept them waiting as much as 14 hours. In nearly every case, when the apes realized they were being moved, they took their tool with them so they could use it to get food the next day, remembering that even after sleeping. The goal and series of tasks didn’t leave the apes’ minds.
Call says this is similar to a person packing luggage a day before a trip: “For humans it’s such a central ability, it’s so important.”
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