Sunday, March 29, 2009

Zoo apes found throwing rocks

This study got a lot of press as a big breakthru:
Planning for a future, rather than a current, mental state is a cognitive process generally viewed as uniquely human. Here, however, I shall report on a decade of observations of spontaneous planning by a male chimpanzee in a zoo. The planning actions, which took place in a calm state, included stone caching and the manufacture of discs from concrete, objects later used as missiles against zoo visitors during agitated chimpanzee dominance displays. Such planning implies advanced consciousness and cognition traditionally not associated with nonhuman animals.
Maybe these zoo chimps just happen to like collecting rocks, and throwing rocks at targets. Maybe they are bored and have nothing else to do.

The particularly far-fetched claim is that the chimps are planning for a future mental state. The theory is that they are only collecting the rocks because they anticipate being upset when the zoo visitors arrive, and that they will want to throw the rocks when they are in an upset mental state. This is anthropomorphism.

Humans might buy a bottle of aspirin in anticipation of having a headache later. Is this really supposed to be analogous behavior in chimps? I think that there are leaner explanations. Maybe the chimps collect the rocks because they want to throw them, and then hide them when they cannot find any targets. When the targets show up, they throw the rocks. No mental state analysis is necessary, except that these chimps like to throw rocks.

The article also says:
The behaviours also hint at a parallel to human evolution, where similar forms of stone manipulation constitute the most ancient signs of culture. Finds as old as 2.6 million years suggest that hominins carried and accumulated stone artefacts on certain sites, presumably a case of future need planning.
I think this guy has been watching Planet Of The Apes.

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