Impulse Control & Little Differences

I watched an interesting show on NOVA last night about the differences between apes and humans. In the 2 decades or so after KoKo the gorilla was taught sign language, more and more Psychologists have attempted to observe the ‘natural’ tendencies of Bonobos and Chimpanzees in the wild. Chimps not only use tools, they hunt. That’s right they make weapons and hunt bush babies in the wild. They had first hand video evidence of this weapon making and hunting behavior. So researchers have wondered how come if Chimpanzees have gotten so far evolutionary speaking, why haven’t they advanced even faster like we did some million or so years ago.

In the case of Chimps, impulse control is paramount in measuring any animal’s ability to cooperate. Bonobos are more willing to cooperate to receive a food reward. Chimps, will not cooperate if there is no equal reward for both animals. Bonobos cooperate and reason who ever gets to the single reward the fastest wins and gets the reward. I even saw video where one chimp will punish another chimp for ‘taking’ a food reward away from another chimp. The sense of justice is very strong in chimps.

Last, the propensity for teaching seemed to differentiate us from all primates. While chimps, bonobos will mimic on another, they don’t actually teach as such. There’s no ability to focus attention on a third object and ‘show’ the technique or ‘trick’ to doing something. Instead, primates just blindly duplicate what they see or what they think they see and hope for the best. In teaching, researcher describe the ‘magic triangle’ of attention of the student, focus of the teacher and the third item of the subject or ‘thing’ being taught. Human babies point at things they want, but they also will point at things they find interesting that they want others to see. Primates do not do this at all.

The final conclusion of all this research is that primates are farther along in culture development than we ever thought. But, there are small, subtle differences that sharply differentiate us from them. As they continually said in the program last night, it is the small differences that make the BIG difference.

Here’s an interview with Amy Saxe at MIT

And the last Q & A is incredibly interesting:

Q: What do you think is the key to this huge difference in what humans have accomplished?

Saxe: I really don’t have the answer to that. One possible key is the ability to transmit information and ideas and innovations from one generation to another, both nonverbally through imitation, through teaching, but maybe also specifically through language. We create records and describe new ideas in ways that can be transmitted across long distances and into new environments. In order to learn a new skill, you don’t have to go sit beside somebody else who already knows it. You can read a book about it and learn it wherever you are. Maybe that’s one key to this big difference.

So here we have evidence that while mimicking can get you pretty far, it is FAR too rooted in the here and now. I can mimic you now, and be successful at hunting termites. And my memory of past attempts may help me improve my ability to hunt termites in the future. But as a primate, I cannot ‘transcend’ time and communicate what I have learned to ‘future’ primates to learn how better to hunt termites. Once you have language, then you have writing, and once you have writing you have ‘history’. Which takes us on an interesting circular turn towards George Santayana’s old saw, “Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.” Well nothing is truer than this when looking at the slow evolution of primates vs. the much swifter evolution of humans. We unlike chimps live beyond the here and now, both here in the past and in the future all at the same time. Now that’s a small difference that does make a big difference.





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