Friday 28 June 2013

Famous Primates

I've written before about Archbishop Ramsey of Canterbury. You’ll excuse me if I don’t write about Archbishop John Charles McQuaid or Cardinal Archbishop Cathal Daly at this time.  I’d rather reflect on some smart cookies who don’t really get enough press – in The Irish Catholic or anywhere else.  There’s not a lot of difference between humans and other primates, indeed we are remarkably similar to mice and aardvarks.  So anthropologists and linguists study our primate relatives in order to understand where we came from and how we got as far as we’ve got.  Linguists?  But humans are the only animals who speak – surely it’s one of the fundamental distinguishing attributes of humanity.  OTOH, you can’t in all fairness define “speech” as sounds from the larynx as this would deny the skill and hence “humanity” to those who are born deaf mute or who have had their larynx shot off in the war.  Forty years ago, reflections such as these induced Allen and Beatrice Gardner to bring Washoe, a young female chimpanzee, into their home and teach her American Sign Language (ASL).  She made remarkable progress not only learning and reliably using a couple of hundred signs but also melding them in novel creative ways to describe new concepts: fridge became OPEN+FOOD+DRINK and duck WATER+BIRD.  Later a female gorilla called Koko showed a similar facility with ASL and other primates have been taught to use specially designed symbolic keyboards to communicate.  It’s not without some controversy: Herbert Terrace worked with the wittily named Nim Chimpsky (Noam Chomsky – geddit?) and found that under laboratory conditions and perhaps with fewer leading questions and positive expectations and, well, self-delusion then Nim was not very good at all as a linguist; managing as few as 25 different signs.  One variable here is that Nim was a bloke, and it may be that male primates are a bit more set in their ways than females – look at McQuaid after all (who was a kind enough chap by all accounts but quite stiff in his theology) – and find it more of a struggle to learn a new way of communicating. 
But before we dismiss the bloke half of the primate world as hopelessly inertia-bound and uncreative, it is as well to remember Mike, a low ranking primate in the troop so intensively and insightfully studied by Jane Goodall since 1960.  One of the criticisms of Goodall’s science is that her very presence altered the local reality and left her studying something a long way from natural chimpanzees in virgin jungle.  She has acknowledged that, by feeding the chimps in order to keep them within observation range, she may have unwittingly increased the levels of aggression within and between troops – when you have a rich resource it’s worth fighting over.  But Mike used the presence of the alien interlopers to good (reproductive) advantage.  In particular, he exploited their trash and recycled his way to alpha-male-hood.  Goodall and her team used kerosene for cooking and lighting and left the empty 5 gallon tins lying around.  Mike incorporated one and occasionally two of these drums into his display rituals and scared the bejayzus out of the other males as he bounded at them through the forest batting these crashnikovs along in front of him.  So creativity and novel behaviour is certainly within the capability of males.  And isn’t that just so typical of boys: make a tremendous noise in “robust play” with a bunch of other boys.
Japanese researchers have made significant contributions to primatology in Africa.  But why go all the way over there when you have your own remarkable native primate just down the road on the Shimokita Peninsula in northwest Honshu?  Like Goodall, the Japanese researchers working on and with the Snow Monkey (Macaca fuscata or Nihon zaru) used to lay down food on the beach to attract the monkeys within sight so that they could carry out their observations.  The macaques relished the sweet potatoes but hated the sand and spent a long time brushing as much off as possible.  It took an immature female called Imo to take a sweet potato down to the sea and wash off the sand.  Not only was this much more efficient, it made the whole thing taste better and she used to dip the tuber in the water between bites.  Interestingly, and in contrast to Mike’s friends-and-relations, other macaques rapidly caught on to this useful habit.  Some more rapidly than others: the first to catch on were other immature females, then immature males, then adult females and even … finally … adult males.   We all know from our experience that intelligence is, not only multiple, but gradated.  Some of us seem to be less smart than others.  Imo is obviously one of the sharper knives in the macaque drawer because she was able to generalise her trick when the researchers replaced sweet potatoes with wheat.  Fed up with picking this delicacy from the sand, grain by piffling grain, Imo scooped up a handful of the mixture and stalked off to the river where she intuited that the grain would float and the sand sink.
The story of Imo tells me that it requires a certain hubris to believe that adults are more intelligent than youngsters.  More experienced sure, but more intelligent?  We could, with advantage, spend a lot more time watching the young and listening to what they have to say.  They are quite possibly asking questions that will be unsettling to our certainties but nevertheless worth listening to and emulating.

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