Susannah Locke over at Vox wrote a very interesting article, Watch Out—Monkeys Can Now Do Math. It’s about a recent study that showed that rhesus macaques do math symbolically. This isn’t combining one group of dots with another group of dots. The monkeys were taught number symbols. For example, they associated the numeral “5” with five banana slices. Then they started combining numbers. The monkeys were trained that they would get as much food as the numbers on the screen. So one screen displays 5 and 4 while the other displays 8. The monkeys chose the 5 and 4 because that gave them 9 instead of only 8 for the other screen.
Now you are probably thinking that that monkeys just memorized the symbols. That is: they didn’t know that 5 + 4 = 9; they just knew that the symbols “5” and “4” together gave them nine bits of food. So the researchers trained the monkeys to know a different set of symbols. So, for example, the “^” character might represent the number 6. As soon as the monkeys had learned the new symbols, they were able to do the math. There was no learning curve.
None of this surprises me. What does surprising me, and annoys me as well, is that scientists especially tend to be really skeptical about this. We run into the same thing with Koko, the gorilla master of sign language. Scientists always want to say that we just can’t know for sure and all this kind of stuff might be simple stimulus and response. Scientists have so internalized the danger of anthropomorphizing that they now make the same mistakes that creationists do: they think that humans are utterly different from other animals.
How could that be? It implies a discontinuity between other animals and us. Doesn’t it make more sense that there is a gradual process—that as our brains got bigger we simply built on things that already existed. After all, all animals communicate. There is nothing fundamentally different between a fish changing color to attract a mate and my writing this article right now. Similarly, Locke’s article mentions a study that showed that a particular species of fish could count up to four. Rhesus macaques are evolutionarily a lot closer to humans than to fish. I think if you drew a line representing mathematical ability between fish and us, the monkeys would come out somewhere around the “basic addition” level.
Another way to look at it is to think that it is stimulus and response for all animals, us included. I’m highly sympathetic to that way of looking at the world. But it still leaves us in the same place. We really aren’t that much different from our animal cousins. We are smarter, but we only value that because it is what makes our species so successful. I’m sure that cows would find our simplistic digestive system quite wanting. Don’t get me wrong: I like being a human and I greatly value my brain. I just don’t think being really smart makes us all that different from other animals.