This is Not Your Grandfather’s Monkey (or pigeon)

baboon2The mind can always intend, and know when it intends, to think the Same. This sense of sameness is the keel and backbone of our thinking.

–William James

Science has just served humanity another helping of humble pie.  Ed Wasserman, principal researcher at the University of Iowa, presented his findings on animal cognition at the Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, and the news is that the disparity between human and animal cognition is not as wide as we thought.

Wasserman and his team found that baboons and pigeons (pigeons!) can (1) determine differences between different and same objects, and (2) learn relations between relations.

Here’s an example of the first item: if you put two peanuts under one cup on a table, and a cashew and walnut under another cup, you, as a human, can correctly identify that the objects under one cup are the same and those under the other cup are different.  This may sound ridiculously simple, but it’s an essential rudiment for complex thinking (it’s the “keel and backbone of our thinking” said William James). 

Turns out, baboons and pigeons can do this too – and the really important thing shown in this research is that they can actually learn to do it. 

Here’s an example of the second item: if two identical photos of a dog are shown to you, followed by two identical photos of another dog, you will be able to recognize that the first two are the same (A and A) and the other two are the same (B and B), and that you have just looked at two pairs of images that were the same (same equals same).  Then, if you are shown a pair of different dogs (A and B), followed by yet another pair of different dogs (C and D), you will recognize that you have viewed two sets of photos that are different (different equals different).  

But what happens if you view two identical dogs (A and A) and then two different dogs (C and D)?  We know that humans arrive at this conclusion: same does not equal different. And up until recently, it was thought that ONLY humans could arrive at this conclusion. Wasserman’s study finds this just isn’t so.  Baboons and pigeons can learn this ability too (the only difference being that the baboons pointed and the pigeons pecked).

What this all means is that other animal species–very likely many other animal species–are capable of higher-order relational learning, and that’s a big deal. It’s one less major cognitive ability humans can claim an exclusive on, and there will no doubt be many more coming. From Wasserman,

The newsworthiness of our baboon experiment was to show that nonhuman primates are capable of higher-order relational learning. Understanding the relation between relations was previously believed to be a kind of cognition that sets humans apart from all other animals.  The follow-up discovery — that pigeons too are capable of such higher-order relational learning — affirmed our suspicion that we’ve really established a finding of broad evolutionary significance.”

hat tip: Machines Like Us

1 Comment

Filed under About Research

One response to “This is Not Your Grandfather’s Monkey (or pigeon)

  1. Thats very good to know… thanks

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