How Different From Chimpanzees?

  • Human problem anthropomorphizing

  • The counting dog

  • What do chimpanzees really understand?

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Slide 73 of 109

Scientists are not immune to the common problem of anthropomorphizing. We tend to look at all other animals through human consciousness. However, when conditioning is stripped away, animal brains do not work anything like the conscious human brain.

A favorite trick I used to do with my friends was to introduce them to the "counting" dog. My parents had this terrier mix that was quite "intelligent" by dog standards. I would ask my friend to pick a number between one and five. I would hold up that number of fingers, and the dog would bark out the count. What my friends didn't know (and never caught onto) was that the dog would bark as long as I held up my hand. As soon as the dog reached the correct "count" I would put my hand down and the dog would be finished "counting."

Insight into how chimpanzees really think can be seen in some recent experiments performed by Dr. Povinelli. In these experiments, the researchers used the chimps' natural begging gesture to examine how they really think about their world. They confronted the chimps with two familiar experimenters, one offering a piece of food and the other holding out an undesirable block of wood. As expected, the chimps had no trouble distinguishing between the block and the food and immediately gestured to the experimenter offering the food.

Next, the researchers wanted to see if the chimps would be able to choose between a person who could see them and a person who could not. If the chimpanzees understood how other animals see, they would gesture only to the person who could see them. The researchers achieved the "seeing/not-seeing" contrast by having the two experimenters adopt different postures. In one test, one experimenter wore a blindfold over her eyes while the other wore a blindfold over her mouth. In the other tests, one of the experimenters wore a bucket over her head, placed her hands over her eyes or sat with her back turned to the chimpanzee. All these postures were modeled after the behaviors that had been observed during the chimpanzees' spontaneous play.

The results of the experiments were astonishing. In the tests involving blindfolds, buckets and hands over the eyes--the apes entered the lab and paused but then were just as likely to gesture to the person who could not see them as to the person who could. In several cases, the chimps gestured to the person who could not see them and then, when nothing happened, gestured again, as if puzzled by the fact that the experimenter did not respond. In the case of experimenters facing with their backs to the chimps, they performed as if they knew that those facing way from them could not see and offer them food. However, subsequent experiments proved that the chimps had merely responded to conditioning from the initial experiments, since they had only received food from those experimenters who faced them. This was proven by having experimenters facing away from the chimps, but then turning to look over their shoulders. The chimps were just as likely to gesture to the experimenters facing away as the one who turned to look at them. Chimpanzees have no clue that humans must face them in order to see. It is obvious from these experiments that chimpanzees lack even a simple understanding of how their world works, but merely react to conditioning from directly observable events. "Humans constantly invoke unobservable phenomena and variables to explain why certain things are happening. Chimps operate in the world of concrete, tangible things that can be seen. The content of their minds is about the observable world. 

References Top of page

  1. Povinelli, D.J. 1998. Animal Self-Awareness: A Debate Can Animals Empathize? Scientific American.
Last Modified June 21, 2006


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