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Not this again?: Monkeys can distinguish large from small quantities just like “low numeracy” human cultures

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large vs small/Cantlon Lab

From ScienceDaily:

Adults and children in the US, adults from a ‘low numeracy’ tribe in Bolivia and rhesus monkeys ALL possessed the ability to distinguish between large and small quantities of objects, regardless of the surface area they occupy. This ability is likely a shared evolutionary trait, according to a study.

This is news? They’re surely reaching now.

The ability to distinguish between more and less is, one need hardly be surprised, found among animals of all types. For example,

In a study published last summer in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Kevin C. Burns of Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and his colleagues burrowed holes in fallen logs and stored varying numbers of mealworms (beetle larvae) in these holes in full view of wild New Zealand robins at the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary. Not only did the robins flock first to the holes with the most mealworms, but if Burns tricked them, removing some of the insects when they weren’t looking, the robins spent twice as long scouring the hole for the missing mealworms. (2009) More.

One would hardly be surprised to find that trait, at a chemical level, in plants as well.

Cantlon says the study shows “that the initial step toward becoming mathematically sophisticated likely had to do with focusing in on the number of objects, not just total mass or size.” In a broader sense, she adds, it shows “how humans got to be the way they are.”

“This is about understanding human origins and how humans evolved thought processes that are mathematically sophisticated.” Paper. (public access) – Stephen Ferrigno, Julian Jara-Ettinger, Steven T. Piantadosi, Jessica F. Cantlon. Universal and uniquely human factors in spontaneous number perception. Nature Communications, 2017; 8: 13968 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms13968 More.

Her research doesn’t show anything about “understanding human origins and how humans evolved thought processes that are mathematically sophisticated.” Birds can handle counting (“focusing in on the number of objects”), when the numbers are not large. It’s the abstraction they can’t do. Remove the food rewards, and the bird typically loses interest.

On the other hand, “low numeracy” cultures can show sophisticated geometrical sense.

Three questions: Why is it acceptable year after year to publish this kind of thing, when there is correct information out there? Because the correct information does not support a naturalist view of man? So does forking up yet more of this stuff provide a distraction from discussing that fact?

Second, what’s with classing “low numeracy” human cultures and kids with disabilities with animals, just to score a point for Darwin Day? Shouldn’t Darwin Day become a little more risky than it is now?

Third: In general, does not any research into animal thinking abilities that could be compared with those of humans run into a big snag if it involves a food reward? As C.S. Lewis put it, animals are always serious about food. A huge problem then is that the animal may have shortcuts that bypass the need for thinking. That is, the system is sophisticated, but the animal did not abstract it himself. He does not even know it is there. The research outcomes are not evidence for “how humans evolved thought processes that are mathematically sophisticated” unless the shortcut is found and determined to be similar in humans.

But it is still dangerous to question research emphases when productivity is not the goal anyway.

See also: What we know about how animals think

Yes, this again: Baboons make sounds like those of human speech

Are apes entering the Stone Age? (No, but the BBC was entering a slow news season.)

Meaningless claims about orangutan intelligence

Animal minds: Chickens, researchers say, are smarter than we think Probably. The belief that birds must be less intelligent than mammals was based on Darwinism, not observation.

and

Furry, feathery, and finny animals speak their minds

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