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Could a gorilla mom consciously protect her baby?


From Barbara J. King at NPR:

The 26-year-old female, named Pasika, has been traveling alone with her baby for more than seven months in Rwanda’s Virunga mountains, ever since her social group fell apart at the death of its silverback leader. Her infant, Mashami, is now one year old.

The post described Pasika’s behavior as a “heroic,” conscious choice, made because Pasika understands the risks of infanticide by gorilla males. She wants to protect her infant from these risks, in other words.

In the world of animal-behavior science, this is pretty much an astonishing claim. More.

Why is it an astonishing claim? Even a cat may move her kittens* if she suspects any such thing. Pasika had actually lost an infant that way earlier and had witnessed other such events.

One thing some animal behaviorists do is set the goals very low, lower than we can observe in everyday life, and then claim some dramatic discovery of animal intelligence, when the animal proves to have an ordinary level of awareness and ability to act. That’s how we get the idea that tool-using apes are entering the Stone Age or that IQ tests are “unfair” to apes

But there is another factor at work here: Darwinism. The reason experts doubt that Pasika could do what she was obviously doing is that females can just let males kill their offspring and then mate with them. Only the new male has a true Darwinian genetic advantage.

There’d be no necessary reason why females would be thought to deploy a conscious anti-infanticide strategy. Behavior often evolves when it provides genetic payoffs, without it being thought through step by step. More.

Often, but not always. But where anything Darwinian is concerned, universal claims are made and evidence is shaped to fit them.

Note: In an update, we are told that Pasika has found a new male and that Mashami could not be located but no one claims to know exactly what happened. It is refreshing that, for once, no one claim they know for sure.

* In one of his books on animal behavior (Catwatching?), Desmond Morris observed that cats probably cannot count because a mother cat will return a number of times to see if she left any babies behind. That is, she has four kittens but, having moved four kittens to safety, she doesn’t just stop going back.

See also: Are apes entering the Stone Age?

Are IQ tests “unfair” to apes?

Furry, feathery, and finny animals speak their minds


Animal minds: In search of the minimal self


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