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Michael Egnor: Apes can be generous. Are they just like humans then?

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Pan troglodytes & Pan paniscus.jpg
common chimpanzee and bonobo/Chandres William H. Calvin, CC

Reading the claims for ape generosity in The New York Times, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor offers a clarification:

There is a fallacy about the human mind that regularly appears in research on animal behavior, and this fallacy is related to the pervasive misunderstanding about machine “intelligence.”

It is a misunderstanding about the most basic characteristic of the human mind—that the human intellect and will are immaterial. That the human intellect and will are immaterial abilities is supported by a mountain of logic and empirical research. It is precisely this immateriality that animals and machines lack.

Science writer Carl Zimmer has an essay in the New York Times, “Seeking Human Generosity’s Origins in an Ape’s Gift to Another Ape” (September 11, 2018) that is emblematic of this misunderstanding.

Here’s Zimmer, with my commentary following:

Studying the behavior of our closest living relatives may help scientists better understand the human impulse for generosity.

Both humans and animals can be generous but just how much the study of animal generosity will tell us about human generosity is debatable. I suspect that it tells us very little that is of any value.  Innumerable examples of human generosity are worth study. Why look to apes when there are countless examples of human generosity all around us? Zimmer continues: …

Chimps are considerably more reluctant to give food away than, say, taxpayers are to give money away. Taxpayer funding for this “research” is the real scientific mystery. The rest of the article is just as painful… More.  (Michael Egnor, “Apes can be generous ” at Mind Matters Today)

See also: Is the octopus a “second genesis of intelligence”? Can its strange powers provide insights for robotics or the human mind? What’s really interesting about these stories is that, while we are learning that there is much intelligence in the animal (and plant) world, including some that can be applied to robotics, very little sheds light on explicitly human intelligence.


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