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Animal minds

Why birds mimic well: Contradicts earlier claims

Further to how cats get the rodents they will eat to lose their fear of them, we are now beginning to understand how parrots become excellent voice imitators. From Duke University, An international team of scientists led by Duke University researchers has uncovered key structural differences in the brains of parrots that may explain the birds’ unparalleled ability to imitate sounds and human speech. Parrots are one of the few animals considered ‘vocal learners,’ meaning they can imitate sounds. Researchers have been trying to figure out why some bird species are better imitators than others. Besides differences in the sizes of particular brain regions, however, no other potential explanations have surfaced. By examining gene expression patterns, the new study found Read More ›

Predisposed to believe

Science Daily reports “A three-year international research project, directed by two academics at the University of Oxford, finds that humans have natural tendencies to believe in gods and an afterlife.” As my friend added, “This research was quite costly – they could have saved money by reading the Bible!” Link here: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110714103828.htm I wonder how the New Atheists will take this research. There are two possible logical spins on it I can see, if you take the research’s conclusions at face value. You could say, “Belief is hard-wired – that’s why it’s so hard to reprogram people to think rationally!” But this avoids the key issue of why it would be hard-wired. That leads to the second possible response: “Belief Read More ›

Humans are unique – get used to it, or get therapy. Do NOT get a chimpanzee

In “Restating the case for human uniqueness,” in Spiked* (Issue 25, June 2009), managing editor Helene Guldberg reviews Not a Chimp: The Hunt to Find the Genes That Make Us Human by Jeremy Taylor (Oxford University Press 2009):

She notes that

Taylor sets out to argue that it is ‘as wrong as it is misguided’ to ‘exaggerate the narrowness of the gap between chimpanzees and ourselves’: ‘It plays into the hands of our natural propensity to anthropomorphise our pets and other animals, and even our inanimate possessions, and it has allowed us to distort what the science is trying to tell us.’ His aim is ‘to set the record straight and restore chimpanzees to arm’s length’.

Good idea that. Remember the horrific case of Travis the chimp? Travis would have been a fine chimp, left to himself in a natural environment. But he went on a rampage and horribly maimed and mutilated the employee of the owner of a towing company, who was keeping him. Her family are now suing for $50 million.

This is the tragedy of anthropomorphizing animals. They neither become people nor fit in with other animals of their kind. Travis was shot by a police officer. But had he lived, one may wonder whether he could even adapt to life in a troupe of chimpanzees, after a career in show business and later as a pet whose mistress thought he was like a son.

In the chapter titled ‘Povinelli’s Gauntlet’, Taylor outlines the fascinating work of the comparative cognitive psychologist Daniel Povinelli, who runs the Cognitive Evolution Group at the University of Louisiana. Povinelli is unequivocal in arguing that no test to date has reliably demonstrated that chimpanzees – or any other primate for that matter – have an understanding of the mental life of others or an understanding of causation in the physical world.

To investigate chimps’ so-called understanding of ‘folk psychology’, Povinelli tested whether chimps understood that their begging gestures will only be effective if the person they are begging from can see them. When one of two experimenters either wore a blindfold, held their hands over their eyes or wore a bucket over their head, the chimps showed no preference for whom they made their begging gestures to.

No surprise there. Chimpanzees do not usually perform as well as dogs in reading human gestures.

Even more interesting:

In order to demonstrate that far too much has been made of the tool-using abilities of chimpanzees in the wild, Taylor outlines recent discoveries showing that the tool-making of some birds equals, or in many cases betters, anything observed in chimpanzees. ‘In two species that parted company 280million years ago, performance is either very similar, or corvids might even have an edge. Bird brains, in specific contexts, are a match for chimp brains’, he writes. What this shows is that chimpanzees may not tell us that much more than corvids about the evolution of our unique genetic make-up, he argues.

Now that is a story that should be investigated more openly than it is. Why are some birds so smart, yet they have key brain differences from the animals that are supposed to be smart – mammals? Clearly, intelligence is not what we have assumed.

I will spoil no more for you; go here for more.

See also:

Dogs more like humans than chimpanzees are? Read More ›

My post at MercatorNet: Wild animals are not people

Looking at the story from a traditional Christian perspective, I would pass on the question of whether Herold is a horrible person. I agree that Travis is not a horrible chimp. The very idea is an irrelevance; he is a chimp, period, and therefore not responsible for his actions. Read More ›