Chimps have theory of mind?

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the defining traits of humanity is conciousness or “sapience.” Arguably it’s what separates us from the beasts, so understanding its development is of prime importance when examining human evolution. To identify the origin of concious thought is to identify the very origin of humanity.

However, answering such a deep question is hampered by the fact we don’t really have a clue what conciousness is. There’s no decent biological definition out there, making the study of its evolution somewhat problematic. And by problematic I mean nigh impossible.

So instead scientists tried to identify aspects of conciousness they could define and pin down, so they could study those instead. Because as much as they love a good mystery, sometimes they just have to say “screw it” and study a question that actually has an answer.

Sorry, that isn't going to work here.

One of such competent of conciousness that was identified and defined is the “theory of mind” (shortened to “ToM” by experts and lazy people). ToM is essentially the ability an individual has to understand that another has different thoughts, feelings, knowledge, intention etc. than they do.

In other words, it’s the understanding that what goes on in another’s head is different to what goes on in our own. Although that might seem like a fairly basic skill we might take for granted it is actually rather complex and is something children don’t learn until they’re around 5 years old and seems to form the foundation of much of their higher reasoning – even conciousness, perhaps.

Without a ToM he can't tell you're lying to him.

Here we run into our second major problem in the study of conciousness: bones don’t preserve thoughts. The material remains left behind by our ancestors offer no real insight into their thoughts, including their thoughts regarding what other people thought.

So instead we have to look at living animals, in particular chimps. The logic here being that if chimps do it and humans do it then our common ancestor also likely did it and we both retained that behaviour from them.

It’s at this point some raise the objection that there is too much evolution between us and chimps for them to be studied in this manner. We’ve both been evolving independently for 7 million years, after all. However, given that chimps and our ancestors had a similar brain, any inferences made about intelligence (including ToM) should be reasonably valid.

I would make a joke, but AWH!

This prompted many experiments to determine if chimps had a ToM. The results of these typically showed that chimps could understand another chimp sees and intends to do different things than they do, but it was unknown if they knew this because they worked it out with a ToM or just read the other individuals body language.

However, recent research purports to have finally determined that chimps do in fact have a ToM. They made model snakes and left them lying around where chimps would find them. This scared whoever discovered it, often prompting them to warn the others in their group.

When the monkey revolution comes these scientists will the first to be punished by our furry overlords

Crucially, they were more likely to warn others with these “alert hoos” (Researcher: “I’m a scientist, I have better things to do than think of creative names”) if the chimps they were warning had no clue that the snake had been seen.

If they spotted the snake and hollered, they would be less likely to warn others again if they had heard their previous shout. They would be even less likely if the other chimps had seen the snake. However, if new chimps arrived who had not heard or seen anything, they would give another “alert hoo” and warn them.

They made more alert hoos if there were family or children nearby but whether or not they started calling was primarily influenced by the knowledge of other chimps, finally demonstrating they have at least a basic ToM.

EvoAnth: revolutionaising our understanding of chimps one dull coloured graph at a time

Or at least it would if there was more data. Don’t get me wrong, it’s well thought out and well executed research but it’s only studying one group of chimps. That means they can’t demonstrate this isn’t simply a cultural phenomenon (yes chimps have culture), with chimps in this group learning to give alert hoos if, for example, new individuals arrive. Further research on other groups is needed.

Research has been circling around a chimp ToM for so long it’s frustrating. The wealth of evidence that goes so close to proving it to me suggests they do in fact have a ToM even if no single study is definitive.

But, alas, that confirming study is needed before we can say that chimps (and by extension our ancestors) do have a theory of mind – a fundamental foundation of conciousness – with confidence.

Crockford C, Wittig RM, Mundry R, & Zuberbühler K (2011). Wild Chimpanzees Inform Ignorant Group Members of Danger. Current biology : CB PMID: 22209531
Perner, J., & Lang, B. (1999). Development of theory of mind and executive control Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3 (9), 337-344 DOI: 10.1016/S1364-6613(99)01362-5
Woodruff DS (1999). Chimp cultural diversity. Science (New York, N.Y.), 285 (5429) PMID: 10454930

13 thoughts on “Chimps have theory of mind?

  1. Sorry, you IMO have a false definition of “consciousness” – it’s not about theory of mind, which should be called … that. Big C is the having of “awareness”, the inner experience and not just “reactions.” Sure, the insider/outsider dilemma but as best we can tell, creatures with any cortex are likely “conscious”, which is chimps, cats, probably birds etc (altho some argument about their visual experience.) Dogs are conscious because they can presumably feel pain, cold, nausea etc., whatever they think about what goes on in other dogs, people, etc. Cheers.

    “Fine minds make fine distinctions.”

    • “Conciousness” in this context is more that aspect of our intelligence people point to that separates man from ape. Whilst its true that the typical definition of conciousness can be extended to most other animals there is this alternate view of “conciousness” (often also called sapience) people argue is unique to humans and that is what I was talking about.

      Apologies if that distinction did not come across in the post.

      • Sorry for such delay, well: OK, you have a point. So let’s just call the sort of “awareness” I refer to as “consciousness”, and the more subtle sort of insight capability, “sapience” as you suggest? Just keep them separate for clarity, although a creature presumably needs consciousness in order to have sapience, but not vice versa.

  2. But in accordance to some new neuroscience research, our consciousness may simply be an illusion of neural networking O_o. Whilst ours is clearly more advanced than most or all (cetaceans, dolphins and whales etc., may have an arguably more complicated and developed nervous system) other animals, including non-human primates, it’s possible our judgemental ability is not even real.

    This is based on the idea that we may ‘think about different courses of action, but in the end it is our brains that decide which is best based on previous experiences, not our consciousness. (In fact it’s possible that this weighing of options is simply an illusion to make us feel like we have choice)

    This isn’t a critique or anything as I don’t think it takes anything away from you argument. I’m not even sure if it adds anything to this topic!

    But it’s a bit of speculation. I’m probably going to come round to this topic at some point in the future (it’s one of the things I’m interested in the most!).

  3. Sahelanthropus, you did make clear what traits you meant to refer to in your post. I was disagreeing with calling that “consciousness.” To me, it isn’t good to make new definitions for existing concepts (in effect, let the same “word” refer to more things) if it can be avoided. That promotes confusion. Instead, better to come up with a new word (well, “sapience”, there you have it) to use for that other concept. I know, there are plenty of multi-task words and concepts but the irony is, it’s worse for them to be related (as here) than so different it is obvious they aren’t the same. Cheers, good work overall.

    BTW, I may not want to go as far as first commenter, but sure – we should expand animal rights, they aren’t as different from us as most people think.

    • Well it might be clear now because after your comment I went back and clarified what I meant with the addition of “sapience”. This is not an attempt to be disingenuous, just help avoid any misunderstanding with future readers.

      I do fully agree with what you’re saying, avoiding confusion and multiple meanings is important. I was simply unaware there was any such confusion; whenever I’ve encountered the issue (which, granted, isn’t too often) “conciousness” and “sapience” have been used as perfectly understood synonyms.

      But given what you’re saying I will try and avoid using them as such in the future.

      As for animal rights; well like I hinted at towards the end. Ultimately this is nothing really new, research has been hinting at a ToM in chimps for quite some time. The rights we grant animals should (in theory) already take this into account.

  4. Sahelanthropus, yes, please do and I see some point you have and of course you acted in good faith all along.

    ScienceDefined: you have some point too but note the irony of saying things like “but in the end it is our brains that decide which is best based on previous experiences, not our consciousness.” – uh, aren’t we defined as being what goes on in our brains, who else then is the helpless passenger? Yes I know, unconscious versus conscious process (by operational definition of getting answers about) but still, it is a strange irony when people try to get rid of a homunculus and say “there’s nobody there”, but then imagine a helpless version of same (I called “passenger homunculus” in a paper presented at the Tucson 2000 conference.)

    • It’s a really big topic to be honest and I’m planning on posting about it in the near future (once I’m past some of the basics). So I found it a bit difficult to cover it in a comment.

      My point is this:

      Lets define consciousness as the following: an awareness of the world around us and inside of us that allows for thought and reflection.

      Ok now the next point:

      This thought and reflection doesn’t exist, it is in fact an illusion maintained by our brains to keep us sane.

      Consciousness therefore doesn’t exist.

      Sapience is a conscious process

      Therefore sapience can’t exist.

      The idea is that everything is reactive, our actions the same as a tree moving in the wind. Something pushes us, and we push back. If there was a computer that was powerful enough, and had enough start up information, it could predict the outcome of every little thing the world over, including peoples ‘thoughts’ and ‘choices’. Meaning we have a fate or destiny, and no real free will.

      I could go on and give the scientific basis for such a theory, but as I said I want to cover it in a future post.

      Anyway it doesn’t add or take away from the original post. I’m just trying to give a bit of perspective on this ‘theory of mind’ business.

  5. I am amazes at just how arrogant evolutionary scientists are in that they actually think that they can figure out how God did everything using natural means and data and thereby prove that God did not do it.

    But what is even more amazing is how often they use false premises, fake data, fudged statistics and outright lies at both the beginning and their arrived at conclusion.

    It is becoming crystal clear that some evolutionary scientists will stop at nothing to get rid of God and His role in the creation of the universe.

    The only thing that is sadder and even more amazing is how blindly the general public has gradually come to trust that evolution is true because of what they have been told by scientists they believe would not lie to them.

    Amazing and so sad.

    • This is a paper about how chimps understand the knowledge state of others. How does that figure out God? Which part of it was faked? Which of the authors is attempting to get rid of God? What part of their statistics was fudged?

      Or are you speaking more generally, in which case what do you mean by “often?” Are you in awe of the fact there is never any data faking, or have you managed to cobble together <100 papers that have been fudged, or have you got thousands of journal articles that have been systematically shown to be invented?

      And if the number you have is towards the lower end of the spectrum does that justify ignoring all the decent research? Guilt by association is, after all, a fallacy.

    • Firstly I’m assuming this isn’t relevant to the paper and is just about evolution in general.

      I’m trying not to be insulted by : “The only thing that is sadder and even more amazing is how blindly the general public has gradually come to trust that evolution is true because of what they have been told by scientists they believe would not lie to them.”

      Fine maybe there are a lot of people in the general public who have decided it’s true without knowing all the facts. But there are a lot of people, most likely including all of the people who commented on this post that have looked at the facts. They have looked at the research. To be honest a lot of the have probably done research.

      We can say that we have not fudged our statistics, we have not come up with lies that would forever damage the scientific community, and we’re not trying to get rid of God! We have made our own conclusions, with our own thoughts, and have decided that evolution is real.

      Sure there are some people like Dawkins who act arrogantly with little care for evolution sceptics. But there are a hell of a lot of scientists, including evolutionary biologists, who believe wholeheartedly in God and do not want to rip him out of our society.

      In honesty, you’ll probably less conflicts, and more general support for evolution than you would for a lot of religion. You have creationists who’s definition is to not believe in evolution. But aside from that, if you walk into any community, be it one of the many Christian, Islamic, Judaic religions, or even Hindu’s, Sikhs, Taoists. You name it. You will always find people who believe in God, and would call this planet God’s work. But will believe in evolution.

      Just look at when Darwin first proposed the idea!!! No one believed him! All of the scientists were making the same accusations:

      “We cannot come from Monkeys! They are animals and we are not!”

      “How can we have evolved! Look at how complicated we are, nothing like us could have come about through random adaptation!”

      “Evolution is heresy, our origins are the place of God and all science must accept that.”

      That’s the kind of things scientists would be claiming then. But Darwin pursued and kept on showing the evidence, real evidence. Analysed by some of the best minds of the times. None of them could find a problem with his workings. Not only that, but Darwin himself was religious and maintained that God has a place in this world even if evolution exists.

      If you want to argue against a hugely established scientific theory, you have to learn about it, you have to understand every little detail until you know how it all falls together.

      If you understand how it works, and it makes sense (which if you understood evolution properly, you’d realise it does). Then maybe you would question the sources, the evidence that the arguments are formed on. So then you should test the evidence, go and do your own research and see if it works out. That way you can rely on your own judgement.

      If your research agrees with evolution but you still do not, then you are a hypocrite, as you have contributed support to the field, but remain in denial. It is there you have to realise that God still has a place in this world with evolution, like many have before you.

      In essence, go study an evolutionary biology degree, do some extra study and join a research team for a bit. Make sure you understand all of it, before you argue against it with God.

You evolved too. Have a say.

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