Chimps time travel too

Over the millenium, humans have mustered their meager intellects to desperately prove themselves unique and superior to all other animals. Most people, indeed, don’t even like to think of themselves as animals.

I wrote against that anthropocentric claim here:  “What makes us Unique?“.

But supporting the “humans-on-top” view, Crus Campbell, at his excellent blog “Genealogy of Religion“, claimed that:

“Making and keeping promises is a hallmark of human behavior
–Cris Campbell”

But I object: Promises are made with language. How do we know that animals don’t signal [a language] some sort of contracts [promises] with each other? He also claims that:

“[Chimpanzees can not] self-cue memories without external prompts.
–Cris Campbell “

Well, I just ran across this article in The Conversation that says:

More recently, studies of the chimpanzee “mind” suggest they can mentally “time travel”, like humans, by reliving past events and imagining or conceiving of what might happen in the future.

Unfortunately, just as Cris did not support his grandiose claims, this article did not source these “studies” either.

Oh well. But I remain suspicious of those that try so hard to make it obvious that humans have gone beyond being an animal.

Question to Readers:  What do you think?  Can you site studies?

PS: Chris’s blog will be improving in November — stay tuned.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

8 responses to “Chimps time travel too

  1. Check out this study discussed by the BBC regarding spacial mapping capabilities of chimps.

    The chimps can not only pinpoint specific trees in a forest, but it seems that they also remember which trees produce the most fruit, and so bias their visits accordingly. That kind of memory is a self-cue and a time-travel. 🙂

  2. @ Wise Fool,
    Unfortunately I can’t even pretend to be up on cognitive science, but birds remember nest sites thousands of miles away, salmons remember creeks, bees remember flowers when instructed …. Memory in these cases aren’t “self-cued” are they?
    Actually, from my meditation experiences, I really wonder if we ever “self-cue” anything at all. But that is probably getting too radical.
    But I really wonder what the operational definition and measuring method for “self-cuing” could be.
    Thanks for the link — it was a fun article!

  3. JSA

    Correct, a squirrel remembering where he buried a nut is not the same as “time travel”. With mammals like chimps and squirrels, the hippocampus is probably where the locational memories are coded, and needn’t involve any self-cuing.

    For chimp “time travel”, the closest example I can think of off the top of my head was a case where one chimp learned that another chimp would hide in a corner if frightened by the sound of thunder. So the first chimp learned to bang together pots and pans in order to cause the other chimp to hide, enabling the first chimp to steal his food. Making the jump from observing the chimp cowering in fear at thunder, to crafting a strategy of simulating thunder, implies some degree of projecting a future. I can’t remember where I read this study, but it was used to suggest that chimps may have third-order intentionality.

    However, I would be cautious about reading too much into studies like this. I suspect that a great deal of what we consider to be “time travel” in humans (let alone chimps) is not even time travel, and that time travel is just our ex post facto rationalization of our behavior. Humans can spontaneously stitch together chains of very complex behavior that are oriented toward goals, and show remarkable creativity, without ever consciously “living” in past, present, or future. In fact, it might be the case that “self-cuing” actually gets in the way and inhibits our executive functioning.

    This is closely related to John Searle’s questions about why our illusion of free will ever evolved. Searle (rightly) points out that it would be far more efficient, evolutionarily, if we performed our complex tasks without the overhead of conscious self-awareness. Self-awareness is biologically quite expensive, and seems to provide no additional benefit over a non-self-aware entity programmed with the same behavior (i.e. a zombie). Searle’s response is to argue that consciousness is somehow bigger than evolution. But I’m not convinced. I think that humans are zombies far more often than we’d like to admit, and the fact that we are sometimes zombies and sometimes (apparently) not, throws the whole thing into question.

  4. @JSA
    Except for the “bigger than evolution” part, I am in agreement with what you wrote. Since I haven’t read Searle, I can’t even imagine what that line would mean.

  5. JSA

    I probably should have said “bigger than the physical world”. Searle is an atheist, but he doesn’t believe that consciousness could have evolved purely through mechanistic physical processes. He considers self-awareness and free will to be so “special” that some other explanation is necessary — something like dualism or quantum indeterminacy or something like that.

  6. Yeah, I’m not up on my cognitive science either, so maybe I’ve bastardized the words “self-cued” and “time-travel.” My logic was that:

    1) This type of memory is “self-cued” as in “Hey, I’m hungry. Let me think, where did I get those tasty fruits from a couple days ago?…” as opposed to having to see a fruit to think “where can I get another one of these?”
    2) This type of memory is “time-travel” as in “…well, there is that one fruit tree over in that direction, but the last couple times I went there, there was only a couple of pieces ripe enough to eat. However, I remember a tree off in that other direction which had lots of tasty fruit. I think I’ll head over there instead…” as opposed to visiting all known fruit trees with equal frequency.

    I hope I didn’t mangle it too much! JSA can probably set me straight.

  7. Oh Sabio. Where to begin. You quote an author who wrote a post which alludes to some “studies that suggest.” You should know better.

    Your time would be much better spent using Google Scholar and searching for the studies that test for this sort of thing and which discuss it.

    It’s a very large topic that has approaches from many different angles so keep your searches broad.

    Although this “claim” was tangential to the point of my post, is not something that particularly interests me, and is an issue which can be resolved one way or the other without upsetting me (i.e., I have no personal stake in the debate), I can point you in the right direction if this is something you wish to investigate.

    It is a huge field but these peer reviewed articles would be a good start:

  8. I think it would be extraordinary if humans could become more than “mere” animals, however I do not think that it will happen. My brain often fights with my animal urges. Sometimes it wins and others…

    We typically think that our “complex” mind is a benefit. I find that many times this is not true, perhaps because we try to over-rationalize and it is very easy to mistake thought for emotion. Take the “Fight or Flight” phenomenon (which could be expounded upon, but may be off-topic). There is much to be learned and dissected about the majority of peole who ignore this “instinct”, if you will. Women, for example, who feel as if they are being watched in their homes only to discover, after the rationalize this fear and try to tuck it away, that they were being watched after some heinous crime was attempted or committed. Let’s take the man who dates the girl and asks her to marry him even though he has some inkling that her spending habits are atrocious, something he is going to have big problems with in the future, but still goes through with the marriage. Dare I say that our minds often create many of our own problems by our screwy rationalizations and problem-solving?

    Sometimes I wish my brain were a bit more “simple”, for lack of a better term. Or that I would simply “go with my gut” more often.

    As for animal intelligence, I have seen animals who display a better track of thought than humans many times. Is it because they do not overthink situations? Possibly. Is it because they do not have an over-inflated ego? Possibly again. Which leaves me to wonder how the ego develops and goes into a completely different realm.

    Lack of ego… trust in your instincts… There is something that we could learn from the animals. Or maybe not. We tend to be poor students when it comes to real change.

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