Saturday, April 21, 2007

Smarter Than The Average Human

Must have been a David Attenborough documentary, but one of the most vivid images stuck in my head from recent years of ape-watching, on the TV, was of a huge mother orangutan sitting in a canoe, using a paddle to cross a river.

She had been hanging around the local village, imitating the women scrubbing clothes on the rough wood of the little boat dock, and watching carefully as the men climbed into their canoes and paddled away.

One day the orangutan climbed into an empty canoe, took a moment to master the paddle, and off she went.

A few hundred years ago, the religiously fear-struck would have hung the poor orangutan for witchcraft. Apes aren't supposed to be like humans. They're animals. And, God forbid, they are not supposed to be smarter than us.

But an increasing number of scientists and researchers are now claiming that not only are many of the great apes all but genetically identical to humans, they are also a close match for intuitive abilities, cognitive brain functions, and have better memories than most of us.

Considering that only 60 or so years ago, there was little research of any value done on our closest living relatives, it is unnerving to keep reading of just how smart apes can be.

Not scary, just...strange. My generation, at least, were not raised to think of apes and monkeys as anything other than pretty stupid. When I was a kid, stories that apes had been seen using sticks as tools was widely dismissed as coincidental, a mere fluke. And that was only 30 years ago.

But as these stories below explain, apes using tools is no coincidence. They know exactly what they're doing. As apes in the wild die out in horrifying numbers, victims of deforestation, bush meat hunts and the awful ebola virus, we are learning just how brilliant these creatures are, and how much they have to teach us, about themselves, and ourselves, and the history of us as a species.

Not only can they be smarter, they are more evolved.

From the International Herald Tribune :

For some time, paleontologists and evolutionary biologists have known that chimp ancestors were the last line of today's apes to diverge from the branch that led to humans, probably 6 million, maybe 4 million years ago.

Chimps display a remarkable range of behavior and talent. They make and use simple tools, hunt in groups and engage in aggressive, violent acts. They are social creatures that appear to be capable of empathy, altruism, self-awareness, cooperation in problem solving and learning through example and experience. Chimps even outperform humans in some memory tasks.

"Fifty years ago, we knew next to nothing about chimpanzees," said Andrew Whiten, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "You could not have predicted the richness and complexity of chimp culture that we know now."

Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta said that as recently as a decade ago there was still no firm consensus on many of the social relationships of chimps. "You don't hear any debate now," he said.

In his own studies at the Yerkes Primate Research Center at Emory, de Waal found that chimps as social animals have had to constrain and alter their behavior in various ways, as have humans. It is a part of ape inheritance, he said, and in the case of humans, the basis for morality. The provocative interpretation was advanced in his recent book, "Primates and Philosophers."

Other reports shortly before the symposium had elaborated on the abilities of chimps as toolmakers. Jill Pruetz, a primatologist at Iowa State University, described 22 examples of chimps in Senegal making stick spears to hunt smaller primates for their meat.

A team of archaeologists led by Julio Mercader of the University of Calgary reported finding stones in Ivory Coast that chimps used 4,300 years ago to crack nuts. Today's chimps have often been videotaped using rocks as a hammer to open nuts. The old stones with starch residues from nuts, the researchers said, were the earliest strong evidence of chimp tool use, and the finding suggested that chimps had learned the skill on their own, rather than copying humans.

Other researchers combine field work showing chimp behavior in natural habitats with laboratory experiments that are created to disclose their underlying intelligence - what scientists call their "cognitive reserve."

In experiments with mirrors, researchers showed that chimps had an awareness of themselves that is absent in monkeys but present in dolphins and all the great apes. Similar tests by Emory scientists showed some self-recognition among elephants. These behaviors were reported by de Waal and his associate J.M. Plotnik.

At the symposium, researchers said the interest in learning more about chimps was not just a case of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Their behavior and intelligence, scientists say, may offer insights into the abilities of early human ancestors like Australopithecus afarensis, the apelike "Lucy" species that thrived more than 3 million years ago. A more urgent motivation for the research, primatologists say, is that these are sentient beings and the closest living relatives of humans, and their survival is threatened.

(Jane) Goodall recalled that when she went to Africa nearly a half-century ago, at least a million chimps lived in the continent, and "now there are perhaps only 150,000."
From LiveScience :

Since the human-chimp split about 6 million years ago, chimpanzee genes can be said to have evolved more than human genes, a new study suggests.

The results, detailed online this week in the Proceedings of the large brains, cognitive abilities and bi-pedalism.

Jianzhi Zhang of the University of Michigan and his colleagues analyzed strings of DNA from nearly 14,000 protein-coding genes shared by chimps and humans. They looked for differences gene by gene and whether they caused changes in the generated proteins.

Genes act as instructions that organisms use to make proteins and thus are integral to carrying out biological functions, such as transporting oxygen to the body’s cells. Different versions of the same gene are called alleles.

Changes in DNA that affect the making of proteins are considered functional changes, while “silent” changes do not affect the proteins. “If we see an excess of functional changes (compared to silent changes) the inference is these functional changes occurred because they were positively selected, because they were useful in some way to the organism,” said study team member Margaret Bakewell, also of UM.

Bakewell, Zhang and a colleague found that substantially more genes in chimps evolved in ways that were beneficial than was the case with human genes.

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