Inside the Monkey Mind

Scott McLemee reviews Monkeytalk: Inside the Worlds and Minds of Primates, which elucidates the two camps that have formed in the study of how intelligence evolved.

February 1, 2017

Attributing human characteristics to animals -- as in the case of Henri the Cat, the existentialist feline -- is a case of anthropomorphism. But the word is perhaps less suitable when the creatures in question are monkeys or apes. Anthropomorphizing disregards the vast difference between an animal’s world and our own. Watching primates is another matter.

Not that the gap is smaller, but it’s tangible and fascinating in its own right. Projecting human qualities onto primates can boomerang: we are close enough on the evolutionary tree to make every point of anatomical or behavioral resemblance a challenge to our egocentricity as a species. From a certain angle, it probably looks like we’re just a species of jumped-up chimpanzee.

Two camps have formed in the study of how intelligence evolved, according to Julia Fischer’s Monkeytalk: Inside the Worlds and Minds of Primates, published in Germany five years ago and now out in translation from the University of Chicago Press. One camp takes human beings as “the analytical point of departure” and “seeks to discover which other animal groups share competencies” with us. The anthropocentric researcher then goes in search of “a plausible explanation … for when a particular trait emerged in the course of evolution.”

In contrast, what Fischer calls the “evolutionary-ecological approach” starts out from an understanding of intelligence as one aspect of how animals engage with and adapt to their environment, raising questions about how “various species solved similar problems in the course of evolution” and what circumstances foster the power to learn or to generalize from experience. (Or, conversely, what factors might inhibit that power.)

Drawing on her own work in the field and the lab as well as that of other researchers, Fischer considers it “most productive to incorporate both perspectives” -- the anthropocentric and the evolutionary-ecological -- “to develop a comprehensive understanding of animal intelligence” and of primates especially. But my impression is that she inclines more to the evolutionary-ecological camp: much of the book reflects on her observation of three species (the Barbary macaque and two kinds of baboon) in different environments, and Fischer keeps the reader aware of the natural fit between behavioral pattern or social structure and immediate issues such as predator threats and food availability.

Fischer’s recollections of field research (where “strong nerves, grit and oftentimes a morbid sense of humor are essential”) and descriptions of monkey behavior are highly engaging. The account of babysitting among Barbary macaques is especially vivid and memorable. A male will snatch a newborn (not necessarily his own progeny) from its mother for use as a status symbol and icebreaker with the guys. Then:

He can more confidently approach another male and engage in mutual grooming than if he approaches alone. When two male Barbary macaques sit together holding an infant, they often engage in a peculiar ritual, lifting the baby up high, nuzzling it and thoroughly inspecting it. They chatter their teeth, smack their lips and emit deep grunting sounds. Sometimes they will bask in the afterglow, calmly remaining beside each other, while at other times one of the males will brusquely snatch the infant up and rush off to repeat the ritual with another male.

Eventually the baby gets hungry, making it less amusing, whereupon it is returned to the mother. From observation of chacma baboons, Fischer found that at the age of 10 weeks, youngsters did not respond to recordings of baboon calls. By four months, they did pay attention, without regard for what kind of call it was. And two months after that, “They reacted clearly to alarm calls and had learned to ignore contact calls, save for those produced by their mothers.” A learning process had transpired, though Fischer notes it is difficult for researchers to work out just how it happens in the wild.

Monkeytalk reports on findings concerning three dimensions of the primate mind: social behavior, cognition and communication. One of the arguments Fischer considers is “that intelligence has arisen as a consequence of life in complexly structured groups”; the other, “that intelligence and communicative ability are intimately interconnected.”

From our limb of evolutionary development, it’s tempting to consider them as all inextricably linked. The anthropocentrist would insist on a third link: one between communicative ability and social complexity, which work together like pistons in the engine of human cognition. (See Kenneth Burke’s “Definition of Man” for another formulation of this idea.) But from Fischer’s review of the evidence, the connections are much more loosely imbricated than we might think:

Primate intelligence is not limited to the social domain. Primates competently interpret objects and events in their physical surroundings and draw correct inferences about them -- or at least they do when the pertinent stimuli are not too misleading …. Yet indirect evidence and “invisible” causal connections remain completely alien to them. … While intelligence is tied to a rich representation of the social world, it by no means entails a sophisticated system of communication. At the same time, primates are evidently capable of perceiving the subtlest differences in the signaling behavior of their fellows and investing those nuances with distinctive meaning. In addition, they make use of, and adaptively respond to, a variety of information sources, such as contextual clues and signals.

Only on the final page (not counting acknowledgments and other apparatus) does Fischer make the reader fully aware of two very dark clouds hanging over the progress of knowledge concerning our fellow primates. One is that long-term research -- while necessary, since most species have long life spans -- is difficult given the scarcity of long-term funding. The other is that a majority of species are now endangered, and many are on the verge of extinction. Monkeytalk certainly leaves you with a feeling of the depths that loss will mean.


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