Saturday, June 06, 2009

Ape Genius -- who's mindlessly aping?

Ape Genius is a fascinating documentary by National Geographic. Watch it here (5 parts). It shows intellectual and even cultural skills by apes that we wouldn't expect. In terms of making and using tools and weapons, intelligently solving puzzles, learning to operate complex machines, in learning to understand language and symbols, and even in cooperation and the sense of social fairness. Surprisingly they seem to have many of the essential skills needed to build a real culture. The narrator says "Their mental rocket is on the launch pad. Why isn't it taking off?" But the documentary answers that question too, by pinpointing the significant mental gaps that -- in spite of their great abilities compared to any other animal -- inhibit the apes from building anything like the human society.

There are many interesting things to be discussed based on this documentary (and I recommend you to watch it entirely, why not straight away before reading on?) but I will focus on a specific experiment here, by the end of the documentary, which tells more about human nature than about apes. The instructor shows how to operate a puzzle-box, by tapping, slotting and poking with a stick, and then finally a treat, a gummy bear, can be fetched from a slot at the front of the box. Watch it here (at 7m35s), and continue here. In the first version of the experiment, apes and human children act exactly the same way, copying every step of the instructor and successfully getting the treat.

Next the original opaque puzzle-box is replaced by an identical one, but with see-through walls. The instructor once again shows the procedure, but it is now evident that all the tapping and poking is meaningless and that the treat can be taken from the slot in the front immediately. What happens? Well, the apes cut to the chase and take the treat immediately. As it is said in the documentary "Apes don't just mindlessly ape, they also understand something more about cause and effect". The human children however continues following the same procedure they have been taught, even though it's obvious that all the tapping and poking is meaningless. The apes do not mindlessly ape, but humans can easily be made into doing that, however.

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This does not imply that humans understand less of cause and effect, only that there is something that is much more important and dear to them than following the logic of cause and effect. And that is to follow the authority, and thereby following their social group. For a human the loyalty to the authority and the commitment to the social group is more important than the obvious reality before their very eyes. Watch how very proud the children are of exactly following the instructions shown by their mentor.

The documentary continues to show how this aspect of the human nature has been a great strength in building an advanced civilization. While apes are very good at learning by imitation, the concept of teaching each other does not exist among the apes. Among humans the teacher-learner relation is at the core of our life form. This a very special relation, and the social bond (and the impact of symbols) is stronger than the impact of reality. Through our ability to teaching/learning we can carry on our knowledge from generation to generation, in a cumulative way, and reach heights unreachable for the apes. The documentary continues to show the fundamental importance of pointing among humans, a communication ability that apes completely lack. Watch the example of the instructor pointing at the cup with the treat under it, where the apes never get the message; they simply do not understand that communication is going on. While human toddlers, even before they can speak, always get the message and take the right cup. Apes act as individuals and follow their impulses and the reality they observe. Humans, wired towards communication, follow the directions of their master before anything else. This is both our strength and our weakness; it's simply our nature.

So apes do not mindlessly ape, but humans can easily be made into doing that. Whatever an ape does, it has to have an objective purpose, given reality and his biological interests. For a human, however, the social purpose of following the authority and the group is sufficient; the objective purpose is actually secondary. For the ape this severely limits his ability to build a sophisticated culture, based on symbols and intellectual achievements. For the human it opens up all sorts of possibilities, including the building of a symbolic world for the collective mind, that is a virtual Platonic cave, where the shadow figures displayed by the masters are observed rather than reality.

The example with the see-through puzzle-box shows that just about any story can be sold to the human mind as long as his respect for the authority is intact. As long as the respect for the authority is kept intact, humans can be trained to believe virtually anything, no matter how contradictory and counter-reality it is, no matter how much it counters her biological and social interests. And the more we get detached from reality in our way of life, the further this can be taken. In the Industrial Age we have seen this developed into far-going utopianism and conceptual delusions, making the Westerners strongly committed to their own civilizational suicide.

I'd say that this is the most important aspect of the human nature -- our inclination and commitment towards mindlessly aping by the direction of our authority -- to take in account in order to understand how our civilization can be at the absurdly Orwellian point that we are in now.

We need to understand why we are in this predicament -- the fundamental reasons for it -- in order to understand how to being able to change it. So take this aspect of the human nature in account if you want to understand the conditions for real change.


Afonso Henriques said...

Perfect. Or almost.

"The example with the see-through puzzle-box shows that just about any story can be sold to the human mind as long as his respect for the authority is intact."

ConSwede, I had already had the privilege of watching that documentary and it is amazing.
I just want to share two thoughts:

1st) My first natural reaction to the test you highlight was that it was not the human mind that was represented there. For a number of reasons, those scientists opted to test the mind of HUMAN CHILDREN.
I believe that if the test was done to a bunch of 13 years old or older humans, the results would be different. With all it implies in your analysis.

2nd) I think this is important to retain in what concerns "conditions for real change": I think that what is behind this apearently blind obbedience to authority is not what it's being presented, and that you cannot simply sell any story to the human mind.
The master force behind this is, in my opinion, the concept of "loyalty". Humans tend to be (platonicly) loyal, children even more so. And who among us has not been prejudiced in order to help someone to whom they were loyal to, regardless of the loyalty of that second person in relation to the first, without excpecting nothing in exchange of it, just out of pure loyalty? Much more than 95%.

One reason for "change" is that we don't have contradictory loyalties. And we have a lot of it in the West.

FĂ©licie said...

Peter Gärdenfors from Lund University has a fascinating book on the subject: Hur homo blev sapiens. It's in English, as well. he touches upon 3 qualitative adaptations that allowed our ancestors to become human.

Conservative Swede said...


I believe that if the test was done to a bunch of 13 years old or older humans, the results would be different.

Sure, if this particular test would have been made on 13 year olds, the result would have been different.

But you miss what is generally human here!

For the ape the piece of food is the most important thing, for the human it's her personal relation to the authority that is overall important, and even the most obvious reality plays little role compared to this.

With the child we see this in its original form in the pupil-teacher relation (as in the documentary).

The 13 year old (or the 31 year old) will no longer, as the small child, see the ordinary teacher as the infallible authority. He will have redirected his personal relation to authority higher up, to people like Al Gore, Richard Dawkins, Alec Baldwin, Obama, etc.

But it's the very same kind of relation, and the very same mechanisms -- i.e. any nonsense will be readily swallowed and repeated. However, the advantage with studying it in children, as in the documentary, is that we can see it in its purest form.