a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘theory of mind

bonobos, chimps, theory of mind, and sex

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bonobo mother and child

Jacinta: So how is the bonobo influence faring these days – in Afghanistan, Iran, Trumpistan, Pakistan, China, Russia, Israel and Burma, to name a few…?

Canto: Okay, enough goat-getting. I’m still fascinated by how bonobos – more genetically similar to chimps, of course, than to humans – came to be so different. It’s not genetics, so what is it? It can’t just be diet, or habitat. And, my feeling is, if you know how something works, you can build it yourself. Like, if you know how beehives work you can build your own beehive, which we’ve done.

Jacinta: Not quite the same as building a new social system methinks. Though they have tried, haven’t they? ‘Let’s go to the Americas and build a Paraiso en el Nuevo Mundo‘…But isn’t it already inhabited?’ ‘Yeah, we might need a bit of rubbish-clearing to start with’.

Canto: You’d think that our discovery of the bonobo lifestyle, really only a few decades ago, its feminism, its relative pacifism, its great community spirit, not to mention the sex, would be of interest to more than just a few primatologists, especially given the world of warfare, rapine and religious numbskullduggery that so many of us are still trapped within – it makes me scream with frustration.

Jacinta: It seems that the timber of humanity is more crooked than that of bonobos. I reckon we took a really wrong turn a few million years ago, so now we’re lost in the patriarchal jungle and we’ll never find our way back.

Canto: But bonobos are showing us the way don’t you see? And if humans didn’t make life so difficult for them, and their habitat wasn’t so fouled and fenced in by human depredations, they’d be so numerous, such a dominant force in the landscape, they’d put us to shame.

Jacinta: Haha we’re a pretty shameless species I’m afraid. Anyway, aren’t bonobos the anomalous ones? Chimps vastly outnumber them, despite the same human depredations. It be Nature, and what do please Evolution. If they hadn’t been separated into two species by the formation of the Congo River, they’d still be one species, and patriarchal, I’m betting.

Canto: Wow, who’s side are you on? Whether bonobos’ ancestors were patriarchal or not is beside the point to me. The point is, they’re matriarchal now, who cares when it started. And they’re happy, and successful. And we humans want to be happy, or happier, and more successful. So we might learn from bonobos about being less aggressive, less cruel, less exploitative, less competitive, and more caring, more playful, more communal, more uninhibited…

Jacinta: Okay, okay, I get it. But I’m wondering about that aggression, or at least that competitiveness. Hasn’t it been to our advantage as a species? The space race, the battles between competing scientific theories, between political ideologies and the like, haven’t they sharpened the collective human mind? Aren’t bonobos a bit intellectually lazy? I’ve read somewhere that chimps are more consistent toolmakers than bonobos. Or would you rather we lived in some timeless hippy-bonobo nirvana?

Canto: Okay, let’s look at the evidence, or what we have of it. Michael Tomasello et al published a research study in the journal PloS One in 2010, entitled ‘Differences in the Cognitive Skills of Bonobos and Chimpanzees’. Here’s the whole abstract from it:

While bonobos and chimpanzees are both genetically and behaviorally very similar, they also differ in significant ways. Bonobos are more cautious and socially tolerant while chimpanzees are more dependent on extractive foraging, which requires tools. The similarities suggest the two species should be cognitively similar while the behavioral differences predict where the two species should differ cognitively. We compared both species on a wide range of cognitive problems testing their understanding of the physical and social world. Bonobos were more skilled at solving tasks related to theory of mind or an understanding of social causality, while chimpanzees were more skilled at tasks requiring the use of tools and an understanding of physical causality. These species differences support the role of ecological and socio-ecological pressures in shaping cognitive skills over relatively short periods of evolutionary time.

Jacinta: Yeah, that is a bit abstract. WTF is the difference between social causality and physical causality?
Canto: Well, it hints of course as to why chimps might be less interested in tool-making, and more interested in how to effectively share in the relative abundance of their habitat – a habitat they had full control of, I suspect, before a species called H sapiens started fucking it up. Says little about intelligence, however defined. Interestingly, the study involved far more chimps (106) than bonobos (34), and fewer female bonobos (13) than males – a bit disappointing, given that female bonobos have become dominant for some reason, but clearly not because of physical strength!
Jacinta: Well, reading further into the article, they did do some experiments in which they evened out the numbers, and I was intrigued by the claim that bonobos were more ‘timid’ than chimps:
Mirroring individual differences observed in theory of mind development in human children, the more cautious and socially tolerant bonobos outperformed chimpanzees on the theory of mind scale. Meanwhile, the prolific tool-using chimpanzee, whose survival is more dependent on extractive foraging, outperformed bonobos in the tool-use and causality scale.
Canto: Yes, apparently human children of the more reflective and less, dare I say, ‘out there’ type, have been found to be better at ‘theory of mind’ tasks. Tasks involving ‘walking in others’ shoes’, might I say. And isn’t that what we need right now? And I’m willing to bet all my worldly goods, that human females outperform males in those tasks.
Jacinta: This has been a contentious issue for some time, and it’s complicated, but yes, it seems that females do better at ToM, as they call it.
This pattern can potentially be interpreted as suggesting that bonobos are more skilled at solving problems requiring an understanding of social causality, while chimpanzees are more skilled at solving problems relating to physical causality. In contrast, the two species did not differ in the scales measuring their understanding of problems related to spatial comprehension, discriminating quantities, using and comprehending communicative signals and learning from others via a social demonstration. This pattern of findings provides support for the hypothesis that socio-ecological pressures play an important role in shaping the cognitive differences observed between these species.
Long-term observations of wild chimpanzees have suggested that female chimpanzees acquire more proficient tool-using techniques faster than males, and other studies show a similar pattern in captive bonobos. Therefore, it may be that socio-ecological pressures play a more limited role in producing cognitive differences based on sex in these species, but it also suggests that female Panins pay closer attention to others which allows them to learn and solve social problems more quickly and skillfully than males (while both sexes perform similarly in physical cognition tasks).
Canto: That’s intriguing, but it still doesn’t come very close to helping us understand how bonobo females dominate. I’m still waiting for a good hypothesis to explain this apparent turn-around. I’d like to think that there’s a clue in their sexual activities, but since it all seems to be about mutual masturbation…
Jacinta: But maybe it’s because the females are more proficient masturbators. After all, human females are more easily able to achieve orgasm than males, and that’s likely true also for bonobos, and in a social system in which there’s no sexual prudery (and humans have barely any such systems), that achievement might be politically empowering.
Canto: Yes, and this Theory of Mind stuff suggests that bonobos would likely get off on each others’ excitement, the females especially. Creating greater closeness and empathy. But then, there’s masturbatory sex, but also more ‘serious’ sex, directed at producing offspring. I’ve read that dominant female bonobos seek to manipulate things so that there own male offspring have sex, in this procreative sense, with the ‘right’ females.
Jacinta: Yes, that does sound weird. Could bonobos possibly know the connection between sex and pregnancy? Seems unlikely.
Canto: That’s something to look into next time….

Written by stewart henderson

November 8, 2023 at 10:01 pm

bird smarts and theory of mind

with 5 comments

human brain compared to that of a zebra finch, I think

I like birds a lot – how could you not? I particularly like their brains, which considering their ‘beautiful plumage’, their grace in flight, their songs, their treatment of mates and offspring and their dinosaur history, is quite a big call. Not that I’ve ever seen or examined a bird’s brain, but I’ve seen and heard of  some gobsmacking behaviour from some species, so I thought I might check out what’s known about their grey-white matter.

As with so many research fields, there’s been a surge in research into bird brains, and I’ve not heard the term bird-brain used as an insult in recent times. Still, when we think of bird intelligence, we tend to anthropomorphise, to compare them with us – do they play, do they use language or tools, do they recognise us individually, can they solve the same sorts of problems we can? That’s understandable enough, but in studying bird brains we should be just as thoughtful about the differences as the similarities.

The birds that have stood out for us so far are corvids – ravens, crows, jays and magpies, though many parrots such as the sadly endangered kea of New Zealand have also caught researchers’ attention. So how do these small-brained creatures manage to do the things that so impress us? Well for a start it may be more a matter of numbers than actual size (and it should be noted that birds have the largest brain to body ratio of any creature). Some research published in July 2016, which received a lot of media attention, found that bird brains pack neurons more densely than other animals. It was previously thought that neuron density didn’t vary much between species, but it’s now becoming clear this isn’t so, and actual brain size isn’t such a reliable guide to intelligence. But bird brains are really small compared to those of primates, so there must surely be other differences besides density.

But the 2016 research, which featured a revolutionary method for sampling brain tissue and making neuron counts, found that, in fact, a parrot brain contained as many neurons as some mid-sized primates. However, it’s also true that a bird’s brain is structurally different. Unsurprisingly, in the past, bird brains were thought of as primitive, and were classified as such, probably because they’re far removed from us on the evolutionary bush. Anthropomorphism again – understandably we used to feel that the only really intelligent creatures apart from us were those most closely related to us, but in recent decades we’ve learned that cetaceans, octopuses, elephants and birds, none of which are close to us  evolutionarily, are highly intelligent creatures. And they’re not all mammals, and in the case of the octopus, not even vertebrates. This is quite exciting for our understanding of intelligent life forms – they can have a multitude of ‘brain plans’.

The first important bird brain anatomist was the 19th century German naturalist Ludwig Edinger, whose work was so influential that it provided the orthodox view until a few decades ago. Noting the very different structure of the bird brain, Edinger understandably assumed they couldn’t be as smart as mammals, and being one of the first to name brain structures in birds, he assigned names such as paleostriatum, suggesting a very basic region involving instinctual and motor activity. Basically, he assumed birds lacked a neocortex altogether. However, we now know that the bird brain evolved from the pallium rather than the striatum, and in 2005 it was agreed that an overhaul of bird brain nomenclature was required. All part of our more informed and respectful approach to these wondrous creatures.

National Geographic, in combination with other interested organisations, has declared 2018 the Year of the Bird, and has some fascinating pieces on bird behaviour on its website. That’s where I learned that, according to one researcher, birds’ brains are more distributed ‘like a pizza’, whereas the mammalian brain is more layered. However, the wiring that underlies long-term memory in birds (and they clearly have impressive long-term memory) and decision-making is similar to that in mammals. 

Here are just a few of the extraordinary behaviours discovered. Green-rumped parrotlets of South America use calls as names for their chicks. Male palm cockatoos of New Guinea court females not only with calls but by drumming on hollow trees with twigs and seedpods – arguably a form of music. Goffin’s cockatoos, from Indonesia, make and use tools in captivity even though they’ve never been seen to do so in the wild. They’re also expert at opening locks. The National Geographic video ‘Beak and Brain: genius birds down under’ compares the kea of New Zealand’s South Island to the New Caledonian crow as problems solvers tasked with overcoming a variety of obstacles to obtain their favourite treats. It makes for riveting viewing. Other videos online show crows creating hooks on sticks and using them to pull food out of holes. 

Another video, involving experiments with jackdaws by Princess Auguste of Bavaria (really), a behavioural scientist, shows that these birds are much influenced by the gaze of humans, and can be directed to act simply by the gaze of a human they have bonded with. They also appear to know when they’re not being watched, and can act more boldly in such circumstances. All of this raises obvious questions, voiced by Auguste in the video. How do jackdaws think? How is it similar to the way we think? Do they recognise intentions? Do they have a theory of mind?

This theory of mind issue comes up with a lot of birds, and other animals. It refers to whether and to what extent a creature has the ability to attribute any or all of the variety of possible mental states to itself and/or others. The question of an avian theory of mind was explored in a study entitled ‘ravens attribute visual access to unseen competitors’. In describing their experiment, the authors highlight what they see – or what skeptics see – as a problem with much experimental work that tests for theory of mind in other species. This is the question – as I understand it – of whether the bird or animal actually ‘sees’ or reads what conspecifics are thinking, or is simply following particular observable cues. It was a complex experiment involving caching (hiding a store of food for later consumption, a common raven behaviour), peepholes that were either open or closed, and inference (by the researchers) from observed behaviour to either ‘minimal’ or ‘full-blown’ Theory of Mind. As a dilettante I found much of the discussion and analysis beyond me, but I found these remarks interesting:

In conclusion, the current experiment, together with the other recent studies on chimpanzees11,12, provides strong evidence against the skeptical hypothesis that the social cognition of nonhuman animals is limited to behaviour-reading. Peephole designs can allow researchers to overcome the confound of gaze cues, but further experimental work is needed to determine the specific limits of ravens and other animals—including humans—on such tasks.

In my general reading on these matters I’ve definitely found something like a rift between the skeptics on the behaviour of higher primates, dolphins and other ‘smart’ creatures, and those who have pushed, sometimes naively, other-life smarts with regard to ‘language’, memory and emotional intelligence. What I think needs to be kept clearly in mind is that in examining intelligence, or brain power or whatever, human intelligence may be only one of a possible infinity of gold standards. Is Theory of Mind itself an anthropomorphic concept, or one that lends itself too easily to anthropomorphic thinking? 

Meanwhile, experimentation and investigation of the neurological underpinnings of bird behaviour will continue, and I’ll be watching for the results. Just about to embark on Jim Robbins’ book The wonder of birds, and I hope to learn more especially about bird neurology in the future, and how it relates to birdsong. That’s a whole other issue.

Written by stewart henderson

November 2, 2018 at 9:40 am