Tuesday, September 27, 2011


...because, according to a recent study, they can understand analogies, something that was thought to be the sole provenance of human beings who communicate through language. According to io9, it turns out that isn't exactly so:

That's the finding of researchers Joël Fagot of France's Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive and Roger Thompson of the US's Franklin & Marshall College. They ran an experiment in which 29 baboons were shown two identical squares on a touch screen. When the baboons touched one of the squares, the squares disappeared and two new pairs of shapes emerged. One typical combination was one pair of a star and triangle and another pair of two identical ovals.
For the baboons to get the reward, they had to choose the identical ovals over the dissimilar shapes. This was repeated through several experiments, but each time the specific type of identical shape changed, meaning the baboons couldn't simply pick the ovals - they had to understand why the researchers wanted them to choose the identical shapes. This means they had to recognize why two pairs of identical shapes were similar, even if the specific shapes were different.
It isn't just about recognizing relationships - it's about understanding the relationships between different relationships, and that's exactly what an analogy is. (You might remember the classic "X is to Y as W is to Z", or X:Y::W:Z type of analogy from high school English.) Sure, that's a pretty simple analogy, but there's no way to consistently pass the test without grasping that core concept. And it was hardly an easy task - only six of the 29 baboons managed to figure out the analogy, suggesting this is a form of reasoning that is at the very cusp of what baboons are able to do.
So only six out of twenty-nine apes understand analogies, which, I suspect, is probably  the same ratio for humans who can and can't grasp the concept.
You can read the entire article here.

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