Wednesday, March 26, 2008


(Vision Portal: Crocus, by Lowry Bell)

I've written before at this blog about human brain plasticity and at Maoist Orange Cake about Epigenetics and Cultural Re-Invention. I have more exciting discoveries to share with you.

Last month I watched a superb special on Nova at PBS called Ape Genius. It's introduced with "A rush of discoveries about chimps, from tool use to what they do for fun, are painting a surprising new portrait of ape minds." I've discovered it is also available online, divided into six chapters at the above link, and I've watched it all the way through again. I can't recommend it enough.

It acknowledges, rather tongue-in-cheek, our past human obsession with demarcating the DIFFERENCE between us and apes, our insecurity leaking through as apes crash one barrier after another and we move the goal-posts to keep us "winning". Even as this film does so, it makes it clear the distinction between ape intellect and our own will be the focus of this effort, but with (hopefully) more maturity:

'Congratulations: You are an ape. A "great ape," technically. Alongside us in this brainy family of animals are four other living species: chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos (formerly called "pygmy chimpanzees").

'The biological gap between us and our great ape cousins is small. At last count, only 1.23 percent of our genes differ from those of chimpanzees. But mentally, the gap between us and them is a Grand Canyon.

'On an average day in the life of the human species, we file thousands of patents, post tens of thousands of Internet videos, and think countless thoughts that have never been thought before. On a good day, chimpanzees are lucky to exploit rudimentary tried-and-true techniques, such as using stone tools to crack nuts.

'Not only do we innovate more than the other great apes, we are vastly better at sharing ideas with one another. The majority of recent behavioral studies focus on information-transmission rather than invention. All of the great apes can learn new tricks by imitating a human or another ape. But only humans go one step further and routinely teach each other. Teaching may be the signature skill of our species, and researchers are now zeroing in on three particular mental talents that make it possible."

And here's where the documentary really grabs me: The three mental talents explored are "Mind-Reading", "The Triangle (as used in teaching)", and "Impulse Control". As they were described, I realized not only does this gap exist between us and apes, but within human culture, the development and value placed on these talents varies considerably, with enormous political and survival consequences. And, in my assessment, these extremely human, cooperative, advantageous traits are most under-emphasized in the conditioning we receive as white Westerners and in the conditioning we give males, particularly when cramming them into the "masculine" role.

Which begs the question: Why would we, as a species, be dampening down the most useful of our human evolutionary skills in order to pay obeisance to, say, impulsivity, mimicking without comprehension, competition over empathy and altruism, isolation and exploitation over interdependence?

(Graphic by Austin Cline)

I think we'll have to answer this question before we can reverse the trend. And, of course, part of the lesson will have to include that we have much more choice over our behavior and identities than not. We are not helpless in the grip of biology. We took another path, long ago, and it's quite possible, as a friend stated this week, we're witnessing yet another paradigm shift.

Watch it and tell me what you think.

In a related story, the New York Times just printed an article by Sandra Blakelee titled What a Rodent Can Do With a Rake in Its Paw. It begins:

"Degus are highly social, intelligent rodents native to the highlands of Chile. They adorn the openings of their burrows with piles of sticks and stones, have bubbly personalities and like to play games.

"But in a laboratory setting, degus can do much more than play hide-and-seek, according to a study in the online journal Plos One. They can learn to use tools."

The article includes a short video of a degu engaged in tool use. I could not find an independent link to this, so you'll have to go to the article link above to watch it. It goes on to say:

"While it has long been thought that tool use is a hallmark of higher intelligence, Dr. Iriki said, the brain structures that underlie such abilities may lie dormant in many animals with good hand-and-eye or paw-and-eye coordination. Training them to use tools in captivity provides insights into the plasticity of their brains, he said, and may shed light on how early humans evolved tool use in the first place.

"In the wild many animals use simple tools. Chimpanzees and crows actually create them. But an underlying question is, What changes take place in an animal brain when tool use evolves?

"To find out, Dr. Iriki initially conducted experiments with Japanese macaques, monkeys that do not tend to use tools in the wild. In the laboratory, he trained them to use a rake to reach out and retrieve their favorite treat, raisins. Later the animals learned to use a short rake to pull in a longer rake, which could then be used to fetch more distant raisins.

"As the monkeys developed these skills, their brains showed signs of gene activity in a brain region that integrates vision and touch. The same was likely to be true of the degu, Dr. Iriki said. The rodent has superb paw-and-eye coordination and a pad on its paw that can act like a thumb."

Once again, this study proves that what seems immutable -- genetic organization of a brain -- is actually quite plastic, and that genes themselves alter within an individual animal (not just through reproduction in new generations) as a response to environmental demand.

For those of us who have stepped beyond the Western rigidity of believing "God made us this way" and "Reality is concrete", we're not surprised to discover that we transform our own bodies by transforming our mind-set.

The "persistent delusion" (as I learned from Buddhism) that we all cling to was brought home to me in another way last week during a conversation with a friend. He pointed out that if you measure the wave length of blue light, it is clearly distinguishable from that of all other colored light. Ditto for yellow light, and ditto for green light. But if you shine both blue and yellow light on a surface, what we see is green. Yet if you measure the wave lengths, all that is objectively there is still just blue and yellow. The green is created within our brains: It's a perception, not a scientific property of the light.

I find liberation in this. Yes, it cuts me loose from the wharf, but there are others of us out here bobbing around in the current. All you have to do is love yourself as you are.

(from Stella Marrs)

© 2008 Maggie Jochild; hat tip to Doc and Diamante for the shared thinking


Liza Cowan said...

Aha, Maggie's Metaphysical watershed. Very interesting. Also noted that the chimp hunter was female, as were most likely, early human women. Contemporary women, too. Although I like to do my hunting at yard sales. With rakes.

Blue said...

There's a wonderful article on the subject of intelligence in animals in National Geographic. Go to, search "animal intelligence", and read the article "Animal Minds". I highly recommend it.

Maggie Jochild said...

Liza, I have an image of you striding up a driveway toward a yard sale, rake in hand. Hilarious.

GREAT link, Blue. I was so sad when Alex the Parrot died. All the different forms of intelligence fascinate me -- obviously.

kat said...

Liza, do you wear fatigues?
I love Maggie's mental image of youstalking your prey!

My hunting is usually done on my hands and knees on the bottom shelves of the one used bookstore in the area that sells opera scores...