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Release: Oct. 11, 2001
(Editors note: The American Psychological Association has embargoed this
release until 6 p.m. EDT Sunday, Oct. 14.)
UI researcher's study demonstrates central aspect of human intelligence
CITY, Iowa -- More non-human animals may be capable of abstract thought than
previously known, with profound implications for the evolution of human intelligence
and the stuff that separates homo sapiens from other animals. A trans-Atlantic
team of psychologists, including University of Iowa psychology professor Edward
A. Wasserman, has found evidence of abstract thought in baboons, significant
because baboons are "old world monkeys," part of a different primate
"super family" that -- some 30 million years ago -- split from the
family that gave rise to apes and then humans. Chimpanzees, in the ape family,
already have demonstrated abstract thought. Now, two trained baboons successfully
determined that two differently detailed displays were fundamentally the same
in their overall design. Figuring this out required analogical (this is to
this as that is to that) reasoning, which many theorists view as the foundation
of human reasoning and intelligence.
The study is reported in the October issue of the "Journal of Experimental
Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes," published by the American Psychological
In a series of five experiments, Wasserman, along with Joel Fagot of the
Center for Research in Cognitive Neuroscience in Marseille, France and Michael
E. Young, of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, trained two adult baboons,
one male and one female, to use a personal computer and joystick to look at
and select grids that had varying collections of little pictures.
In the foundation experiment, researchers familiarized the baboons with
a screen display of 16 different little pictures (four rows of four across),
such as the sun, an arrow, a light bulb, a train, and a house, OR with a display
of the same little picture repeated 16 times (for example, all telephones).
Researchers then presented the baboons with a series of choices of two new
displays. In each choice, one display was a 4x4 grid with 16 different icons
(for example, a clock, a brain, a hand, a triangle
); the other was the
4x4 grid with 16 identical icons (for example, all flowers). Researchers rewarded
the baboons for selecting, from two choices, the array that showed the same
relationships among pictures as the sample.
Researchers wanted to see whether the baboons could learn to perceive "sameness"
even when its cues were subtle and abstract?
The baboons did indeed learn to match the "different icons" test
grids to sample grids at a rate greater than chance. They also learned to
match "same icons" test grids to "same icons" sample grids
at a rate greater than chance. It took thousands of trials for them to learn
the "relation between relations" required by the task, but they
did it. "Although discriminating the relation between relations may not
be an intellectual forte of baboons, it is nevertheless within their ken,"
the authors wrote.
In the primary and subsequent four experiments, the team also tested two
humans to assess baboon versus human performance. In experiments 2-5, the
researchers shrunk the numbers of items in the grid to see whether a lessening
in variability (the "different" grids became closer to the "same"
grids, a lessening in entropy) affected the baboons' choices. Both baboons
and humans learned the basic task (although the humans learned far faster),
and transferred it to novel sample displays, but humans were far more accurate
at matching grids when the number of icons was reduced.
The baboons and humans seemed to have different cutoff points for discerning
same vs. different, with humans being more sensitive to entropy. The authors
speculate that language may play a role, because our verbal expression for
"same" makes the idea of "same" more restrictive -- in
other words, things really have to be identical to qualify. To baboons, the
authors suggest, the concept of "same" might be fuzzier and more
The baboons' ability to abstract opens the door to other species' cognitive
potential. Fagot et al. state that additional research of non-human animals
is necessary before theorists attempt to limit the capability for abstraction
only to certain species. They state, "Analogical thinking and its possible
precursors may very well be found in non-human animals -- if only we assiduously
look for them."
Article: "Discriminating the Relation Between Relations: The Role of
Entropy in Abstract Conceptualization by Baboons (Papio papio) and Humans
(Homo sapiens)," Joël Fagot, Center for Research in Cognitive Neurosciences
of the National Center for Scientific Research in Marseille, France; Edward
A. Wasserman, Center for Research in Cognitive Neurosciences (as above) and
the University of Iowa, Iowa City; and Michael E. Young, University of Iowa,
Iowa City; "Journal of Experimental Psychology Animal Behavior
Processes," Vol. 27. No.4.
Joël Fagot can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
or by phone at (33) 04-91-16-43-06. Edward A. Wasserman can be reached by
email at email@example.com or by phone at 319-335-2445. More information
on Wasserman's work is available at http://www.psychology.uiowa.edu/news/pr_wasserman.html
Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office
and at http://www.apa.org/journals/xan/press_releases/october_2001/xan274316.html
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