Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Orangatangs Use Tools Too


By Elaine Meinel Supkis

New study shows orangatangs using tools just like chimps and gorillas. As I recall, many a chimp has also mastered sign language and riding bicycles. So why is the chimp in the White House unable to do either?

From the NYT:
In 1992, when Dr. van Schaik began his research in Suaq, a swamp forest in northern Sumatra, orangutans were believed to be the only great ape that lived a largely solitary life foraging for hard-to-find fruit thinly distributed over a large area.

Researchers thought they were slow-moving creatures - some even called them boring - that didn't have time to do much but eat.

But the orangutans Dr. van Schaik found in Suaq turned all that on its head. More than 100 were gathered together doing things the researchers had never seen in the wild.

Dr. van Schaik worked there for seven years and came to the radical conclusion that orangutans were "every bit as sociable, as technically adept and as culturally capable" as chimpanzees.
If we exclude the one in the White House, yes, orangatangs are culturally capable! This is the sad end of evolution; once humans removed all forces pushing on us, we end up being run by morons.

My problem with Dr. Schaik's interview, though, is when he begins to sermonize on evolutionary forces. Here, he is dead wrong.
So your discovery that the orangutans learned tool use from one another explains "the rise of human culture" part of your book's subtitle?

A. Well, yes. Orangutans split off from the African lineage some 14 million years ago. If both chimps and orangutans make tools, our common great ape ancestor probably had the capacity for culture.

Q. I always thought we got smart after we came down from the trees.

A. Actually orangutans are the largest arboreal mammal and have no predators up in the trees so they live a very long time - up to 60 years in the wild - and have the slowest life history of any nonhuman mammal including elephants and whales.

A slow life history is key to growing a large brain. The other key to intelligence is sociability.
There is no such thing as "intellligence." It is a human artifact we use to describe how our brains work internally. But, for example, bees are "intelligent". They cooperate, they communicate specific information to each other. They can recognize and internalize many things. For example, my bees never sting me even when I come very close to their hive but when I messed with the hive, changing things around, for a week, they would buzz angrily at me whenever the guards spotted me and twice, I was stung when I didn't leave their territory!

A week later, I could put my hand right in front of the door of the hive and nothing would happen.

After we domesticated cows, pigs and sheep, we mistook their genetic/evolutionary change as an intelligence issue, namely, we decided they were "dumb" when it really was, we evolved them into trusting us even if that trust is woefully misplaced.

My oxen may have looked dumb because they took their time, thinking about things. But I could give them verbal instructions to turn right or left or stop or go. I could lecture them about flipping their feeder over. I could scold them about going through the fence. Sometimes, when I was really angry with them, they would cry. They were not dumb.
If social inputs make you smarter, why aren't monkeys cleverer?

A. One thing we know is that being close to others isn't enough. Highly tolerant sociability is important - that you can be relaxed next to others. You need to be able to focus on what your neighbor is doing and not worry about whether he is going to sneak something or beat up on you.

It's that kind of social tolerance that is common to all great apes. It's rare in monkeys - except cebus monkeys; they're tool users, long-lived and socially very tolerant.
Obviously, this guy didn't grow up in a large family. I did.

We fought over everything. Territory, toys, food, TV, who gets the window seats, mom's love. You name it, we fought over it. We formed alliances and we used children's politics such as crying at opportune moments. All kids do this but the eternal struggle for everything including time on the toilet doesn't happen to people rasied as only children, for example. Then, all is on a silver platter.

If a strange kid came by and tried to take a toy or candy or territory from the hyper-competitive mass unit of children in a family, then the kids naturally band together to drive off the interlopers. We also shared. But the sharing was tit for tat. Any kid who simply took and didn't share was kicked out.

Human brains didn't evolve rapidly because we were friendly. It evolved rapidly because the need for guile and skill at making weapons and preparing foods that needed to be worked on before consuming meant only the smartest could survive. The less smart were tricked, yes, tricked, into becoming dinner. Namely, we were cannibal apes who also ate anything and everything in our path because we nearly died off several times and those who could kill or trick other living creatures flourished which is why we "tamed" so many different animals and birds. It is far easier to say, "Come to me, lambies," and then pick one out and kill it (secretly, NEVER in front of the flock or they will figure out what is going on!) than to run around, seeking elusive wild sheep and then managing to kill them.

Indeed, this was the final test of humans: the ability to trick others into becoming dinner with minimum fuss.

Humans within tribes had to be careful about this tricky skill for if you eat your own family, you become extinct pretty fast as other cannibals who don't dine on the nearest and dearest outnumber your dwindling tribe and eat you! So elaborate rules sprang up to prevent this very thing despite intermural fights, namely, the struggle to hog resources within a family has to know bounds, ask the Bible!

Whenever it didn't, God was very unhappy, wasn't He?

People with really big brains could keep track of all this and deal with it. Since we evolved tool making into something truly awesome and frightening, it takes really big brains to figure out how to not use these tools to destroy all living things including humans!

Ie, the struggle for that banana has escalated into nuclear war and we have to bend all our mental powers into avoiding exactly that which we have set up.

Anyone who thinks his neighbor isn't or can't sneak up on them and whack them is crazy. You never know! Look at the Kansas murderer! He lived amounst his victims, nonchalant, a political leader in the GOP in his town and at night he was the frightful cannibal climbing into windows, murdering and torturing! You never know!

Smart people assume their neighbors just might be killers and takes appropriate measures to insure the next door neighbor doesn't come over to kill, this is why we have complex laws and many customs!

Not because we are trusting but because we know we are untamed devils if we don't.

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