The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

May 30, 2008


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---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Fri, 30 May 2008 21:51:19 -0400
From: moderator@PORTSIDE.ORG
Subject: Six 'Uniquely' Human Traits Now Found in Animals

Six 'Uniquely' Human Traits Now Found in Animals

Kate Douglas
17:11 22 May 2008

To accompany the article So you think humans are unique?
we have selected six articles from the New Scientist
archive that tell a similar story. We have also asked
the researchers involved to update us on their latest
findings. Plus, we have rounded up six videos of animals
displaying 'human' abilities.

1. Culture

Art, theatre, literature, music, religion, architecture
and cuisine - these are the things we generally
associate with culture. Clearly no other animal has
anything approaching this level of cultural
sophistication. But culture at its core is simply the
sum of a particular group's characteristic ways of
living, learned from one another and passed down the
generations, and other primate species undoubtedly have
practices that are unique to groups, such as a certain
way of greeting each other or obtaining food.

Even more convincing examples of animal cultures are
found in cetaceans. Killer whales, for example, fall
into two distinct groups, residents and transients.
Although both live in the same waters and interbreed,
they have very different social structures and
lifestyles, distinct ways of communicating, different
tastes in food and characteristic hunting techniques -
all of which parents teach to offspring.

Read the original article: Culture shock (24 March 2001)

Hal Whitehead, Dalhousie University writes:

"Since our 2001 review, people have often considered
culture as a potential explanation of the behavioural
patterns that have turned up in their studies of whales
and dolphins.

"Our own work has concentrated on the non-vocal forms of
sperm-whale culture. The different cultural clans of
sperm whales, although in basically the same areas, use
these waters very differently, and are affected very
differently by El Niño events. They also have different
reproductive rates.

"In sperm whales, and likely other whales and dolphins,
culture has the potential to affect population biology,
and so issues as diverse as genetic evolution and the
impacts of global warming on the species."

2. Mind reading

Perhaps the surest sign that an individual has insight
into the mind of another is the ability to deceive. To
outwit someone you must understand their desires,
intentions and motives - exactly the same ability that
underpins the "theory of mind". This ability to
attribute mental states to others was once thought
unique to humans, emerging suddenly around the fifth
year of life. But the discovery that babies are capable
of deception led experts to conclude that "mind-reading"
skills develop gradually, and fuelled debate about
whether they might be present in other primates.

Experiments in the 1990s indicated that great apes and
some monkeys do understand deception, but that their
understanding of the minds of others is probably
implicit rather than explicit as it is in adult humans.

Read the original article: Liar! Liar! (14 February

Marc Hauser, Harvard University, writes:

"The tamarin work didn't pan out, but there are now
several studies that show evidence of theory of mind in
primates, including work by Brian Hare, Josep Call, Mike
Tomasello, Felix Warneken, Laurie Santos, Justin Wood,
and myself on chimps, rhesus monkeys and tamarins. There
is nothing quite like a successful Sally-Anne test, but
studies point to abilities such as seeing as a form of
knowing, reading intentions and goals."

3. Tool use

Some chimps use rocks to crack nuts, others fish for
termites with blades of grass and a gorilla has been
seen gauging the depth of water with the equivalent of a
dipstick, but no animal wields tools with quite the
alacrity of the New Caledonian crow. To extract tasty
insects from crevices, they craft a selection of hooks
and long, barbed tapers called stepped-cut tools, made
by intricately cutting a pandanus leaf with their beaks.
What's more, experiments in the lab suggest that they
understand the function of tools and deploy creativity
and planning to construct them.

Nobody is suggesting that toolmaking has common origins
in humans and crows, but there is a remarkable
similarity in the ways in which their respective brains
work. Both are highly lateralised, revealed in the
observation that most crows are right-beaked - cutting
pandanus leaves using the right side of their beaks. New
Caledonian crows may force us to reassess the mental
abilities of our first toolmaking ancestors.

Read the original article: Look, no hands (17 August

Gavin Hunt at the University of Aukland, writes:

"The general aim of our research on New Caledonian crows
is to determine how a 'bird brain' can produce such
complex tools and tool behaviour. Since the New
Scientist article appeared in 2002, our team has focused
on continuing to document tool manufacture and use in
the wild (New Zealand Journal of Zoology, vol 35 p 115),
the development of tool skills in free-living juveniles,
the social behaviour and ecology of NC crows on the
island of Maré, experimental work investigating NC
crows' physical cognition and general intelligence, and
neurological work.

"Some of this work is being undertaken collaboratively
with laboratories in Germany (neurology) and New Zealand
(genotyping). A very similar study is also being carried
out independently at the University of Oxford. This
parallel research has produced findings that are both
confirmatory and conflicting."

Alex Kacelnik, University of Oxford, adds:

"We now know for sure that genetics is involved in the
tool-making abilities of new Caledonian crows. We raised
nestlings by hand and found that chicks that had never
seen anybody handle objects of any kind started to use
tools to extract food from crevices at a similar age to
those who were exposed to human tutors using tools
(Animal Behaviour, vol 72, p 1329). Clearly, observing
others is not necessary for the tool use. However chicks
exposed to tutoring exhibit a greater intensity of tool-
related activity. Not surprisingly, genes and experience
show a complex interaction.

"We have also developed a new technique, consisting of
loading tiny video cameras on free-ranging birds, so as
to see what they see and document the precise use of
tools in nature. We have discovered that they use tools
in loose soil, that they use a kind of tool not
previously described (grass stems), and that they hunt
for vertebrates (lizards). All of this, together with
laboratory analysis of their cognitive abilities is
forming a richer picture of what the species can do."

4. Morality

A classic study in 1964 found that hungry rhesus monkeys
would not take food they had been offered if doing so
meant that another monkey received an electric shock.
The same is true of rats. Does this indicate nascent
morality? For decades, we have preferred to find
alternative explanations, but recently ethologist Marc
Bekoff from the University of Colorado at Boulder has
championed the view that humans are not the only moral
species. He argues that morality is common in social
mammals, and that during play they learn the rights and
wrongs of social interaction, the "moral norms that can
then be extended to other situations such as sharing
food, defending resources, grooming and giving care".

Read the original article: Virtuous nature (13 July

Marc Bekoff, University of Colorado, writes:

"Work published this year showed that animals are able
to make social evaluations and these assessments are
foundational for moral behaviour in animals other than
humans. Francys Subiaul of the George Washington
University and his colleagues showed that captive
chimpanzees are able to make judgments about the
reputation of unfamiliar humans by observing their
behaviour - whether they were generous or stingy in
giving food to other humans. The ability to make
character judgments is just what we would expect to find
in a species in which fairness and cooperation are
important in interactions among group members (Animal
Cognition, DOI: 10.1007/s10071-008-0151-6)."

5. Emotions

Emotions allow us to bond with others, regulate our
social interactions and make it possible to behave
flexibly in different situations. We are not the only
animals that need to do these things, so why should we
be the only ones with emotions? There are many examples
of apparent emotional behaviour in other animals.

Elephants caring for a crippled herd member seem to show
empathy. A funeral ritual performed by magpies suggests
grief. Was it spite that led a male baboon called Nick
to take revenge on a rival by urinating on her? Divers
who freed a humpback whale caught in a crab line
describe its reaction as one of gratitude. Then there's
the excited dance chimps perform when faced with a
waterfall - it looks distinctly awe-inspired. These
days, few doubt that animals have emotions, but whether
they feel these consciously, as we do, is open to

Read the original article: Do animals have emotions? (23
May 2007)

6. Personality

It's no surprise that animals that live under constant
threat from predators are extra-cautious, while those
that face fewer risks appear to be more reckless. After
all, such successful survival strategies would evolve by
natural selection. But the discovery that individuals of
the same species, living under the same conditions, vary
in their degree of boldness or caution is more
remarkable. In humans we would refer to such differences
as personality traits.

From cowardly spiders and reckless salamanders to
aggressive songbirds and fearless fish, we are finding
that many animals are not as characterless as we might
expect. What's more, work with animals has led to the
idea that personality traits evolve to help individuals
survive in a wider variety of ecological niches, and
this is influencing the way psychologists think about
human personality.

Read the original article: Critters with attitude (3
June 2001)

For an update on animal personalities and how research
in this area is throwing light on human behaviour read
The personality factor.

Related Articles

     * So you think humans are unique?
     * 21 May 2008
     * Culture Shock
     * 24 March 2001
     * Liar! Liar!
     * 14 February 1998
     * Look, no hands!
     * 17 August 2002
     * Virtuous nature
     * 13 July 2002
     * Do animals have emotions?
     * 23 May 2007
     * Critters with attitude
     * 03 June 2001
     * Video roundup: Animals with 'human' abilities
     * 22 May 2008


     * Hal Whitehead, Dalhousie University
     * Marc Hauser, Harvard University
     * Gavin Hunt, University of Aukland
     * Alex Kacelnik, University of Oxford
     * Marc Bekoff, University of Colorado


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