Mathematical Chimpanzees

Sun, 27 Aug 1995 16:53:00 PDT

Graber provides a brief synopsis of research done on alleged "mathematical"
abilities f chimpanzees and paraphrases:
" Remarkably, the chimps couldn't seem to get the hang of it as long as they
were confronted with the candy; but when Arabic numerals were substituted,
they quickly learned to get the larger amount for themselves by picking
the lower number. Conclude the researchers: "These findings suggest
that a basic predisposition to respond to the perceptual motivational
features of incentive stimuli can interfere with task performance and
that this interference can be overridden when abstract symbols serve as
choice stimuli." "

(1) Gobbledy-gook appears to be rampant in the psych literature--at least to
the extent that the quote repreents the psych literature.

(2) There is a fundamental confusion (not on the part of Graber, but on the
researchers) between "mathematics" and "quantification". Chimpanzees cannot
have "mathematical ability" because mathematics is a linguistically based
conceptual system involved with the logical consequences of symbolically
expressed axioms. What, if anything, the chimpanzees might exhibit is a
sense of quantity.

(3) As reported by Graber, the research seems to demonstrate that the
chimpanzees can recognize quantity in the sense of: pile A is larger than
pile B--an abiliity that is hardly unique to the chimpanzees in the animal
world. The research also seems to demonstrate that the chimpanzees are
unable to put the gether the sequence: if the larger pile is selected then I
get the smaller pile, but if the smaller pile is seledcted then I get the
larger pile.

(4) I would be curious to know if the researchers had used arbitray symbols
would the same behavior occur on the part of the chimpanzee. My guess would
be that the meaning the symbol has to the researcher is irrelevant to the
behavior of the chimpanzee.

(5) It is interesting that the sequence they could not master in (3) can be
achieved with symbols as it suggests that the brain is processing information
at different levels and the level at which it is processed affects the kind
of performance that can be achieved. To put it another way and in human
terms: When kids are hungry don't learn as well as when they are not hungry.

D. Read