Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Friday, September 07, 2007

What's the difference between a toddler and a chimp?

Following on the heels of yesterday's exciting science news comes this new report of a study comparing the cognitive abilities of Chimpanzees and Orangutangs to human toddlers. Specifically, to human 2 1/2 year olds. The findings are rather provocative: in most respects human toddlers perform about the same as adult Chimps and Orangutangs, displaying more or less equal problem solving and memory abilities. This is, of course, not so good for the non-humans since a 2 1/2 year old human child is, by comparison to an adult, rather simple-minded, but that isn't the point. If chimps and Orangutangs were that much more intelligent than us, they'd be running the studies, so no surprises yet. In any case, the difference does not appear to be in terms of raw cognitive ability but, instead, in terms of sociability.

All primates are social, and indeed a large proportion of mammals are social, but humans appear to be absurdly social. In the study it appeared that human toddlers were consistently more likely to infer intention and to develop and maintain at least a rudimentary understanding of the thoughts and feelings of other humans. In one trial toddlers guided a human researcher to the location of hidden food while the non-human primates did not. If nothing else, this may suggest that norms of reciprocity become active in humans at a very, very young age. Indeed, why guide another individual to food unless you expect them to share it with you, or otherwise reward you for it? Additionally, it appears that humans learn from observing others more rapidly than do non-human primates. Toddlers who saw a researcher demonstrate how to open a container of food would then reproduce the researcher's actions. Chimpanzees and Orangutangs, by contrast, would open the container, but usually through the application of brute force.

The interesting thing to me about this study is that it suggests that one of the big reasons why humans may be different from other species is that we are so intensely, unbelievably social. We may be smarter than just about everything else on the planet* but that isn't the whole story- it's also that we work in groups sufficiently well that we gain access to the product of each other's efforts. What one of us learns, many can learn, and can learn it quickly. Human society in some ways may represent an evolutionary paradigm shift similar to the first true multicellular organisms. We may be the social equivalent of a shift from mat-like bacterial colonies to the specialized, but rudimentary, communities of cells known as the sponges.**

And this revelation really puts Anomie's recent post into perspective. She joked that sociology, obviously the queen of the sciences, should be the discipline to usher in the rule of scientists and a new golden age for mankind. I tend to agree with Jeremy, however, that if we actually held the reigns of power it would be a disaster. Leaving aside the obvious excesses of Auguste Comte, however, we are forced to the conclusion that the importance of social life has often been underestimated. It may not just be that humans happen to be social, but that our sociability is our most defining feature. Our strength as a species may be that we come together in such large, enduring groups with such amazingly fluidity.

I don't think that sociology is the queen of the sciences, but in a way I think that it is the science of the future. Physics, chemistry, biology, and so forth have given humanity immense power over our world. Unfortunately, we know relatively little about how to wield that power safely and responsibly. Our future survival depends on our ability to resolve our differences, to live in peace with each other, and to balance our needs against the needs of our natural environment. We have to learn to do something that no other species has ever had to do: show restraint when there is no force on earth that can stop us except for ourselves. Can sociology help us develop this restraint? I don't know.

But I hope so.

* So far as we can tell, anyway.

** A pretty interesting thought by itself. One is forced to wonder what more complex forms of social organization might be possible.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check this out, Drek:


Friday, September 07, 2007 11:23:00 AM  
Blogger yli said...

i love this topic. i have a draft post on dogs and humans' socialization but still need to find time to finish it.

one small thing: it probably is true that humans are more social than other primates (i'm not questioning the conclusion) but to be fair, chimps' sociability with humans cannot be the same as human toddlers' sociability with humans. the toddles must have spent 2 and half years, day and night, living with their human caretakers, but the chimps' primary social network is with other chimps, not humans. i'm not suggesting that a chimp who has been raised as a house pet might potentially do better at guessing human intentions than chimps living in a sanctuary (who knows, perhaps she might), but i just think that the researchers' conclusion that humans are ultra-social is a bit haste and, if i want to use a harsh word that makes people think i'm an animal rights extremist (i'm not), "homo-centric."

Friday, September 07, 2007 11:45:00 AM  
Blogger marc said...

I don't know the difference between toddlers and chimps, but now you have me considering possible norms of reciprocity of spiders in Tawakoni State Park in Texas. They share their web, but do they share their food?

Friday, September 07, 2007 12:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joking, eh? Or am I? Muahahahahah!

I fear that if you are right about what is required for our survival, we are surely all doomed.

Saturday, September 08, 2007 12:26:00 PM  
Blogger Jay Livingston said...

Anomie was, I hope, being facetious, but Jeremy's point is well-taken. It's also too narrow. Giving a lot of power to any person or group or discipline is dangerous, and not just for the obvious reasons. Power corrupts, but worse, it makes the system less adaptable to changes in the environment.

Saturday, September 08, 2007 2:09:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hey, Drek, what if I told you it was your duty as an atheist and as a post-structural feminist sympathizer to see the film, "Bad Boy Bubby"? Wouldja do it??

Monday, September 10, 2007 4:43:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Random Greek Dude: I might consider seeing the movie, but I'm not prone to doing things just because people tell me to.

Monday, September 10, 2007 10:04:00 AM  

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