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Metacognition in chimpanzees

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Metacognition: Ability to 'think about thinking' not limited to humans


For some reason I cannot paste any part of this article.  To summarize, Chimpanzees were given several cognitive tests where they were required to identify certain items using symbols.  Apparently they succeeded to a large extent.  Thoughts?  Is this a case of observed speciation (a transition from instinctual animal to rational animal) similar to what eventually resulted in humans?

Edited by Craig24
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Two points.

1) I don't think this is any kind of evidence that chimpanzees have metacognition. There are still several possibilities I can think of to explain what happened. Keep in mind that what's happening here is the chimps are asked "What is at that location?" Certainly, that takes a lot of awareness about the surrounding environment, especially since the chimps are using symbols to identify a particular object. Symbol doesn't mean anything more than memorizing two corresponding objects, not necessarily a conceptual relationship. Most animals are good at having a sort of "map" of the area so it's not strange for the chimp to suggest what is in a spot.

Presumably, the chimps saw what was hidden, so all they'd have to do is remember "the banana is behind the stump", which wouldn't *require* metacognition of considering the thought itself. Birds do this, squirrels do this, etc. When the chimps are asked what's at a location, but the chimps wouldn't have anything at all to say is behind a stump, meaning they have no information about the location. Metacognition isn't necessarily needed if an animal needs information from a location. Basically, it's just saying that indeed, chimps can forage and can at least identify what they found. Nothing indicates chimps are looking because they are thinking "oh, I don't know what's there, so I'm going to check it out".

2) Non-human animals are mostly not instinctual in the sense of stimulus-response, except perhaps single-celled organisms. As I was saying above, most animals, even insects, are able to develop a sort of "map", that is, they are able to represent/remember/access information about their environment, their location, and how to get to a different location. Bees, to give a good example, don't merely fly around and respond to seeing bright colors of a flower. Before leaving the hive, bees watch and mimic other bees in the hive walking in a figure eight. That pattern represents which direction to fly and how far. Bees aren't going to be able to say particular flowers, but with chimps able to memorize some sign language, it's not a stretch for a chimp to respond with what's at a location, and to look for what's at a location if it has no information. *Some* bee will eventually look for new information if flowers are destroyed, and I doubt anyone would say bees are using metacognition to make that conclusion.

Now, you could say "instinct" as in animals won't have a reason for what they do. They just act, and don't even know how to think about *why* they did something. While I do think metacognition is why humans can reason, I don't think investigating an animal's access to environmental location is going to be useful for anything new.

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Ditto Louie.


It's somewhat disappointing, as well, because I find it entirely plausible that Chimpanzees might be self-aware in a similar sense to the way we are.  A few other species (such as Dolphins and Elephants) I think are possible, but dubious; almost everything else on Earth is obviously not conscious.

So I find it rather disappointing because given the described experiment, the only conclusion we can draw with any sort of certainty is that when a Chimpanzee needs more information they will stop and look for it- there's no way of knowing what went on in their minds.


They may have thought to themselves "I don't know that; I need to go back and see" or, more like honeybees, they may have simply reacted to the missing information by instinctively going back and checking, without any conscious decisions whatsoever.


There's simply no evidence provided to support either possibility, at the moment.


That said- I really think that more needs to be done with sign language.  We can teach them to communicate and we want information about their minds; the method to retrieve that information seems inescapably obvious to me.

Edited by Harrison Danneskjold
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