A few things to consider about assessing cognition…

All of you addressed either the domains in which we study cognition (technical, ecological, social), and/or the types of tasks that we use to examine cognition in primates. However, everyone’s discussions on cognition largely remained within the primatological box. While that is understandably our focus, considering how we can assess cognition in non-primates can help us develop better ways of both understanding and assessing cognition in primates.

One of our most consistent findings is that chimpanzees perform best on cognitive tasks. They are also the more proficient tool-users. Does this mean that chimpanzees are the smartest non-human primate? Or does it mean, instead, that chimpanzees perform best on the tasks we present them, and in the domains we value (particular technical intelligence) because they are so similar to us? One of the problems in designing cognitive studies is that we are biased toward thinking in terms of human cognition. In most cases, this isn’t a huge problem from measuring cognitive abilities in apes, or even primates in general. However, it becomes a problem in assessing cognition in other species–and I think it may also hold us back from recognizing and examining some cognitive strengths in primates that are more reliant on olfactory communication.

This is most clear when we consider socially complex species that are VERY different from us–the social insects. One of the most interesting things we see in social insects is the waggle dance in honey bees.

Just by watching that (without the appropriate explanation of the what each component means) would you consider that a major cognitive achievement? To us, it generally looks like a bee wiggling. But to the bees, their communicating some very complex information. They are communicating the direction of the food sources, relative to the sun’s current position. They are also communicating the distance of the food sources from the hive. They are even communicating how rich/exciting/delicious the food source is. Although this is debated (see a full discussion at here), it is arguably the only non-human language that we know of (thus far). But it would be very easy for us to overlook (and still somewhat easy for us to dismiss) because the mode of communication is very different from our own. Similarly, ants exhibit many aspects of complex behavior. Tool use has been documented in ants. They will rescue nestmates. Some even engage in agriculture.

I think we can say that ants and bees are cognitively complex, and thus “smart.” But how smart? How do we measure and rate their intelligence compared to primates? This is even harder to than trying to design studies to assess specific cognitive abilities… because in some sense, comparing such different organisms with different abilities is comparing apples and oranges.

How does this relate back to primate cognition? First, its important to question how our obviously human-oriented biases may cause us to overlook some types of cognition or communication, our over-prioritize the types of cognition and communication we excel at. Second, I think this is especially important to consider for primates that engage in olfactory communication, and we need to start developing better methods to test and utilize olfactory information in assessing cognitive abilities.

Bee References

The Honeybee Waggle Dance: Is it a Language?

The Honeybee Dance Language

Ant References

Agriculture in Ants and Humans

 Nowbahari E, Scohier A, Durand J-L, Hollis KL (2009) Ants, Cataglyphis cursor, Use Precisely Directed Rescue Behavior to Free Entrapped Relatives. PLoS ONE 4(8): e6573. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0006573. < http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0006573>




About Dr. Michelle A. Rodrigues

I am a primatologist/biological anthropologist who studies comparative social behavior and endocrinology. My dissertation research focused on stress and friendship in female spider monkeys. Most of my graduate research was conducted at El Zota Biological Field Station, with a little help from the spider monkeys at Brookfield Zoo, IL. I have also studied howler monkeys, rhesus monkeys, bonobos, and chimpanzees, as well as participated in studies on gorillas, pachyderms, and big cats. Currently, I am a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois, where I am examining how female friendship and social support mediate stressors experienced by teenager girls and female scientists. I've taught courses in introductory biological anthropology, world prehistory, and co-instructed a field course in primate behavior and conservation at El Zota. I love teaching about primates and evolution!
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