Chimps and goal-based concepts

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Chapter 12 endnote 16, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

...the real test would be whether chimps would understand that a person running up a flight of stairs, ambling up a ladder, and crawling up a rock face all share the goal “To Climb.” That mental feat would show us that chimps really can go beyond physical similarities, grouping together instances of climbing that look very different but have a shared mental goal. [...] The default mode networks in human and chimp brains are similar in the brain regions that are connected to one another but not in the microscopic wiring.

The default mode networks in human and chimp brains look very similar, at least in terms of their large-scale features.[1][2] The wiring is more dense, however, in areas that expanded in humans relative to chimps. Regarding concept learning, chimps appear to have much more flexibility when compared to monkeys (i.e., chimps are not rigidly tethered to instances with physical similarities), but it is not clear that chimps can construct the kind of goal-based concepts that humans can, which are necessary for social reality. That doesn't mean humans are "better" than chimps, just that we are different. The human ability to create similarities among differences (i.e., to ignore detailed differences to find function-based similarities) might not be advantageous for chimps, given their ecological niche where they must forage for food and remember details.[3]

Chimps, the argument continues, can represent the actions of other chimps as intentional — in terms of a goal — as long they are competing. If you pair two chimps, one a test chimp and the other a competitor, and position the test chimp to see two pieces of food while the competitor can see only one, what will the test chimp do? It depends on the rank of the two chimps. If the test chimp is subordinate to the competitor, it goes for the hidden food, because it realizes that the competitor can't see the food. Alternatively, if the test animal is dominant, then it goes directly for the visible food to prevent the other chimp from getting it, knowing that the competitor can’t see the other food. But here’s the really cool thing: If the test chimp is subordinate and saw the dominant chimp view the hidden food only moments before, the test chimp does not go for the hidden food. Why? Because he understood that the dominant animal knew that the food was there![4] Chimps can also tell when a human experimenter intentionally refuses to share food versus when he fails to share by accident.

Chimps do not represent the intentions of others well during cooperation, however. It’s as if they are wired for competition, but not for cooperation, to reach common goals. If group living requires a balance between getting along and getting ahead, chimps appear to have solved only half the equation.

Bottom line: chimps understand that other chimps and humans have some kind of mind that can represent an action. What’s unclear is what kinds of features those representations contain. Can chimps take an intentional stance, understanding that actions are linked to mental events (i.e., thoughts and feelings)?[5] There are other aspects of mental inference representation we know for certain that chimps don’t do; they don’t understand that other creatures have false beliefs.[6]


Notes on the Notes

  1. Wey, Hsiao-Ying, Kimberley A. Phillips, D. Reese McKay, Angela R. Laird, Peter Kochunov, M. Duff Davis, David C. Glahn, Timothy Q. Duong, and Peter T. Fox. 2014. "Multi-region hemispheric specialization differentiates human from nonhuman primate brain function." Brain Structure and Function 219 (6): 2187-2194.
  2. Banks et al., 2013 [full reference to be provided]
  3. Matsuzawa, Tetsuro. 2010. “Cognitive Development in Chimpanzees: A Trade-Off Between Memory and Abstraction.” In The Making of Human Concepts, edited by Denis Mareschal, Paul C. Quinn, and Stephen E. G. Lea, 227–244. New York: Oxford University Press.. New York: Oxford University Press.
  4. Hare, Brian, Josep Call, and Michael Tomasello. 2001. "Do chimpanzees know what conspecifics know?" Animal Behaviour 61 (1): 139-151.
  5. Dennett, Daniel C. 1996. Towards an Understanding of Consciousness. New York: Basic.
  6. Hare, Brian. 2011. "From hominoid to hominid mind: what changed and why?" Annual Review of Anthropology 40: 293-309.