Baboons, smarter than you thought.

mhonan at mhonan at
Mon Oct 15 12:47:18 EDT 2001

Lab tests suggest baboons share intelligence traits with humans, chimpanzees
Sunday, October 14, 2001
©2001 Associated Press


(10-14) 22:08 PDT (AP) --

Baboons in laboratory experiments showed hints of abstract thinking 
by picking out various images on a computer screen, a surprising 
finding that raises new questions about evolution and what 
distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Scientists in France and the United States cautioned that only two 
baboons participated in the comparative tests, and those monkeys were 
veterans of earlier cognitive experiments.

And, the baboons had to repeat the tests thousands of times to learn 
how sets of images were the same or different.

Even so, researchers said, the results suggest baboons are capable of 
analogical judgment -- the kind of "this-is-to-that" comparisons that 
psychologists say is fundamental to reasoning.

Previously, chimpanzees were the only non-human primates to 
demonstrate similar skills in experiments. Baboons are Old World 
monkeys that split from humans and apes on the primate family tree 30 
million years ago.

"Although discriminating the relation between relations may not be an 
intellectual forte of baboons, it nevertheless is within their ken," 
reported Joel Fagot of the Center for Research in Cognitive 
Neuroscience in Marseille, France.

Fagot's research, with Edward Wasserman and Michael E. Young of the 
University of Iowa, was published in the October issue of the Journal 
of Experimental Psychology.

Other researchers said the finding is important because it shows that 
understanding the relationships between things -- what is the same 
and what is different -- does not necessarily require language to 
identify or describe them.

The experiment holds "clear implications for understanding the 
evolution of the mind," said psychologist Kimberly Kirkpatrick of the 
University of York in England, who was not involved in the experiment 
but reviewed the findings.

"The baboon's ability to match relations may be a precursor to human 
analogical thinking," Kirkpatrick said. "Studying the cognitive 
abilities in non-humans is analogous to using the fossil record to 
construct the course of evolution in the body."

In the experiments, researchers showed baboons, one male and one 
female, sets of 16 images. One image set comprised rows of little 
pictures -- the sun, a light bulb, a brain, a hand. Another set 
repeated the same image -- all telephones, for example.

One image or set of images was shown, and the baboons had to pick 
images similar to or different from those shown, depending on the 
test. Using a computer joystick, the baboons had 10 seconds to move 
the computer cursor to images on the screen.

When the baboons made a correct choice they would hear a high musical 
tone and be rewarded with a banana-flavored food pellet. Incorrect 
choices were met with a low tone and a 7-second time out, then the 
test would be repeated.

The baboons needed as many as 700 trials before they would 
consistently distinguish between the two image sets, the researchers 

Subsequent tests added new image sets -- some with variety (clock, 
brain, hand, triangle) others repeating the same image (all flowers). 
The baboons had to sift through the new images alongside the sets 
they already had learned.

For example, in early tests, a task might be to match the sets of 
all-flower images. But in more advanced tests, baboons might be shown 
a set of all-flower images, then shown a set of all-triangles and 
sets containing a variety of images.

The correct answer? Flowers and triangles. It wasn't important to 
match the actual images. The abstract lesson was to find like sets.

In these experiments, the baboons needed as many as 7,000 tries 
before they could perform the tests with 80 percent accuracy.

Humans who took the same tests were able to master them in 100 tries 
or less, they said.

Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky, who has studied wild baboons in 
Africa for 23 years, said the monkeys might have demonstrated sharper 
intellect if the tests had used items that were important to baboons' 

"The learning would take place even faster if they had been shown 
pictures of the foods that baboons eat, pictures of different members 
of the baboon troop, pictures of different predators," Sapolsky said.

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