Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Sophisticated Anthropocentrism

Recent research on animal cognition suggests that chimps and humans may have different learning mechanism. A New York Times essay, "Children Learn by Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don't," details research findings that suggest humans learn by imitation, whereas chimps learn by focusing on goals, and ignoring unnecessary actions.
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Beyond the clever but unfortunate title (chimpanzees aren't monkeys. They're apes, like us) this is an interesting discovery, made even more interesting by its conclusion. Uncovering this cognitive difference between chimps and humans suggests an immediate and highly anthropocentric conclusion: that imitation, once thought to be "a simple, primitive action compared with figuring out the intentions of others," is actually a much more sophisticated and complex behavior than initially thought. Why? Because humans do it, and chimps don't - and humans are more complex and sophisticated than chimps.

I know I'm only going to get myself into hot water here. I haven't reviewed either the original paper or the follow-up research, and I doubt if I could understand them even if I did. Nevertheless, I'm skeptical of a conclusion that immediately attaches the label of "sophisticated," simply because it crops up in Homo sapiens and not in our nearest relatives. Recently evolved? Sure. Sophisticated? Perhaps.

And, as a final thought, I find the sophistication conclusion problematic on another level. Whether or not over-imitation represents a form of evolutionary and cognitive sophistication or not, the labeling of a behavior as "sophisticated" implies, at least in common parlance, an increased refinement and worldliness. So does that suggest that imitation is better than ends-driven reasoning? While it may be more commonplace, if I was forced to choose I'd side with the chimps.

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