A skeptic's progress

Biology and Philosophy 17 (5):695-702 (2002)
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Seven chimpanzees in twenty-seven experiments run over the course of five years at his University of Louisiana laboratory in New Iberia, Louisiana, are at the heart of Daniel Povinelli’s case that chimpanzee thinking about the physical world is not at all like that of humans. Chimps, according to Povinelli and his coauthors James Reaux, Laura Theall, and Steve Giambrone, are phenomenally quick at learning to associate visible features of tools with specific uses of those tools, but they appear to lack cognitive access to forces and other invisible causal features of those tools. Povinelli’s chimps appar- ently rely on a trial-and-error strategy to learn whether a particular tool is suitable for a particular task, and and having mastered one task they appear unable to generalize to other tasks on the basis of tool properties that are not directly visible. Thus, for instance, Povinelli’s research subjects did not immediately recognize that a tool that had been demonstrated to be non- rigid would be unsuitable for dragging a piece of food towards them. When presented with a choice between a rigid, T-shaped “rake” that they had used many times previously and a rake with non-rigid arms, Povinelli and Reaux found, over the course of eight trials, that their chimps chose the non-rigid rake as frequently as they chose the rigid one (experiment 9, chapter 7).



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Colin Allen
University of Pittsburgh