Baboons Show Signs of Abstract Thought, a Human Trait

Evansville (Kentucky) Courier & Press
October 15, 2001

In a finding that has surprised researchers, baboons in laboratory experiments showed hints of abstract thinking by picking out various images on a computer screen. The discovery raises new questions about evolution and what distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.

The scientists in France and the United States who reported the results cautioned against reading too much into the findings at this stage of the research because only two baboons participated in the comparative tests and both were veterans of earlier cognitive experiments.

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

The researchers said the results suggest nonetheless that 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."

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