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Self Awareness In Primates: Fact Or Fiction

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The author focuses on determining whether primates are capable of self-awareness. An article is reviewed and evaluated encompassing different points of view and theories. Learned recognition and self-awareness is compared and discussed.

Self-awareness in Primates: Fact or Fiction

Learning is "a change in behavior due to experience" (Chance, 2003, p. 36). Learning allows an organism to modify its behavior to suit a particular situation. It is a mechanism by which one copes with the ever-changing environment. Anything an organism does that can be measured is behavior (Chance, 2003). Organisms change their behavior to fit environmental changes; this is a learning process, it provides a means to modify our physical environment for example, changing climate by controlling it, or cooking and chemically changing food. These acts are not due to heredity, they are a result of learning (Chance, 2003).

It has been proven that chimpanzees and humans share 99.4 % of their DNA, making their genetic makeup very similar. Chimpanzees have large brains which are thought to be paired with higher intelligence since it has been proven that smaller brain sizes demonstrate lower intelligence (Schmid, 2003).

Gordon Gallup (1979) sought to discover the answer to a question that Darwin would respond negatively to; do animals have a sense of self awareness? Darwin would say that we are fundamentally different from other animals. One assumption was that man was unique from other animals because of the use of tools. However, as noted by Gallup (1979) Jane Goodall discovered that chimpanzees used twigs as tools for reaching food that they could otherwise get to. Chance (2003) states "reinforcement is the procedure of providing consequences for a behavior that increases or maintain the strength of that behavior" (p.141). The chimpanzees had the novel thought of using a twig to reach ants that were inside a tree trunk. They strengthened or increased their behavior of using a twig to acquire food because this brought about positive consequences, i.e. food. As noted by Chance (2003) Thorndike compared operant learning to natural selection. Those behaviors that are useful survive, those that are not, die out.

It has been proven that chimpanzees can grasp the basic idea of language. According to Rumbaugh (1995), recent studies show that apes can come to understand the syntax of human speech comparable to that of a 2-1/2 year old child if they are reared in a language structured environment from birth. The ape first acquires language through comprehension and then through expression. This is the same course taken for a child. The acquisition of language structures by apes suggests that they are competent for reasoning. They are capable of experiencing among others, pain, happiness, and sorrow thus, they can experience various dimensions of being, that is, awareness.

Wynne (1999) however, believes otherwise. He discredits animals of having consciousness, which is evidenced as possessing language, self-awareness and theory of mind. He notes that Terrace of Columbia University thought that a chimpanzee could learn sign language by simply exposing him to a community of people using it. Learning did not occur unless Terrace paired the learning with treats. Skinner, as noted by Chance (2003), advocated that "verbal behavior is to be understood in terms of functional relationships between it and environmental events" (p.230). Terrace's chimpanzee was only performing and learning those signs, which offered rewards. Wynne (1999) also discredits Gallup's work that used the mirror test to observe evidence of self awareness, claiming that some people cannot recognize themselves in a mirror but are aware of themselves, as is the case with the blind. In addition, autistic people can recognize themselves in a mirror but have a hard time being self-aware. As for theory of mind, the understanding that other individuals have both thoughts and mental states, Povinelli experimented with a chimpanzee named Sheba. Having a series of cups just out of Sheba's sight, Povinelli placed food under one of the cups. He then had another person come into the room. Both people pointed to a cup. The hypothesis was if Sheba possessed theory of mind she would know that the person who entered the room after the food was placed under a cup would not know where the food was. Thus, she would point to the cup the person who put the food under cup was pointing to. This, in fact, did occur but only after hundreds of training sessions. This suggests that Sheba gradually learned the association between a stimulus (the experimenter) and a reward (the food under a cup) (Wynne, 1999). This is a very good example of Pavlovian conditioning in which the pairing of a US (the food) and CS (the experimenter pointing to the cup with the food) produce a CR (picking the right cup to get the food). This experiment illustrates that Sheba learned to pick the right cup but does this mean that she possesses theory of mind as well?

On the contrary, researchers have found that chimps may possess theory of mind. Because chimps forage for food and have very defined rules as to who eats first, the researchers devised an experiment to see whether one chimp could tell what the other chimp was seeing and, thus thinking. Three opaque cages were set up, two with chimps in it, the middle one with two pieces of food. The cage doors were open just enough so that the chimps could see the food and could see one another eyeing the food. Only the dominant chimp sought out the food when the cage doors were fully opened. An expected behavior. The researchers then placed a barrier so that the dominant chimp could only see one piece of food while the other chimp could see both pieces of food as well as see that the dominant chimp could only see one piece of food. This time the subordinate chimp took the piece of food that the dominant chimp could not see suggesting that it knew that the dominant chimp was unaware of its existence (Pennisi, 1999). In order for an animal to have consciousness, that is, be self-aware, it must possess theory of mind. Does this mean that animals like the great apes possess self-awareness?

If animals, namely great apes, are thought to possess consciousness and therefore, awareness, could they recognize themselves in a mirror? Chance (2003) states that self awareness is observing one's own behavior and having the ability to view one's behavior one can make appropriate choices depending on the situation. Self-awareness, in simple form,



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