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Apes May Be More Like Us Than We Thought

Konrad Wothe
Getty Images

Suppose I take the candy from the cabinet where you left it and put it someplace else. Where will you look for it when you get home?

Children younger than 5 will rarely get this right. When questioned, they will say, mistakenly, that you will look for the candy at its new location. They don't understand that your actions will be controlled by your false belief that the candy is where you left it. The "false belief" test suggests kids haven't yet come to appreciate that people are distinct subjectivities whose actions and decisions will be governed by particular narrow and sometimes mistaken points of view.

But it has been demonstrated (for example, here) that children are actually much more sensitive to the way even false beliefs will guide behavior than their failure to pass the so-called "false belief test" would suggest. If you measure not what they say, but what they do, in particular, where they look, it turns out that they are able to anticipate that you will look for the candy where you mistakenly believe it still is.

We now know the same is true of apes. In a study published last week in Science, researchers at Duke University and the University of Kyoto used similar anticipatory looking paradigms to probe the understanding of chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans. As with infants, it turns out that apes expect you to look where you think the goods are located even when they know perfectly well that the goods in question are not where you think they are. They are able to differentiate how you take things to be, from how they are — and to appreciate that it is the former, not the latter, that governs what you are likely to do.

Apes, like very young infants, understand subjectivity and the limits of perspective. They understand, at least in an implicit, nonverbal way, that a person, or another ape, is present in the world not just as a thing, buffeted this way and that by events, but as an agent whose actions take their start not only in desires, curiosities and lusts, but in fallible belief and imperfect understanding.

The experiments reported are simple. In one variation — you can see what's going on here — an ape watches a video of a person in an ape costume ("King Kong") who removes a bit of treasure from a person's hands and conceals it in a box. When the person is out of the room, King Kong switches boxes. Where does the ape-viewer think the person will turn to recover his treasure? The ape's eye-movements clearly indicate that he anticipates that the man will try to recover his lost goods from the original location.

Now you might be forgiven for asking: Did it really take until 2016 to establish that apes have what is sometimes called " theory of mind" — an awareness that the actions of others flow from what they think and want? If you've ever seen a nature special, you know that predators try to keep out of sight precisely because they know that if their prey sees them they'll take to the wind. Doesn't that show a lively sensitivity to point of view and, indeed, to the value of false beliefs about, for example, one's security?

But animal science is a conservative field and it has held fast to the null hypothesis that, in the absence of direct evidence to the contrary, animals don't think or feel and they certainly don't think or feel much about the thoughts and feelings of others. I discussed a curious example of this here a few years ago. Scientists at Queen's University Belfast showed that crabs will avoid a location when they have received electric shocks there in the past. Does this show that crabs feel pain? Paul Hunt, a biologist at the University of Leicester, expressed skepticism in The Guardian: "I don't think you can really say scientifically that animals, like a crab, can be aware of a sensation that we know as pain ... we just don't know."

Be that as it may, the last few decades have seen more and more evidence piling up in favor of animal mind, feeling and intelligence. And the recent finding that apes can, in fact, pass an implicit version of the false belief test is, I think, just another brick in the edifice of a more reasonable conception of animals as, in more and more ways, like us.

Christoper Kupenye, the first author of the study, then at Duke and now at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, was quoted in Duke University press materials as saying, of the apes in his studies: "We offer them a little day at the movies. They really seem to enjoy it."

I wonder if we're missing the real story: Apes enjoy movies!

Consider: The researchers investigate the sensitivity of apes to the minds of others not by examining how they respond to real situations, or even how they respond to staged situations, but rather by looking at how they respond to films of staged situations.

There would seem to be two possibilities. Either the apes are fooled and take themselves to be actually witnessing the filmed events. This seems unlikely. But if they are not fooled, if they appreciate that this is play or fiction or story-time, then that would suggest even more remarkable and indeed human-like powers of imagination and comprehension. Passing the false-belief task, in comparison, is small potatoes.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest,Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter:

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.