Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Time out of mind

A fascinating article by Carl Zimmer is reposted from the NYT at RichardDawkins.net on the topic of animals, memory and foresight. It's well worth reading.

An excerpt:

"We tested squirrel monkeys to see if they could anticipate the future, and to our surprise it looks like they could," said Dr. William Roberts, a comparative psychologist at the University of Western Ontario. He and his colleagues ran a test in which they offered squirrel monkeys a choice between one piece of date or four. Not surprisingly, the monkeys took four.

But the scientists then began to take away water from the monkeys before they offered the choice. If the monkeys took four pieces, the scientists kept the water away for three hours. If the monkeys took one, the scientists returned the water in half an hour. The monkeys learned to choose one date. Even though they were not thirsty at the time, they anticipated becoming thirsty in the future. (If the scientists stopped withholding water, the monkeys went back to picking four pieces of dates instead of one.)

Smart monkeys.

What strikes me, as it so often does with articles like this, is what seems to be increasing evidence that the characteristics that we take as so fundamentally human (like morality) are shared--at least in more rudimentary forms--with other animals.

And this is something I find not only fascinating, but also deeply moving.

(For a more extended discussion of this topic, see primatologist Frans de Waal's excellent book, The Ape and the Sushi Master. )

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