When I was a child, more years ago that I care to remember, despite Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, we were brought up on the idea that human beings were set apart from the other animals. That we were, in fact, the most intelligent of species at the top of the evolutionary tree. At which point, a quote from, I believe from Mao Tse Tung when asked what he thought about western civilisation, is reported to have replied “It’s too soon to say”. One which is only bettered by a reputed response from Mahatma Gandhi to the same question, that he thought that “It would be a good idea.” Anyway, already I digress from the point, which is “Is our uniqueness not absolute but rather a matter of degree?”
Now anyone who has ever watched almost any of David Attenborough’s wildlife programmes will have seen how much ingenuity many of the other species exhibit. And that’s before we consider how similar our behaviour is to our nearest living relatives. Yes, I’ve watched programmes that demonstrated how amazing are octopi and ones where members of the crow family exhibit a capacity to solve problems that are, shall we just say, quite a degree of intellect. Yet, what was shown was their skill in solving what you could call “technical” problems; the ability to find a way out of a maze or get food from a deep container of water (fill it with stones so that the food rises, if you’re interested).
Well, an article in today’s copy of The Guardian described something on a very different level, what is called cultural intelligence among Long Tailed Macaques in Bali. After spending nine months filming them, researchers have found that they seem to have become expert at evaluating those items that tourists value most in the form of mobile phones, wallets and glasses and targeting these. “So what?” you might say. Well, here’s the interesting part. The researchers discovered that the Macaques actually bargained for greater rewards, eg more food, for the return of items that were seen as more valuable. In one case, it took 25 minutes for an item to be returned after 17 minutes of “negotiation”. Moreover, as these were feral animals, they have learnt this behaviour through from their elders. “Planet of the Apes”, anyone?