The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Chimps' maths skills rival humans'

Research conducted by Duke University, just published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Biology, establishes that chimpanzees are as accomplished at mental addition as are human subjects.

Again, like the previous research on memory conducted by the Japanese research team, written of in a prior post, I would like to point out that the human subjects were NOT average humans. They were Duke University college students - and so, presumably, are superior to a typical human. So, again, this is a comparison between two randomly selected laboratory chimps and a group of superior humans. The fact that the chimps performed similarly to the human subjects is, therefore, extremely telling in these circumstances.

Prior chimp research had already established that chimps had some number skill. Non-human primates are known to be able to match numbers of objects, compare numbers of objects, and choose the larger of two numbers. This piece of research, however, took a look at mental addition as a skill.

The chimps and human subjects were briefly shown two sets of dots and were asked to add them up. They were then shown two possible results and were asked to choose between them. The human subjects were not allowed to use their verbal skills to assist them. They were not allowed to count verbally (the chimps couldn't do this so a comparison would then not be fair), nor were they allowed to verbalize in any other way. They had to proceed as fast as possible to come to an assessment of the situation. Typically, both chimps and humans answered in less than 1 second.

Contrary to what you might expect, young adult students, with many years of exposure to maths, in school, were no better than the chimps at this task.

Both chimps and humans were rewarded for their participation - the chimps with their favourite drink, the humans with $10 a session.

Jessica Cantlon, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at Duke University observed that "It shows when you take language away from a human, they end up looking just like monkeys in terms of their performance." She further noted that: "I don't think language is the only thing that differentiates humans from non-human primates, but in terms of math tasks, it is probably the big one."

Two chimps participated in the experiment: Boxer and Feinstein. Fourteen Duke University students pitted their wits against the chimps - and didn't win.

So, in the past few weeks we have seen two sets of chimp vs human students experiments. The chimps won in one case and drew in the other. This should really give ammunition to those who are striving hard to preserve the populations of non-human primates all over the world. Many people do not realize that non-human primates are, in many places, endangered species. It is a pity to lose any of the diverse species of this world - but how much more of a pity is it, when we understand that such fellow beings share so many of what we once thought of as our unique gifts?

Humans are not the only primates skilled in memory. We are not even the best at it. Humans are not the only primates adept in maths - and we are no better than our chimp cousins (without the aid of language). We would do well to remember that and make a little bit more effort to preserve the diversity of life on our planet, for so much of it is being lost, before we even get a chance to understand what it is, what it can do, and how precious it is.

(If you would like to learn more of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and no months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, four years and five months, and Tiarnan, twenty-two months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, the Irish, the Malays, College, University, Chemistry, Science, genetics, left-handedness, precocity, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, gifted adults and gifted children in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 2:19 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Problem solving in chimps,stacking boxes to reach bananas,was first documented by Wolfgang Kohler around the time of World War 1.

In 1914 German psychologist Wolfgang Kohler was working at a primate research center on the Canary Islands.He presented his captive chimps with novel problems; often the pattern of solution suggested insight rather than trial and error.For instance,when Kohler first hung a bunch of bananas out of reach,the chimpanzee being observed made a few useless leaps, ten went off to a corner and "sulked."But in time he looked back at the bananas,then around the large outdoor enclosure at the various objects he had to play with,back to the bananas,back to 1 specific toy(a box),then ran directly to the box,dragged it under the fruit,climbed on top,and grabbed the prize.

In other variations the bananas were mounted higher,and the same pattern of seemingly sudden insight appeared,whether it involved stacking boxes,joining sticks to make a pole long enough to knock down the fruit or using a single stick from atop 1 box.Criticisms of Kohler's work focused on 2 important points:the prior experience of these wild-caught animals was unknown(so they might be remembering a solution they had learned in the wild),and lab-reared chimps spontaneously pile boxes(which they then climb and use as jumping platforms)and also fit sticks together to make poles.

Some adult chimps strip long twigs of leaves and insert them into the holes in termite mounds.When they withdraw the twig,they eat the termites that cling to it.Photos frequently show a younger chimp appearing to study the behavior before trying it.But observations of lab-born chimpanzees reveal that chimps in general are obsessed with putting long,thin objects into holes-pencils into electrical outlets,for instance.As with blue tits,the behavior seems to be innate,and only knowing the proper place to perform it need to be conditioned.

Can chimpanzees empathize?Some say yes,they pass the mirror test and are self-aware and thus can infer the states of mind of another individual,while some say maybe not-even though they pass it,they don't seem to conceive of others'-or even their own-mental states.

The cerebral cortex is the deeply convoluted surface region of the brain that is most strongly linked to intelligence.A human's cerebral cortex,if flattened,would cover 4 pages of typing paper;a chimp's would cover a postcard;a monkey's would cover a postcard;and a rat's would cover a postage stamp.

1:42 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thank you for your further insight into the abilities of chimps and our fellow animals.

The totality of evidence is definitely pointing the way to them possessing significant intelligence - even if their cortex is a lot smaller than ours. The question is: how much of a cortex does one need to be truly intelligent? The chimps seem to be doing very well in all these experiments despite having much smaller cortexes. They even beat humans on a memory task.

Perhaps they have even more surprises in store for us...and what about our other fellow animals: how intelligent are they and what can they do? We are only beginning to understand these matters, I feel.

Kind regards

3:00 PM  
Blogger EbTech said...

A lesson we can draw from these recent studies is the extent to which we had historically underestimated the intelligence of our fellow animals, and even infants of our own kind. Since they cannot talk, it takes a fair bit of cleverness to observe their intelligence. If only chimps could speak... they are said to show remarkable communication skills in sign language!

I would like to see more studies done on the higher order cognitive abilities of great apes. Memory and arithmetic is impressive and all, but these are not the abilities which truly define an advanced intelligence; in fact, computers far surpass us at these tasks.

10:17 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Maths skills don't define a HUMAN intelligence...but you know what, EbTech, they might define a MACHINE intelligence, in times to come.

Yes. More studies need to be done on the great apes - and not just them: how about the cetaceans? I think they are rather smarter than we would hazard, too. Then there are ravens and octopi...we are NOT alone.

Best wishes.

11:00 AM  
Blogger EbTech said...

Math and arithmetic are not the same... at its core, mathematics is a system of logical deduction. Math problems typically require higher-order reasoning and creative abilities to solve. Mathematicians MUST be creative because all of the non-creative work is now done by computers. Incidentally, do you know the origin of the word "computer"?
My professor once described math as the restricted domain of knowledge which we can prove with absolute certainty.

Which sense of "math" are you referring to with regards to defining machine intelligence? Computer science itself is often considered a branch of mathematics. Programming instructions can be seen as mathematical statements with well-defined logical meanings. Unlike most sciences which borrow mathematical concepts merely as tools, theoretical computer science IS a kind of math.

Re other animals: I wonder where the common belief that dolphins are the second smartest species originated from? They are anatomically very different from primates, so they lack the physical means to control objects as we do. Therefore, it would be difficult to make an accurate comparison. Octopi are interesting; I once read a description of their cool, calmly calculative intelligence which is rather devoid of emotion.

Human intelligence is greatly magnified by our advanced language, which allows us to build knowledge over generations. This is probably the skill in which we excel the most as a species; thus, the creative output of past generations can be kept forever. People often forget that most of the things currently separating us from other animals (i.e. modern technology) were formed over thousands of years and are well beyond the abilities of an average individual.

1:27 PM  
Blogger EbTech said...

Some other impressive animals:

1:51 PM  
Blogger Syahidah and Valentine said...

It is an awkward truth that the average individual human is not a very capable animal at all...not really. Like you say, a typical person relies on all that has gone before, worked out by others and adds little or nothing (usually nothing) themselves.

Were other animals similarly able to record their thoughts, I am sure that we would have some interesting companions on this planet.

Re. Dolphins. Their BEHAVIOUR seems very intelligent. They don't need to manipulate something with hands they don't have, to show that. You just need to put them in a problem solving situation and you will find them remarkably intelligent. Have you ever been to Sea World in Florida...their shows alone are an eye-opener re. cetaceans, if you have never seen them perform before.

Elephants too seem pretty damn smart...I saw a performing youngster in Thailand. The big baby was painting!

I am sure machines can be developed with a mathematical intelligence (general problem solving) greater than our own. It is just a matter of time.

I agree that maths is a creative pursuit in its high forms. However, at school, in most places, it is incredibly far from being creative. That puts many potential mathematicians off, I think.

3:33 PM  
Blogger EbTech said...

We have a sort of first mover advantage, making it quite a challenge for other animals to develop their own technological civilization for as long as we continue to hold a monopoly on resources...

If dolphins really are smarter than chimpanzees, are we sure they are not also smarter than us?? That would be interesting... most people are too uncomfortable with the idea to even consider the possibility. For reasons of evolutionary history and biology, I believe us hominids are currently the smartest, but we must not assume it will always be so! Nor does this necessarily make us "superior". I wonder what chimps think of our abilities.

On the grand universal scale, I suppose the disparity between us and other mammals is rather insignificant. There is a concept called Sentience Quotient which provides a new perspective, as it can be used to approximately measure any computational entity. Humans have an SQ of +13 (I believe this is an underestimate given our history of underestimating biology), other animals are only slightly below us, plants are at -2, and the theoretical limit is said to be around +50. Would a +50 being think less of us than we think of a clump of grass??!?

Re math at schools: you are right. My 10th grade brother recently brought home an assignment in which he was asked to find the 5th root of 243... by calculator no less! This is why I really like mathematics competitions. For most students, it is the closest they will ever come to experiencing "real" math. Incidentally, a professor yesterday revealed to me that very few students decide to enter mathematics in their 1st year at university. In order to give students a chance to enter in 2nd year, the department intentionally limits the 1st year requirements to calculus, which all scientists would be taking anyway.

12:40 AM  
Blogger Syahidah and Valentine said...

Hmm...I wonder what Mankind would make of an SQ +50 superbeing? Would we have any way of understanding what it was or could do or be?

In Man's present state I rather hope we don't meet one soon.

Thanks for the link.

Yes, re. resources for a high-tech civilization - but other creatures could build a low-tech one (though no doubt some people would want to interfere with that). There would, of course, be ethical questions of allocation of resources to a competing sentient species. Past history of Man is not encouraging about what might happen.

Have a Merry Xmas, EbTech (though you might not actively celebrate it...enjoy it nevertheless.)

10:47 PM  
Blogger EbTech said...

Merry Christmas! May the New Decade be a happy time for you and your family. :D

I recall reading some incredible predictions about 2010 during childhood. It is interesting to reflect on those now. These are all taken from one book, followed by my reflections:

- Solar powered homes: they exist, but not yet common
- Wall-hung HD colour displays: YES!
- Electronic newspapers, paintings, and notebooks as readable as paper: sort of... the web provides news; software is used to create certain kinds of art; e-paper and Amazon Kindle come closer to imitating the feel of paper
- Hand videophone: sounds like iPhone!
- Home shopping via Internet: anyone?
- Artificial blood and ears: not quite, but some progress made in the form of blood substitutes and cochlear implants
- Full personal medical records stored on smart card: no, but the technology exists and is cheap
- Hydraulic chair for virtual reality games: not common, but it exists; Nintendo Wii introduced a new physical dimension; I can't wait for head tracking to become implemented
- Electronic addiction becomes a problem: yes unfortunately
- Tactile sensors comparable to human sensation: almost
- Global electronic currency: not quite, but Euros and electronic payment are steps in that direction
- Determination of whole human DNA base sequence: YES!
- Robotized space vehicles and facilities: YES!
- Firefighting search-and-rescue robots: gradually becoming more common
- Smart clothes that can alter their thermal properties: they exist, but not common
- Housework robots to fetch, carry, clean, tidy, and organize by 2011: not likely, but products such as the iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaning AI are starting to become affordable.

The same book makes the following predictions for 2020: multilayer solar cells with efficiency greater than 50%, robotic security and fire guards, nanobots roaming in blood vessels under own power, robotic pets, electronic shopping dominant, first human landing on Mars, 3-D videoconferencing, genetic links of all diseases identified, artificial lungs, kidneys, and brain cells, and cars that drive themselves on smart highways.

5:31 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hi EbTech,

The predictions for 2010 were pretty good...leaving out the economic factors (rare/expensive)...but I am not sure about 2020: those predictions seem a bit ahead of the game - at least the problems they address seem more complex. Maybe I will prove to be pessimistic, but I don't think so (especially the one about man on Mars...I don't think so).

Have a great year ahead EbTech!

9:44 AM  

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