Apes Show Signs of Mentally Planning Ahead

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Chimps and orangutans are capable of sophisticated “mental time travel,” reports LiveScience on research at Lund University in Sweden.

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  • LiveScience: “Like Humans, Other Apes Plan Ahead”

Researchers Mathias and Helena Osvath experimented with two female chimps and one orangutan at the Lund University Primate Research Station to determine if they were able to postpone gratification for the sake of greater future benefits. The apes were taught to use a hose to extract fruit soup. Afterward, the apes were given their favorite fruit alongside the hose to see if they would choose the immediate reward (their favorite fruit) or the later, larger payoff they could get using the hose (the fruit soup).

The apes more frequently controlled themselves and chose to use the hose to receive the larger payoff later on. This shows, according to the Osvaths, that they are capable of planning (in a way) for the future—or “mental time travel,” the Osvaths say.

Although such ability to plan ahead, postpone gratification, and “imagine future events” may exist in crows as well, notes the article, this is the first time non-humans have been conclusively shown to engage in advanced planning. The Osvaths report:

This suggests that the advanced mental capacities utilized in human future planning are shared by phylogenetically more ancient species than previously believed. . . . [C]apacities central to humans evolved much earlier than previously believed.

Hence we end up with media reports that “[c]himps and orangutans plan for the future just like us”—just like us! Interestingly, one commenter on the LiveScience article asks rhetorically, “Don’t squirrels bury their nuts?’; also, dogs burying bones and birds ferrying worms to their young also come to mind as forms of animal planning. Yet apparently these examples fail to fit the evolutionary stereotype of apes as “just like us,” and thus—once again—we read of an experiment that began with evolutionary presuppositions and produced results that are interpreted as support for evolution. It’s even less surprising, in fact, when we read that the research was partially funded by the European Union’s SEDSU project—Stages in the Evolution and Development of Sign Use.

Apes are incredible creatures, and research into animal behavior and intellect has revealed that in many ways animal minds aren’t so different from our own. Yet, not being made in God’s image, animals have a clearly separate role from humankind. Without the adulteration of evolutionary theory, we would be more free to accurately understand the true nature and origin of animal behavior.

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