NOT A CHIMP

NOT A CHIMP
Click on the cover to link to OUP's e-catalogue then turn to the biology section.

Interview Podcast with George Miller

Interview Podcast with George Miller
Click on the pic to link to the NOT A CHIMP podcast on Blackwell's Website

Preface to "Not A Chimp: The Hunt For The Genes That Make Us Human"

In many ways, this book is born out of frustration for a professional career in popular science television where ideas about comparative primate cognition, and the similarities and differences between us and our primate relatives, have continually circled me but constantly evaded my grasp in terms of the opportunity to transform them into science documentary. On the plus side, keeping a watching brief for over a quarter of a century on subjects like comparative animal cognition and evolution allows you to watch a great deal of water flow under the bridge. Fashions come and fashions go - specifically, perspectives on the similarity - or otherwise - of human and ape minds.

I remember the first Horizon science documentary about the chimpanzee Washoe, the great ape communicator, using American Sign Language to bridge the species barrier. And, later, Kanzi the bonobo jabbing his lexicon. These were the apes, as Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has put it, that were "on the brink of the human mind".

I remember when the pre-print of Machiavellian Intelligence, by Andrew Whiten and Dick Byrne, plopped onto the doormat of the BBC Antenna science series office in 1988. Suddenly primatology had become a great deal more exciting. Could primates, and especially higher primates like chimpanzees, really be as full of guile, as dastardly, as cunning, and as manipulative as the eponymous Florentine politician? Could they really reach deep into the minds of other individuals to see what they believed and what they wanted, and turn that information into deception?

I remember discussing primate cognition with a young Danny Povinelli, as we sat finger-feeding ourselves shrimp gumbo and new potatoes out of plastic Tupperware containers in a Lafayette restaurant surrounded by an alligator-infested moat, before returning to his kingdom - the New Iberia Research Centre - where the University of Louisiana had lured him back to his native deep South by turning a chimpanzee breeding centre for medical laboratory fodder into a primate cognition laboratory with one of the largest groups of captive chimpanzees in the country. He looked like a kid who had just been thrown the keys to the tuck shop.

In those days Povinelli shared the zeitgeist - spread by Whiten's and Byrne's work, and started by Nick Humphrey and Alison Jolly before them - that, since the most exacting and potentially treacherous environment faced by chimpanzees and other primates was not physical, but the social environment of their peers, they had evolved a form of social cognition very much like our own, in order to deal with it. This was further elaborated into a full-blown "social brain" hypothesis by Robin Dunbar, who related brain neocortex size to social group size throughout the primates and up to man. Povinelli's early work reflects this optimism for the mental life of apes, but both ape-language and ape-cognition research was subjected to a cold douche of searching criticism during the 1990s, and misgivings set in regarding the effectiveness of the experiments that had been constructed to guage ape cognition. Now the worm has turned again, with a number of research groups emerging with bolder and bolder claims for the Machiavellian machinations of primate minds, only to be powerfully countered by the curmudgeonly skepticism, chiefly by Povinelli, that these researchers are merely projecting their mental life onto that of their subjects; that, rather in the frustrating manner of Zeno's arrow that could never quite reach its target because it continually halved its distance to it, no experiment constructed thus far can actually get inside the mind of a chimp and show us exactly what it does and doesn't know, or how much, about the minds of others or the way the physical world works. One influential part of the world of comparative animal cognition talks of a continuum between ape and human minds and shrinks the cognitive distance between us and chimps to almost negligible proportions, while another returns us to the unfashionable idea that human cognition is unique, among the primates, after all.

When I began writing this book the working title was "The 1.6% that makes us human". My aim had always been to scrutinize the impression put about in the popular science media that humans and chimps differ by a mere 1.6% in our genetic code - or even less - and that it therefore makes complete sense that this minuscule genetic difference translates into equally small differences in cognition and behaviour between apes and man. However, contemporary genome science and technology, over the last few years, have dramatically advanced the power and resolution with which scientists can investigate genomes, eclipsing the earlier days of genomic investigation that gave rise to the "1.6% mantra".

As with comparative cognitive studies, conclusions on chimp-human similarity and difference in genome research depend crucially on perspective. To look at the complete set of human chromosomes, side by side with chimpanzee chromosomes, at the level of resolution of a powerful light microscope, for instance, is to be overwhelmed by the similarity between them. Overwhelmed with a sense of how close our kinship is with the other great apes. True, our chromosome 2 is a combination of two chimp chromosomes - giving humans a complement of 23 chromosome pairs to 24 in chimps, gorillas and orang-utans - but even here you can see exactly where the two chimp chromosomes have fused to produce one. The banding patterns you visualize by staining the chromosomes match up with astonishing similarity - and that banding similarity extends to many of the other chromosomes in the two genomes. However, look at a recent map of the chromosomes of chimps and humans, aligned side by side, produced by researchers who have mapped all inversions - end-on-end flips of large chunks of DNA - and the chromosomes are all but blotted out by a blizzard of red lines denoting inverted sequence. Now you become overwhelmed by how much structural change has occurred between the two genomes in just 6 million years. True, not all inversions result in changes in the working of genes - but many do - and inversions might even have been responsible for the initial divergence of chimp ancestor from human ancestor.

The extent to which you estimate the difference between chimp and human genomes depends entirely on where you look and how deeply. Modern genomics technology has led us deep into the mine that is the genome and has uncovered an extraordinary range of genetic mechanisms, many of which have one thing in common. They operate to promote variability - they amplify differences between individuals in one species. We now know, for instance, that each human is less genetically identical to anyone else than we thought only three years ago. When we compare human genomes to chimpanzee genomes these mechanisms magnify genetic distance still further. I have tried, in this book, to follow in the footsteps of these genome scientists as they dig deeper and deeper into the "Aladdin's Cave" of the genome. At times the going gets difficult. Scientists, like any explorers, are prone to taking wrong turnings, getting trapped in thickets, and covering hard ground, before breaking through into new insights. I hope that those of you who recoil from genetics with all the visceral horror with which many regard the sport of pot-holing will steel yourselves and follow me as far as I have dared to go into Aladdin's Cave. For only then will you see the riches within and begin to appreciate, as I have, just how limited popular accounts of human-chimpanzee genetic difference really are. Let me try and persuade you that this is a journey, if a little arduous at times, that is well worth taking.

There are a number of scientists around the world who have the breadth and the vision to have begun the task of rolling genetics, comparative animal cognition, and neuroscience into a comprehensive new approach to the study of human nature and this is part, at least, of their story. They strive to describe the nature of humans in terms of the extent to which we are genuinely different to chimpanzees and the other great apes. Somehow, over 6 million years, we humans evolved from something that probably resembled a chimpanzee (though we cannot yet be entirely sure) and the answer to our evolution has to lie in a growing number of structural changes in our genome, versus that of the chimpanzee, that have led to the evolution of a large number of genes that have, effectively, re-designed our brains and led to our advanced and peculiar human cognition.

If you don't believe me, hand this book to your nearest friendly chimpanzee and see what he makes of it!

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Identification of gene that influences joint attention in chimpanzees provides insight into autism spectrum disorders

http://medicalxpress.com/news/2014-02-identification-gene-joint-attention-chimpanzees.html

Interesting news from Larry Young and Bill Hopkins from Yerkes Primate Centre. They have been looking at the heritability for joint attention - the essential foundation stone for theory of mind and social intelligence. it builds on work on variants of the vasopressin receptor gene, reported in NOT A CHIMP - transferring the work from prairies voles to chimps. They lack a key repetitive element in the receptor gene that humans have.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Teaching young wolves new tricks

http://www.vetmeduni.ac.at/en/infoservice/presseinformation/press-releases-2014/press-release-01-30-2014-teaching-young-wolves-new-tricks/

Interesting piece from scientists in Vienna who show that wolves are better at opening food containers if they are able to watch con-specifics previously doing so successfully, than dogs. In other words, wolves are better at imitating other wolves than dogs are other dogs. The suggestion is that, under domestication, dogs have transferred their imitative focus to humans and away from their own species.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

What makes us human? Unique brain area linked to higher cognitive powers

http://medicalxpress.com/news/2014-01-human-unique-brain-area-linked.html

One of several reports coming out of Professor Matthew Rushworth's lab at Oxford University's Department of Experimental Psychology. "The brain area pinpointed is known to be intimately involved in some of the most advanced planning and decision-making processes that we think of as being especially human." says the report from Medical Express.

"'We have established an area in human frontal cortex which does not seem to have an equivalent in the monkey at all,' says first author Franz-Xaver Neubert of Oxford University. 'This area has been identified with strategic planning and decision making as well as "multi-tasking"".

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Domestication of dogs may have elaborated on a pre-existing capacity of wolves to learn from humans

http://phys.org/news/2013-12-domestication-dogs-elaborated-pre-existing-capacity.html

Previous comparative psychology suggested that wolves lacked the levels of attention to human cues that domesticated dogs excel at. However, this report suggests they have some capacity and this gave dogs a platform to build on as their domestication intensified.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Eat crow if you think I’m a bird-brain


Eat crow if you think I’m a bird-brain

28 November 2013 08:15 Universitaet Tübingen
Scientists have long suspected that corvids – the family of birds including ravens, crows and magpies – are highly intelligent. Now, Tübingen neurobiologists Lena Veit und Professor Andreas Nieder have demonstrated how the brains of crows produce intelligent behavior when the birds have to make strategic decisions. Their results are published in the latest edition of Nature Communications.
Crows are no bird-brains. Behavioral biologists have even called them “feathered primates” because the birds make and use tools, are able to remember large numbers of feeding sites, and plan their social behavior according to what other members of their group do. This high level of intelligence might seem surprising because birds’ brains are constructed in a fundamentally different way from those of mammals, including primates – which are usually used to investigate these behaviors.
The Tübingen researchers are the first to investigate the brain physiology of crows’ intelligent behavior. They trained crows to carry out memory tests on a computer. The crows were shown an image and had to remember it. Shortly afterwards, they had to select one of two test images on a touchscreen with their beaks based on a switching behavioral rules. One of the test images was identical to the first image, the other different. Sometimes the rule of the game was to select the same image, and sometimes it was to select the different one. The crows were able to carry out both tasks and to switch between them as appropriate. That demonstrates a high level of concentration and mental flexibility which few animal species can manage – and which is an effort even for humans.
The crows were quickly able to carry out these tasks even when given new sets of images. The researchers observed neuronal activity in the nidopallium caudolaterale, a brain region associated with the highest levels of cognition in birds. One group of nerve cells responded exclusively when the crows had to choose the same image – while another group of cells always responded when they were operating on the “different image” rule. By observing this cell activity, the researchers were often able to predict which rule the crow was following even before it made its choice.
The study published in Nature Communications provides valuable insights into the parallel evolution of intelligent behavior. “Many functions are realized differently in birds because a long evolutionary history separates us from these direct descendants of the dinosaurs,” says Lena Veit. “This means that bird brains can show us an alternative solution out of how intelligent behavior is produced with a different anatomy.” Crows and primates have different brains, but the cells regulating decision-making are very similar. They represent a general principle which has re-emerged throughout the history of evolution. “Just as we can draw valid conclusions on aerodynamics from a comparison of the very differently constructed wings of birds and bats, here we are able to draw conclusions about how the brain works by investigating the functional similarities and differences of the relevant brain areas in avian and mammalian brains,” says Professor Andreas Nieder.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Canny crows know their tools

http://phys.org/news/2013-10-canny-crows-tools.html

In my chapter "Clever Corvids" i documented a range of experiments, to book publication date, that tested tool use in crows - particularly New Caledonia crows. Their use of hooked tools is a feature of their foraging and they have a very particular way of fashioning the hook tool from foliage by judicious snipping of V-branches in twigs. But debate has see-sawed ever since as to whether the crows learn this tool fashioning and use by trial-and-error, or whether they have some mental picture of
what they are doing - whether they understand it. This interesting article, about the work of a research group from the University of St. Andrews favours the latter, more profoundly interesting, interpretation of what crow tool use mentally represents. As the lead author, James St. Clair, is quoted as saying: ""We still can't say whether New Caledonian crows actually 'understand' how their tools function. But of course, this is also true of many humans I know!"

Thursday, 26 September 2013

A Foxy View of Human Beauty: Implications of the Farm Fox Experiment for Understanding the Origins of Structural and Experiential Aspects of Facial Attractiveness

An independent scholar from Cambridge University Uk has just published this fascinating take on the Belyaev farm fox experiment I reported in Not A Chimp. The effects on the HPA axis in the foxes, the range of neotenic traits revealed by simply selecting for friendliness and approachability, he believes tells us important things about the evolved human appreciation of beauty and the psychological traits we associate it with.

www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/671486