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To see how far back more advanced capabilities such as addition might go, researchers at Duke University in Durham, N.C., focused on somewhat distant relatives of humans—rhesus monkeys. While the ancestors of chimpanzees—humanity's closest living relatives—diverged from us about 6 million years ago, humans and rhesus monkeys parted ways roughly 25 million years ago. In comparison, the age of dinosaurs only ended roughly 65 million years ago.
The scientists tested two monkeys and 14 college students on a math task where they had to add two sets of dots together. They were each shown one set of dots on a computer touchscreen for a half-second, and then another set a half-second later. They were then shown two separate clusters of dots at the same time, one of which was the correct sum of the first two sets. The monkeys were rewarded with Kool-Aid for choosing the right answers.
"When I first began training the monkeys on the addition task, I thought I would have to wait for many weeks before they understood the task," said researcher Jessica Cantlon, a cognitive neuroscientist at Duke. "We started the monkeys out on an easy version of the addition task, and the plan was to increase the difficulty of the problems gradually over time."
However, when Cantlon looked at the data from the first sessions, "it turned out that the monkeys were already performing the easy problems very well, and so I had to scramble to program the more difficult version of the task," she recalled.
Why they do it
Cantlon and her colleagues suggest math could help monkeys and other animals choose larger amounts of food or gauge the size of a rival group.
"Although we can never travel back in time to know exactly why or how this arithmetic ability evolved in humans, social battles might have something to do with it," she said. "Finding the perfect spot in the forest to stop and forage might also have something to do with it."
The researchers now want to learn more about what this primitive math system in monkeys is capable of "and whether it is the evolutionary basis of human mathematical thinking," Cantlon said. "We are also interested in whether this primitive mathematical system forms the basis of mathematical development in human children."
In the study, seven-month-old babies were presented with the voices of two or three women saying "look." The infants could choose between looking at a video image of two or women saying the word or an image of three women saying it. The babies spent significantly more time looking at the image that matched the number of women talking.
"We conclude that the babies are showing an internal representation of 'two-ness' or 'three-ness' that is separate from sensory modalities and, thus, reflects an abstract internal process," said Elizabeth Brannon of Duke University.
Pigeons have just tied with non-human primates in terms of math competence.
- Pigeons can not only discriminate quantities, they can also learn abstract mathematical concepts.
Pigeons may be ubiquitous, but they're also brainy, according to a new study that found these birds are on par with primates when it comes to numerical competence.
The study, published in the latest issue of the journal Science, discovered that pigeons can discriminate against different amounts of number-like objects, order pairs, and learn abstract mathematical rules. Aside from humans, only rhesus monkeys have exhibited equivalent skills.
Originally posted by Wang Tang
reply to post by schuyler
I'm not buying that hand-eye coordination is directly correlated to mathematical ability. I have a friend who is very good at math but can barely keep his balance while playing basketball. He frequently mishandles passes, shoots airballs, and misses the ball completely when going up for a rebound.