Our current understanding of primates cognitive abilities is as follows:
Asking questions and giving negative answers
In the 1970s and the 1980s there had been suggestions that apes are unable to ask questions and to give negative answers. According to the numerous
published studies apes are able to answer human questions, and the vocabulary of the acculturated apes contains question words. Despite these
abilities, according to the published research literature, apes are not able to ask questions themselves, and in human-primate conversations questions
are asked by the humans only. Ann and David Premacks designed a potentially promising methodology to teach apes to ask questions in the 1970s: “In
principle interrogation can be taught either by removing an element from a familiar situation in the animal’s world or by removing the element from
a language that maps the animal’s world. It is probable that one can induce questions by purposefully removing key elements from a familiar
situation. Suppose a chimpanzee received its daily ration of food at a specific time and place, and then one day the food was not there. A chimpanzee
trained in the interrogative might inquire ‘Where is my food?’ or, in Sarah’s case, ‘My food is ?’ Sarah was never put in a situation that
might induce such interrogation because for our purposes it was easier to teach Sarah to answer questions”.
A decade later Premacks wrote: "Though she [Sarah] understood the question, she did not herself ask any questions -- unlike the child who asks
interminable questions, such as What that? Who making noise? When Daddy come home? Me go Granny's house? Where puppy? Sarah never delayed the
departure of her trainer after her lessons by asking where the trainer was going, when she was returning, or anything else".
Despite all their achievements, Kanzi and Panbanisha also have not demonstrated the ability to ask questions so far. Joseph Jordania suggested that
the ability to ask questions could be the crucial cognitive threshold between human and ape mental abilities. Jordania suggested that asking questions
is not a matter of the ability of using syntactic structures, that it is primarily a matter of cognitive ability. Questions can be (and are) asked
without the use of syntactic structures, with the help of the questions intonation only (like this is the case in children's early pre-linguistic
The cognitive ability to ask questions is developed in humans around age four. Before that, we assume that everyone knows what we know. We aren't able
to give negative answers (lies
) and don't perceive other individuals as cognitive beings like ourselves.
This can be demonstrated through a series of thought experiments.
One of which goes like this:
A child is introduced to two characters, who are standing in a room. They each have a basket, and one of them places a ball into his/her basket, and
subsequently leaves the room. The other character then takes the ball and puts it in his/her own basket.
The child is then asked: Once the first person enters the room again, where will they look for the ball.
Before age four, children will usually insist that the character whom reentered the room, will look in the other characters basket. Cause the child
assumes that the characters poses all the knowledge the child does.
(you can skip this part if you want)
I recall watching another experiment. I believe it was on an episode of through the wormhole.
In this experiment they put two pairs of sunglasses on an ape. One pair was normal, the other pair was painted black, so that you couldn't see through
them if you were wearing them.
Afterwards the sunglasses were put on a person, or two people. It's a little hazy. The ape was trained to ask for food, and was sent to do so. They
wanted to see if the ape was able to understand that one of the people couldn't see anything through the glasses and hence couldn't see when the ape
was begging for good. But the ape begged anyway - and this suggested that the didn't understand that we see through our eyes, like they do.
Even though primates, and presumably also other animals, aren't able to lie when asked a question, they are still capable of deceit to some extent,
and that got me thinking.
Predators stalk their prey. This might just be the result of the evolution of hunting techniques, and not a conscious choice as such- but it seems to
me, that the predator is often very aware about whether it's prey has noticed it's presence or not. Which would indicate to me that many predators, at
least the ones that stalk and hunt, have more cognitive abilities than we currently think.
The reason why primates don't ask us any questions, might just indicate that they still don't fully grasp the possibilities of language/sign language,
but not necessarily that they can't perceive others cognitive abilities.
I personally feel that the experiments carried out on the primates are insufficient, and I think the conclusion reach on the subject have been to
So - yeah. I might very well be wrong. But I would love to hear your thoughts on this. I'm sure some of you must have some pets with some crazy
personalities at home. So lets get some examples!
What do you think?
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