I watched Ape Genius
on PBS the other night and was particularly struck by two segments.
The first had young children with an adult who showed them how to "properly" get a candy treat from a box. The method was intentionally complex, involving pointlessly tapping and moving levers that actually did nothing. Chimps were also taught the same
procedures and both children and chimps learned how to get the candy.
The same experiment was repeated, but this time with a partly transparent
box that made it obvious that the tapping and moving of levers was pointless. The
chimps immediately realized that and skipped the unnecessary moves, but the
children went on doing all the actions.
The Nova show attributed this to children having an expectation
of education that the chimps lack - apparently chimps don't teach other
chimps. There are other ways to interpret these results, the
most obvious being the importance of ritual in the human psyche. I
think another experiment might point that out:
In this experiment, chimps were asked to select one of two bowls of candy.
One bowl would contain an obviously lesser amount, say two pieces vs. six in
the other bowl. The catch was that the bowl the chimp selected would be given
to another chimp, and the chimp who did the choosing would get the bowl they
did not select. Obviously the chimp should select the bowl with the lesser
amount of candy, but invariably they could not do that: their greed apparently
overwhelms their judgment. That the chimps are capable of that judgment was
shown by replacing the candy with numbers representing the ultimate reward;
under those conditions the chimps could make the "intelligent" choice.
Symbolism is power
Humans use symbols far more than chimps do. We are masters of
abstraction and indirection. Programmers know that perhaps even more
than other people; our world is almost all symbols. But all of us,
programmers or not, use symbols every day of our lives.
often use ritual, and rituals often involve symbols - Wikipedia
even defines ritual as "a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value..".
I think that the children assume that the ritual is necessary because
it is intended to be symbolic.. of what may not be clear to them at the
moment, but because they are already used to dealing with symbols, their
minds accept that there may be other meaning in the "pointless" actions.
Part of it may indeed be the expectation of teaching as Nova suggests;
the children may suspect that actions are unnecessary but perform them
because of the authority represented by the teacher (though that
might indicate more fear than expectation). Or, as I suspect, they
may see those actions as part of the "magic" necessary to get the candy -
so much of a child's world is taken on faith, on the expectation that
the reasons for many actions will become clear later.. and that,
I think, is related to symbolism. The action isn't direct, the cause
and effect aren't immediately observable, so it's symbolic, ritualistic.
We humans accept rituals and symbols, apes apparently don't do so to the
The interesting thing is that acting as the chimps did is more
intelligent in this specific case, but overall we do far better with
symbolism and ritual than without. Acceptance of ritual lets us learn
concepts that may not be understood at the moment but are needed just
the same. Of course we carry it too far at times: humans learn
many things that are neither true nor useful. But the advantages
of this acceptance far outweigh the disadvantages.
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