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Doing Math: Humans vs. Animals?

The headine of the May (2014) edition of the Vox.com read "Watch Out Monkeys can now do Math." Again, my curiosity was captured....especially what was the meaning of "do math."


My previously intrigues were the stories of Clever Hans and Beautiful Jim Key, two horses that were "able" to count, do arithmetic calculations, and other intellectual tasks. Now I had to worry about monkeys...with B.F. Skinner no longer around!

This new study, done at the Harvard University Medical School and published in the respected Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, clearly concludes that monkeys can add numbers. Of special interest are the tests that the researchers used to reach this conclusion.

First, the monkeys learned a set of symbols representing the numbers 0 to 25, and also learned to associate a larger food reward when pressing the larger number. Then, the monkeys were faced with the appearance of random problems/numbers such as 4 + 5 and 8...with the task being to select the larger option. When they succeeded at doing this at greater than a chance level, the researches concluded the monkey was adding.

You will need to read the full summary of the study to reach your own conclusions. It also includes information on fish counting abilities and the psychological notion that monkeys perceive numbers differently than humans, that is in a relative manner, rather than on an absolute scale.

Or, you might read A. Riopelle's text Animal Problem Solving (1967). The research there is hard to argue with.... If research is not your thing, then give M. Rivas' Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of the World's Smartest Horse a read...or if you want, I can tell you stories about my dog PI!

I guess the next headline will involve monkeys taking state-mandated end-of-year performance exams. But, I am not worried about that, as I am not sure that those exams require the "doing of math."