A recent article in Phys.Org, Apes’ Abilities Misunderstood by Decades of Poor Science (see also: Leavens, Bard, & Hopkins 2017), briefly discusses the biases of scientists that have led to many misconceptions about the intelligence of apes. They make a good point. However, they also seem to fall into to some problematic traps.
Just from the title of their article (Leaven, Bard, & Hopkins, 2107), they get into trouble by saying that the problem and solution is in the way they “measure” intelligence. I’d like to see the dimensions of intelligence that can be measured. We make the same mistake with children in “measuring their intelligence” and “measuring learning.” Trying to measure qualities or psychological processes that cannot be measured are epistemological errors given to us by Descartes, Newton, et al. (By “epistemology,” I am using Gregory Bateson’s notion, where epistemology is the personal construction of knowledge or our personal ways of sense-making. [See Bateson, 1972/2000]) We think we can break down everything into parts and develop mechanical models of everything. And, measuring things that can’t be measured falls into this view.
But, the authors and many other people make another error. They try to use the same context to compare two different animals (i.e., people and apes). So, they take apes into homes and allow them to experience the same things. But, this is problematic. Although it may be interesting, our homes are not the normal context for apes. In fact, such actions are contextually displacing the apes. To really understand their intelligence, we need to observe them in their own context. And, this goes for understanding intelligence in other living things. As more and more research is coming out about intelligence in all sorts of animals, in plants, in fungi, and in bacteria, we need to find ways of understanding these organisms’ intelligence in their native contexts. And, yes, decontextualizing or contextually displacing intelligence is another epistemological error.
Bateson, G. (1972/2000). Steps to an ecology of mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Leavens, D. A., Bard, K. A., & Hopkins, W. D. (2017) The mismeasure of ape social cognition, Animal Cognition, August 4, 1—18. DOI: 10.1007/s10071-017-1119-1 (Accessed at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10071-017-1119-1)