You can learn a lot from humans and their stuff

Thursday, July 26th, 2018

You can learn a lot from humans and their stuff, it turns out:

Formal training programs, which can be called education, enhance cognition in human and nonhuman animals alike. However, even informal exposure to human contact in human environments can enhance cognition.

We review selected literature to compare animals’ behavior with objects among keas and great apes, the taxa that best allow systematic comparison of the behavior of wild animals with that of those in human environments such as homes, zoos, and rehabilitation centers.

In all cases, we find that animals in human environments do much more with objects. Following and expanding on the explanations of several previous authors, we propose that living in human environments and the opportunities to observe and manipulate human-made objects help to develop motor skills, embodied cognition, and the use of objects to extend cognition in the animals. Living in a human world also furnishes the animals with more time for such activities, in that the time needed for foraging for food is reduced, and furnishes opportunities for social learning, including emulation, an attempt to achieve the goals of a model, and program-level imitation, in which the imitator reproduces the organizational structure of goal-directed actions without necessarily copying all the details. All these factors let these animals learn about the affordances of many objects and make them better able to come up with solutions to physical problems.

The kea is a large parrot found in the mountains of the South Island of New Zealand — and it’s pretty freakin’ smart.

(Hat tip to Tyler Cowen.)


  1. Kirk says:

    Stop and think about it: Of course there are going to be smarter animals running around human-dominated environments. Dumber, less well-adapted ones are going to get culled pretty quickly.

    You could also make a point that the cuter and more cuddly animals are going to adapt better than the ones that freak most people out. Which is why raccoons are going to be around forever, and there won’t be too many squicky things like giant spiders…

  2. Harry Jones says:

    If the Earth is overrun by an alien invasion, will that make humans smarter? Probably, yes.

    On the other hand, it would reduce humanity to the status of colonial subjects, or pets… or even worse, vermin.

    In the meantime, let’s enjoy the Anthropocene.

    The dominant species sets the rules for the entire ecosystem. For now, at least, man is the arbiter of so-called natural selection.

  3. Graham says:

    Could end up food, too. Not sure if that’s better or worse than vermin.

    Less insulting, perhaps.

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