Man vs. Monkey

January 17, 2008

I had always considered sending my children to Duke University, but now I think I may just send them to the zoo instead. A study by Duke researchers indicates that the monkeys perform just as well as college students at mental addition. I guess I can open that jar we’ve been keeping in the cupboard for our children’s college money and use the funds to buy the amateur telescope I’ve always wanted instead. (P.S. Mars is now closer to earth that it will ever be again for dozens of years, so this is the time to check it out.)

Earlier studies have found that non-human primates can match numbers of objects, compare numbers, and choose the larger of two objects. One Japanese study even showed chimpanzees performing better than human adults at memory games. The Duke study took the next step.

“This is the first study that looked at whether or not they (primates) could make explicit decisions that were based on mathematical types of calculations,” said Jessica Cantlon, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at Duke, whose work appeared in the Public Library of Science’s journal, PLoS Biology ( “It shows when you take language away from humans, they end up looking just like monkeys in terms of their performance.”

The test procedure was as follows. Two female macaque monkeys named for U.S. senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein were pitted against 14 students from Duke (I’m not sure if naming the monkeys after US senators was an honor or a disgrace for the monkeys. While monkeys at the zoo seem to be pretty popular, Congress’ popularity hovers in the low twenties.) The task set before them involved mentally adding two sets of dots that were briefly flashed on a computer screen. The teams were asked to pick the correct answer from two choices on a different screen.

The humans were not allowed to count or verbalize as they worked, and they were told to answer as quickly as possible. Both monkeys and humans typically answered within 1 second. And both groups fared about the same. In the end, both teams were rewarded – the Duke students with $10 a piece (not even enough for them to buy yet another brain stimulating video game), while Boxer and Feinstein got their favorite treat, a cup of Kool-Aid (yes, Congress’ favorite treat is sipping the Kool-Aid, just see the recent budget bill for proof of that).

I don’t understand what all the commotion is about. For years we have known that animals have certain calculating abilities that are beyond ours. Let’s take the bee for a moment. James Gould, a prominent Princeton University ethnologist (animal behavior specialist), performed a study in which he placed some bee food next to a beehive. After some time, he moved it 50 meters. It took a short while, but the bees found it and continued feasting. Then he moved it another 50 meters in the same direction. This time it only took the bees one minute to find it. The next time he moved it 50 meters they found it in less than a minute, and they actually preceded him to the next spot, and were waiting for him exactly 50 meter from the previous spot!

In the next experiment, Gould placed a bowl of sugar water near a beehive and then, after it was discovered by the bees, moved it repeatedly. However, each time, he moved it four times the distance that he did the previous time. First he moved it one inch, then 4 inches, 16 inches, etc. Soon he was moving it more than 100 feet in a single jump. Surprisingly, in this experiment too, the bees caught on and were able to calculate the proper distance for the next jump, and were soon waiting for him. I don’t think most humans would be able to calculate that fast or even recognize the pattern at all. We might notice that the difference is getting bigger, but we would not be able to realize that it was an exact 4:1 ratio.

Bats avoid obstacles and nab insects on the fly by emitting ultrasonic squeaks and interpreting the echo the sound waves make after bouncing off objects. This biological sonar, called “echolocation,” is also used by dolphins to navigate murky waters. This requires incredible computing skills, especially as these animals need to constantly re-evaluate the data as they move.

Besides for computing skills, animals seem to be far more advanced than humans in many ways. Moths can smell traces of chemicals from other moths over seven miles away! Sharks can pick up on the weak electrical signals emitted by the muscle twitching of fish buried deep in the sand. Cats have natural “night vision goggles,” in which their eyes use a special membrane to utilize each photon of light more than once. Dogs have been known to be able to detect illnesses in people long before doctors. The fact that monkeys can do non-verbal math with the same accuracy as Duke students is not something that shocks me at all.

What I think is the most powerful idea in this study is the conclusion stated by the researcher. “It shows when you take language away from humans, they end up looking just like monkeys in terms of their performance.” Although this may be a new conclusion for science, it is actually described in the very beginning of Genesis (the genesis of Genesis) where the Torah describes the creation man. The key difference between man and every species in the animal kingdom is that G-d blew into man a soul, a neshama. “And Ha-shem, G-d formed the man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). Interestingly, Onkelos (a translation/exposition of the Torah dating back to 110 CE written by Onkelos, a Roman nobleman who converted) translates the soul of life as “ruach mimalila,” which means a “talking spirit.”

Onkelos is telling us that the defining character of mankind is our intelligent speech, which leads to the ability for rationality and our capability to map out complex issues. Everyone agrees that humans, even Duke students, can do far more complex mathematical operations that Boxer and Feinstein. Even Pythagorean’s Theory is far out of the monkeys’ reach, because they can’t take the multi-step process inherent in a language based process (first you do this, and then that…). Man’s ability to speak was the essence of the soul that G-d blew into his body, and has defined him ever since.

What this means is that we have an incredible gift, one that I would take over the ability to smell scents from seven miles away, or sonar capabilities. It is the gift of intelligent speech, and the ability to make decisions based on rational processes. When we use these gifts properly, we are more powerful than any creature. When we let them remain dormant, or use them negatively, we are the weakest creatures around. There must be a reason that we were given this gift, as every privilege comes with a responsibility. Our responsibility is to use our speech for inspiring, building, affirming, showing gratitude, and discerning right from wrong. When we do that we lead infinitely rich lives, magnitudes of order greater than any animal.

Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.