Baboons are capable of understanding analogies

The ability to form analogies, to look at two unrelated situations and recognize the basic similarities that bind them together, was thought to be a uniquely human trait, with some experts speculating that language is a prerequisite for understanding them.

Well, for what feels like the thousandth time this year, it turns out that our primate cousins are just as capable as we are of high-end thinking. (I feel like I could have expressed that as some sort of analogy, but why should I strain myself when I can apparently just get a monkey to do it?) This time around, it's baboons who are out to shatter yet another delusion of our species's supposed uniqueness.

That's the finding of researchers Joël Fagot of France's Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive and Roger Thompson of the US's Franklin & Marshall College. They ran an experiment in which 29 baboons were shown two identical squares on a touch screen. When the baboons touched one of the squares, the squares disappeared and two new pairs of shapes emerged. One typical combination was one pair of a star and triangle and another pair of two identical ovals.

For the baboons to get the reward, they had to choose the identical ovals over the dissimilar shapes. This was repeated through several experiments, but each time the specific type of identical shape changed, meaning the baboons couldn't simply pick the ovals - they had to understand why the researchers wanted them to choose the identical shapes. This means they had to recognize why two pairs of identical shapes were similar, even if the specific shapes were different.

It isn't just about recognizing relationships - it's about understanding the relationships between different relationships, and that's exactly what an analogy is. (You might remember the classic "X is to Y as W is to Z", or X:Y::W:Z type of analogy from high school English.) Sure, that's a pretty simple analogy, but there's no way to consistently pass the test without grasping that core concept. And it was hardly an easy task - only six of the 29 baboons managed to figure out the analogy, suggesting this is a form of reasoning that is at the very cusp of what baboons are able to do.

Better yet, when the researchers repeated the experiment a year later, those six baboons managed to relearn the analogy far quicker than before, indicating they remembered the previous experiment and what their thought process was. It's proof that analogy-based reasoning operates at a level deeper than language, and that there are very few things that make our intelligence uniquely human — most of our cognitive abilities have a much deeper evolutionary background than just our 200,000 years as Homo sapiens.

Via Psychological Science. Image by 5of7 on Flickr.