July 27th, 2005

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest primate of them all?

Ever since Koko the gorilla learned a rudimentary form of sign language years ago, our concept of animal consciousness has expanded. Putting aside for a moment the debate over whether animal communication can ever constitute actual language itself–whatever you call it, it’s still pretty amazing. When Koko coined new signs such as “drink fruit” for watermelon, or asked for a replacement pet cat when hers died, it’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t something quite advanced happening in that construct we would almost have to refer to as her mind.

And then there’s the topic of mirrors, which can be used to measure an animal’s consciousness of self, or self-consciousness. According to this NY Times article, humans, apes, and perhaps dolphins have the ability to recognize their own images in a mirror, and now there is new evidence that monkeys may have some capacity to do so, too.

Dr. Frans de Waal of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta has done research that challenges the idea that capuchin monkeys only see strangers when they look in a mirror. The behavior of the capuchins indicated some awareness that the image was not a stranger, although it stopped short of showing a sense of self. The monkeys’ behavior front of the mirror varied according to their gender (I suppose that shouldn’t surprise us too much):

The female capuchins, the researchers found, avoided eye contact with a strange monkey while also making friendly overtures. But in front of a mirror their behavior was different. They looked often at their image, almost as if trying to flirt with it. The male capuchins, in contrast, were seriously bothered by their image. Unlike Narcissus, they “appeared confused and distraught by their reflections” and often tried to escape from the testing room, the Yerkes team reports.

Theories about what might cause these differences aren’t all that convincing:

The male capuchins, particularly the high-ranking ones, may be discomfited by their reflection because it fails to play by the rules of the monkey hierarchy and show them due deference. On the other hand, this realization might be expected to build up gradually in the minds of the male monkeys, making it hard to explain why they instantly perceive that the image is not a stranger…Male capuchins probably react differently from females because they take their mirror image more seriously and don’t know how to handle it, Dr. de Waal said.

But female chimpanzees, members of the ape rather than the monkey family, have no such problems. Far from being discomfited or distraught, they react to mirrors as though they’ve been waiting for one all their lives:

Give a female chimp a mirror, and one can have no doubt she knows just what it is for. The chimp will look at the two important parts of her body that she can usually never see, Dr. de Waal said. One is the inside of her mouth; the other is her rear end.

Apparently, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

9 Responses to “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest primate of them all?”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Hi – I just found your blog. I can so relate to your recent change of heart. 9/11 changed everything for me, but alas not for many of my friends. I have even lost a friend over politics. But I do my best to tread softly and carry a big stick (meaning: stay very well informed) – that works wonders. From one converted neo-con to another – have a great day!!

  2. gatorbait Says:

    “Give a female chimp a mirror, and one can have no doubt she knows just what it is for. The chimp will look at the two important parts of her body that she can usually never see, Dr. de Waal said. One is the inside of her mouth; the other is her rear end.”

    Sort of explains Jane Fonda, doesn’t it?

  3. Independent George Says:

    The NYT Magazine had a great piece last month on monkeynomics:

    The introduction of money was tricky enough; it wouldn’t reflect well on anyone involved if the money turned the lab into a brothel. To this end, Chen has taken steps to ensure that future monkey sex at Yale occurs as nature intended it.

    Put the two together and you get… er, maybe that’s best left unsaid.

  4. Charlie (Colorado) Says:

    If you gave Koko a mirror, would she look at her rear end and then sign “Do you think I look fat?”

  5. Bob Hawkins Says:

    Now for the real test — if you gave a female chimp Hermione Granger’s Time-Turner, would she figure out what was going on, and would she, like Hermione, use it to check what her hair looks like from behind?

  6. Asher Abrams Says:

    Just don’t give them Xerox machines.

  7. roman Says:

    Dolphins can recognize themselves in a mirror? That is amazing. I saw a few at Sea World and I swear they all look the same to me.
    Now, if point here is that due to their movement in front of a mirror, they recognize their own reflection, that truly is amazing.

  8. olivia1 Says:

    Fascinating and funny!

  9. Stephen Says:

    Perhaps, the female monkees have been to a performance of “The Vagina Monologues.”

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.


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