Why are some animals so smart? Scientific American,April,2006. Author:Carel Van Schaik. Abstract: Bayoumi Andil. In an attempt at explaining the human intelligence, which puts us at the top of the evolutionary process, in other words, makes us the smartest creatures on Earth, Carel Van Schaik examines the evolution of intelligence to a relatively high degree, in Orangutans, Asia''s only great apes, of Suaq swamps on the western coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Schaik and his team observed in that unlikely setting what astonished them: the Suaq apes created and wielded a variety of tools, including "a stick tool" which they used so delicately in detaching the seeds from the fruit of a native tree called "Neesia".The seeds, the size of lima beans, are highly nutritious as they contain nearly 50% fat. . It goes without saying that we, humans are in close kinship with those Orangutans as both of us belong to the same order: Primates. So examining the factors that have operated in shaping their intelligence, might shed some light on the way through which we gained that high level of intelligence of ours. In so doing we could be in a position to enhance our own intelligence. Toward that end ,Schaik embarks on weighing the current explanations.Was is the environment? It may be, according to our researcher, tempting as an explanation,however,it does not explain why orangutans in several populations outside Suaq ignore altogether these same rich food sources.Nor does it explain why some populations that do eat those seeds harvest them without tools, something which results,of course, in their extracting much less than the Suaq apes do. Or could it be the Necessity, which is said to be the mother of invention? But that sweet or fat foods that the tools make accessible sit high on the orangutan preference list and should therefore be sought by these apes everywhere,not only at Suaq. So necessity as an explanation does not hold much water either. Then our distinguished biological anthropologist raises the question about genetics as an intriguing explanation, nevertheless, he brushes it away because of the fact that most captive orangutans, not only those of Suaq, can learn to use tools. In conclusion, Schaik puts forward this hypothesis: orangutan''s intelligence is culturally-based, bearing in mind that culture, according to primatologists, is the ability to learn – by observation- skills invented by others.
To put it in other words, it is social learning which lies behind that level attained by Suaq orangutans in using tools in that astonishing way, unkown even to their cousins: the orangutans living on the other side of the impassable Alas river. Furthermore, he goes on to prove his hypothesis, saying that the team led by him, observed that infant orangutans everywhere spend over 20,000 daylight hours in close contact with mothers, acting as enthusiastic apprentices. However only at Suaq did they also see adults spending considerable time together while foraging i.e. searching for food. Our author, who is working as the director of the Anthropological Institute and Museum at University of Zurick in Swizterland, states that the acquistiion of the most cognitively demanding inventions, such as the tool uses, found only at Suaq, probably requires face time with proficient individuals,as well as several cycles of observation and practice. The surprising implication of this need is that even though infants learn virtually all their skills from their mothers, a population will be able to perpetuate particular innovation only if tolerant role models other than the mother are around,if mom is not particularly skillful, knowledgeable experts will be close at hand, and a youngster will still be able to learn the fancy techniques that apparently do not come automatically. In conclusion, our author states that when a wild orangutan pulls off a cognitively complex behavior, it has acquired the ability through a mix of observational leag and individual practice much as a human child has stored up his or her skills.To cut a long story short,he says that "Culture can indeed build a new mind from an old brain."