Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Monkey maths

Posted by Dave Bath on 2008-01-09

While discussing whether the term "monkey" is perjorative or not, it’s worth looking at how well monkeys perform doing mental arithmetic – comparable to US college students.

From PLoS "Basic Math in Monkeys and College Students"

We tested monkeys and college students on a nonverbal arithmetic task in which they had to add the numerical values of two sets of dots together and choose a stimulus from two options that reflected the arithmetic sum of the two sets. Our results indicate that monkeys perform approximate mental addition in a manner that is remarkably similar to the performance of the college students.

It’s worth noting in the fine print that the monkeys didn’t need much training to understand what addition was about ….

For the initial training on the addition task, monkeys were presented with a limited range of addition problems: 1 + 1 = 2, 4, or 8; 2 + 2 = 2, 4, or 8; 4 + 4 = 2, 4, or 8. Monkeys completed ∼9,000 trials on this phase of training; however, as reported in the results section, their performance was above chance within the first 500 trials.

The monkeys were as quick as adult humans, although a bit sloppy….

Overall accuracy across the 40 different addition problems was higher for adult humans (mean = 94%) than for monkeys (mean = 76%) on the addition trials (t(38) = 3.90, p < 0.001). However, the mean response time of monkeys (mean = 1,099 ms) and humans (mean = 940 ms) was not significantly different (t(38) = 1.43, p = 0.16). Thus, humans responded at the same rate as monkeys but were more accurate overall.

If they do this well compared to US college students, perhaps they should be tested against members of US christian fundamentalist congregations. I’d have to wonder whether such a comparison might indicate the monkeys were higher up the evolutionary ladder than the fundamentalists!

You could see a video of the tasks performed by human and simian here, but it has disappeared.

A press release from Duke University is here.


6 Responses to “Monkey maths”

  1. JM said

    “While discussing whether the term “monkey” is perjorative or not, ”

    Interesting post, and good that you’ve drawn attention to the experiment.

    But is there really any discussion or dispute about whether “monkey” is perjorative?

    Or have we moved backwards since the debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Huxley when “monkey” was Wilberforce’s jibe against evolution and Huxley preferred to be descended from an “ape than a man who misused his talents”

    Backwards, forwards or evasion? This whole episode has been filled with a phony equivalence between “sportsmanship” which doesn’t matter two hoots in real life, and racism which does.

    I’m putting my money on “Evasion”, it’s always ducking for cover.

  2. Dave Bath said

    Interpreting "monkey" as an insult or compliment depends on culture – and monkeys have higher standing in the subcontinent.

    Even in western culture, monkeys are regarded as clever (sometimes wise if in trios), if mischevious.  "You’re a clever monkey" is a phrase not unknown.

    How does "monkey" compare to "pig", "jackass", "cow", "worm", "shark"?" I’d much rather be called a monkey than one of these.  Even "rat" might be considered a compliment given the asian "year of the rat", awarded the honor of being first in the astrological cycle, and receiving as a prize the gift of "intelligence".

    I wonder if the Australian cricketer was born in the Year of the Monkey?  That would be a giggle.

    I’ll also note that a human being called an "ape" is a scientifically correct statement.  We are classified, along with chimps, gorillas, orangs (and possibly yetis) as "great apes".

  3. I have a rather different take on the monkey insult. Regardless of whether it is an acceptable term in India, I think it was an entirely inappropriate term to be used against the only man on the Australian team who has West Indian ancestry (for reasons which I explain in my post). Even if it’s acceptable in the sub-continent, it should be pointed out that there is a very, very unpleasant racist subtext to the word. If it’s not racist – why was Symonds singled out? Why weren’t the fans in Mumbai behaving like monkeys to all of the Australian cricket team (whether black or white)? In my opinion, if the allegations against Singh are correct, but Singh didn’t realise that the term was offensive, then he’s ignorant of world history and he should become cognizant of the offensive subtext to his comments instead of making excuses.

  4. Dave Bath said

    As always, you make good points (although the picture at the top of your article is unbelievably scientifically unjustified – I cannot believe that the drawings themselves would get through peer review – let alone the interpretation)

    Actually, your comments are more pertinent to this earlier post. In many ways, this post pushes my advocacy of "great ape rights" (which, actually, I’d be very interested in your take on: there’s a tricky area between what is going on in the EU – such as the right for a great ape not to be "property" – and the rights of severely retarded humans).

    The cultural differences between a speaker and listener are a problematic thing. As one example, many US fundamentalists would consider it complimentary to call someones actions "Christian", while I would regard it as saying it meant my behaviour was irrational at best, and probably bigotted, …. yada yada yada. What about all those Howard critics who called him a fascist?

    In my opinion, if it was properly racist, then there it is probably a reason for standard prosecution – much like someone on a footy field can be prosecuted for assault if a tackle was particularly vicious rather then merely robust. As I mentioned elsewhere, what about the common (and not considered racist) "pig" to some races (remember its impossible to determine Jewishness from physiognomy), or, for example, saying “I’ll make you eat crow” to a Moslem.

  5. Dave Bath said

    Forgot to say that I’d really appreciate your opinion on this post, as to whether a federal government ad for Australia Day could be considered to be inciting violence (especially as there are apparently anti-Moslem Australia Day protests being planned)

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