Monkey Wrench

An American couple's ingenious research challenges the popular notion that baboons and other monkeys are almost human

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 In recent years, the idea that monkeys and apes are almost human has gained currency not only in Hollywood but among wildlife researchers as well. Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth take the opposite view. Their experiments with vervet monkeys and baboons have sometimes revealed extraordinary richness in the monkey mind, but more often, Cheney and Seyfarth have discovered severe limitations on intelligence and communication in monkeys. Although baboons, like other primates, demonstrate a keen social knowledge, they're ignorant about much else, including matters of survival.

The husband and wife team, who teach at the University of Pennsylvania, spend their summers in the wilds of Botswana's Okavango Delta. Their technique is to record a baboon's calls and then play them back to see how other baboons react. The animals' unresponsiveness in certain situations indicates they do not realize they could use vocalizations to inform or influence companions. The researchers have concluded that baboons do not recognize that other baboons have minds. "They're not furry little humans," Seyfarth says. "They're just monkeys."

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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