Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Looking up the food chain...

There's a big hubub lately over what scientists are calling the "cognitive reserve" of chimpanzees. Chimps in the wild do not have a chance to show off many of their innate skills since their environment doesn't call for them. But in a laboratory, where conditions and sophisticated tools are controllable, these monkeys are extremely adaptable and appear to be full of "hidden" talents. They perform better than humans on certain memory tests on laboratory computers. They adapt their social behaviors to the confines of human architecture. They paint. They drink beer and watch television. They get fat and depressed.

Of course, the natural habitat doesn't make full use of the capabilities of the animal. We instinctively know this about ourselves. I remember going crazy at nights when I was a kid because I didn't know if I might be the world's greatest opera singer, or ski jumper, or moon rock analyst, etc. How could you know unless you tried? I remember being jealous of all of those kids in the USSR and China who were put through rigorous tests that revealed their "cognitive reserves" so that they might be channeled into the exact field where they belonged. Now that I think about it, they always seemed to end up as gymnasts, scientists, or workers, but I assumed there were many more jobs that you just didn't hear about.


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