Self awareness in primates: Fact or Fiction

The author focuses on determining whether primates are capable of self-awareness. An article is reviewed and evaluated encompassing different points of view and theories. Learned recognition and self-awareness is compared and discussed.

Self-awareness in Primates: Fact or Fiction
Learning is “a change in behavior due to experience” (Chance, 2003, p. 36). Learning allows an organism to modify its behavior to suit a particular situation. It is a mechanism by which one copes with the ever-changing environment. Anything an organism does that can be measured is behavior (Chance, 2003). Organisms change their behavior to fit environmental changes; this is a learning process, it provides a means to modify our physical environment for example, changing climate by controlling it, or cooking and chemically changing food. These acts are not due to heredity, they are a result of learning (Chance, 2003).
It has been proven that chimpanzees and humans share 99.4 % of their DNA, making their genetic makeup very similar. Chimpanzees have large brains which are thought to be paired with higher intelligence since it has been proven that smaller brain sizes demonstrate lower intelligence (Schmid, 2003).
Gordon Gallup (1979) sought to discover the answer to a question that Darwin would respond negatively to; do animals have a sense of self awareness? Darwin would say that we are fundamentally different from other animals. One assumption was that man was unique from other animals because of the use of tools. However, as noted by Gallup (1979) Jane Goodall discovered that chimpanzees used twigs as tools for reaching food that they could otherwise get to. Chance (2003) states “reinforcement is the procedure of providing consequences for a behavior that increases or maintain the strength of that behavior” (p.141). The chimpanzees had the novel thought of using a twig to reach ants that were inside a tree trunk. They strengthened or increased their behavior of using a twig to acquire food because this brought about positive consequences, i.e. food. As noted by Chance (2003) Thorndike compared operant learning to natural selection. Those behaviors that are useful survive, those that are not, die out.
It has been proven that chimpanzees can grasp the basic idea of language. According to Rumbaugh (1995), recent studies show that apes can come to understand the syntax of human speech comparable to that of a 2-1/2 year old child if they are reared in a language structured environment from birth. The ape first acquires language through comprehension and then through expression. This is the same course taken for a child. The acquisition of language structures by apes suggests that they are competent for reasoning. They are capable of experiencing among others, pain, happiness, and sorrow thus, they can experience various dimensions of being, that is, awareness.

Wynne (1999) however, believes otherwise. He discredits animals of having consciousness, which is evidenced as possessing language, self-awareness and theory of mind. He notes that Terrace of Columbia University thought that a chimpanzee could learn sign language by simply exposing him to a community of people using it. Learning did not occur unless Terrace paired the learning with treats. Skinner, as noted by Chance (2003), advocated that “verbal behavior is to be understood in terms of functional relationships between it and environmental events” (p.230). Terrace’s chimpanzee was only performing and learning those signs, which offered rewards. Wynne (1999) also discredits Gallup’s work that used the mirror test to observe evidence of self awareness, claiming that some people cannot recognize themselves in a mirror but are aware of themselves, as is the case with the blind. In addition, autistic people can recognize themselves in a mirror but have a hard time being self-aware. As for theory of mind, the understanding that other individuals have both thoughts and mental states, Povinelli experimented with a chimpanzee named Sheba. Having a series of cups just out of Sheba’s sight, Povinelli placed food under one of the cups. He then had another person come into the room. Both people pointed to a cup. The hypothesis was if Sheba possessed theory of mind she would know that the person who entered the room after the food was placed under a cup would not know where the food was. Thus, she would point to the cup the person who put the food under cup was pointing to. This, in fact, did occur but only after hundreds of training sessions. This suggests that Sheba gradually learned the association between a stimulus (the experimenter) and a reward (the food under a cup) (Wynne, 1999). This is a very good example of Pavlovian conditioning in which the pairing of a US (the food) and CS (the experimenter pointing to the cup with the food) produce a CR (picking the right cup to get the food). This experiment illustrates that Sheba learned to pick the right cup but does this mean that she possesses theory of mind as well?
On the contrary, researchers have found that chimps may possess theory of mind. Because chimps forage for food and have very defined rules as to who eats first, the researchers devised an experiment to see whether one chimp could tell what the other chimp was seeing and, thus thinking. Three opaque cages were set up, two with chimps in it, the middle one with two pieces of food. The cage doors were open just enough so that the chimps could see the food and could see one another eyeing the food. Only the dominant chimp sought out the food when the cage doors were fully opened. An expected behavior. The researchers then placed a barrier so that the dominant chimp could only see one piece of food while the other chimp could see both pieces of food as well as see that the dominant chimp could only see one piece of food. This time the subordinate chimp took the piece of food that the dominant chimp could not see suggesting that it knew that the dominant chimp was unaware of its existence (Pennisi, 1999). In order for an animal to have consciousness, that is, be self-aware, it must possess theory of mind. Does this mean that animals like the great apes possess self-awareness?
If animals, namely great apes, are thought to possess consciousness and therefore, awareness, could they recognize themselves in a mirror? Chance (2003) states that self awareness is observing one’s own behavior and having the ability to view one’s behavior one can make appropriate choices depending on the situation. Self-awareness, in simple form, is the subject and the observer which are being perceived as one and the same (Gallup, 1979). Gallup (1979) intended to show that humans are not the only ones that can be self aware. He demonstrated this by placing a mirror in front of a chimpanzee. Gallup (1979) states that “self-recognition in humans is learned” (p.418). Infants react to a mirror as if the reflection were a playmate. They do not actually learn to recognize that that reflection in the mirror is themselves until they reach 18 to 24 months of age (Gallup, 1979). To assess self-recognition, researchers have used a “toy task” in which a toy, person, or lighted image is placed behind the child sitting in front of a mirror. A successful experiment showed the child turning to see the object behind him/her. This demonstrated self-recognition because the child was using his/her reflection in the mirror as a reference for locating the object behind him/her, thus, recognizing that the image in front is his/her own (Benson, 2001). Severely retarded children and adults cannot seemingly recognize themselves in a mirror, suggesting that self-recognition requires a certain degree of intelligence. Researchers found that great apes share like brain cells located in the frontal lobe region of the brain with humans. This region of the brain is considered to be the area of higher thought processes like problem-solving (Baker, 1999). Therefore, it is safe to assume that great apes are capable of self-recognition. Gallup (1979) introduced a mirror to four chimpanzees for ten days. Their initial reaction was expected, that is, they behaved as if another chimpanzee were present. After three days the chimpanzees began to view the image in the mirror as a reflection of themselves. They began to use the mirror as a tool to groom parts of their body that they ordinarily would not be able to see (Gallup, 1979). He further tested his assumptions by anesthetizing the chimpanzees and placing a dot of dye on their eyebrow. When the chimps looked in the mirror they would try to remove the dye, if self-aware. As predicted, the chimpanzees did in fact, begin to scratch at their eyebrows to remove the dye. In addition, they would look at their fingers after scratching providing a strong indication of self-recognition (Gallup, 1979).
Miensinompe (1997) suggests that recognizing one self in a mirror does not indicate self-awareness but is rather an act of intelligent thought process. However, he does contend that animals like chimpanzees do, in fact, possess self-awareness. The degree of self-awareness found in different animals is variable and can be understood by their behavior patterns. For example, when an animal grooms himself, it must be aware that it is being groomed for it is a sign of affection towards one self and others (Miensinompe, 1997). It is Miensinompe’s (1997) opinion that chimpanzees given mirrors only show that they have become aware, not of themselves because this has already occurred, but of their own reflections. Thus, the ability for chimpanzees to recognize themselves in a mirror is due to higher intelligence not self-awareness.
Social psychologists note that a sense of self emerges only through interactions with others. That is, only through interactions with others can one come to know and judge who he/she is. For example, a mother reprimands her child by saying “good girls don’t hit”. This expression has given the child a definition of good girls and also gives the child a chance to evaluate her actions. The child comes to see herself from her mother’s perspective and thus, learns to appraise her own behavior (Miller, 1998). According to Chance (2003) people observe the behavior of others because it is reinforcing to do so. Somebody will avoid contact with another if they see that they are in a bad mood, for example. It is reinforcing to stay away and avoid conflict. People observe their own behavior in much the same way because it is also reinforcing. “When we observe our behavior carefully, we can better predict what we will do. Self-awareness allows us to behave more effectively” (Chance, 2003, p. 223). Gallup (1979), in accordance with this idea that our sense of self comes from interactions with others, found that chimpanzees reared in isolation seemed incapable of recognizing themselves in the mirror. However, those chimpanzees reared only with humans had the capacity to recognize themselves in a mirror, suggesting that social interactions with others need not be of the same species. Thus, self-awareness in chimpanzees does not appear to depend on species identity
(Gallup, 1979).
Other species such as monkeys and birds were given the mirror test but none showed any signs of self-recognition. However, it has been found that the bottlenose dolphins have the ability for self-recognition. Two dolphins were placed in a pool with reflective walls. Then ink was applied to their bodies. The dolphins began pursuing the marks by positioning themselves in front of the mirrors (Bower, 2001).
It is thought that self-awareness is an evolved state from self-preservation. Self-awareness is an important adaptation for it gives animals “the ability to recognize their environment and themselves in order to avoid being hunted, create and defend their territorial grounds, groom themselves, protect themselves” (Miensinompe, 1997, and survive in situations where self love and caring are necessary. It is this author’s contention that animals do have a sense of self-awareness and self-recognition does not mean self-awareness. It is very difficult for some animals to understand that their image could be some place else other than their own bodies, as in a mirror image. Not having the capacity for self-recognition does not mean they don’t have a sense of self-awareness. Successfully teaching an animal to recognize itself is due to the animal’s ability to do so. That is, a certain level of intelligence is needed. If the animal is incapable of learning to recognize itself this does not mean it is not self-aware, rather it lacks the brain power to do so.

Baker, O. (1999, April). Neurons for higher primates only. ScienceNOW, (2). Retrieved July 27, 2004, from HighBeam Research database.

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Benson, K. (2001, December). Preschoolers’ use of reflective properties: Identification of reflections on partially transparent surfaces. Journal of Genetic Psychology. Retrieved July 27, 2004, from HighBeam Research database.

Bower, B. (2001, May). Dolphins may seek selves in mirror images. (indications of self-awareness in dolphins) (Brief article). Science News, 159(18). Retrieved July 27, 2004, from HighBeam Research database.

Gallup, G.G. (1979, July-August). Self-awareness in primates. American Scientist, 67(5), 417-421. Retrieved July 26, 2004, from XanEdu database.
Miensinompe, S. V. (1997). Animal’s self awareness. Retrieved August 5, 2004, from
Miller, N. (1998, February). The reflective self: A sociological perspective. Roeper Review, 20(3). Retrieved July 28, 2004, from HighBeam Research database.

Pennisi, E. (1999, June). Primate abilities: are our primate cousins ‘conscious’? Science, 284(5423), 2070-2073. Retrieved July 28, 2004, from HighBeam Research database.

Rymbaugh, D. (1995, September). Primate language and cognition: Common ground. Social Research, 63(3). Retrieved July 25, 2004, from HighBeam Research database.

Schmid, R. E. (2003, May). Researchers: Chimps closer to humans. AP Online. Retrieved July 28, 2004, from HighBeam Research database.

Wynne, C. (1999, November). Do animals think? Psychology Today. Retrieved July 26, 2004, from HighBeam Research database


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