Friday, September 06, 2002

CHIMPANZEE LEARNS TO PAY

This young chimp's not just monkeying around
Tony Lee Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Looking at the young chimpanzee struggling to put the right peg in the right hole, I'm struck by how human he appears. The quizzical but determined look on his face could be seen in any kindergarten, and even his lips seem pursed in concentration.

It's almost ridiculously easy to believe what Claudia Sousa, a graduate student here at Kyoto University's Primate Research Institute (PRI), tells me, that studying Ayumu can help us understand human evolution. Just weeks before my visit, the toddler caused quite a flurry at PRI when he earned a 100 yen coin and used it to buy food--a complex task that suggests he may not only be able to use tools, but also understand the basic concept of money.

But then Ayumu scampers off to his mother, Ai, knuckles treading the floor, and I realize there's more than just a clear plastic wall dividing us--there's also 5 to 10 million years, depending on how you base your estimate....

If Sousa and Matsuzawa succeed in showing that chimps can understand that money serves multiple functions and that different objects can be given different values, this would add ammunition to the prevailing but controversial view among primatologists that the differences between chimps and humans are of degree rather than kind. And that would be one in the eye to Chomsky.

The center of all this attention, though, couldn't care less. All he wants to do right now is get the peg through the hole.