Of course we’re going to throw faeces at him…

Arthur Eddington theorised that an infinite number of monkeys tapping away on typewriters would eventually reproduce the complete works of Shakespeare. A practical demonstration of this using a computer keyboard and six Celebes Crested Macaques in a Devon zoo merely resulted in 5 pages of the letter ‘S’ and a keyboard smeared in poo. Not necessarily the actions of an intelligent life form.

From the film Project Nim

Or maybe not. Bill Hopkins and his team at Emory University have conducted behavioural experiments in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Chimps are one of the few species, aside from humans, that throw things at specific targets. Invariably, this includes faeces. According to the authors one of the aims if the study was to test whether chimps that have learned to throw are socially more sophisticated or more intelligent than those that have not. Because the chimps are aware that their actions can influence those around them (throwing poo at people does tend to make them more sweary), it is thought that they are better able to adapt socially and are more able to manipulate situations. Apes went thought a series of cognitive tests to measure communication, spatial cognition, memory, causality and theory of mind. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was used to compare the brain activity of apes that could throw well with those who could not.

What the authors found was that chimps who threw more stuff and with better aim showed more activity in the brain areas associated with movement and movement planning during cognitive testing. The scientists suggest that this is a result of better connectivity in the brains of throwing-chimps. Theses chimps were also better communicators, not only with other chimps, but with humans as well – bear in mind how strongly ape and monkeys depend on gestural communication.

Here’s an example of some smart monkeys:

Curiously, the same conclusions cannot be extrapolated to humans; by and large human premiership footballers, while very skilled at kicking a ball (and presumably throwing faeces), tend to lack verbal communication skills (as evidenced by anyone who has tried to watch post-match interviews). Although their gestural communication on the pitch is probably pretty good.

Full paper here: Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 12 January 2012 vol. 367 no. 1585 37-47, doi: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0195


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