Orangutan facts

They’re surprisingly smart:

“They say that if you give a chimpanzee a screwdriver, he’ll break it; if you give a gorilla a screwdriver, he’ll toss it over his shoulder; but if you give an orangutan a screwdriver, he’ll open up his cage and walk away.”

At Camp Leakey, the orangutans had plenty of opportunity to observe and imitate people. They soon developed a habit of stealing canoes, paddling them downriver, and abandoning them at their destinations. Even triple and quadruple knots in the ropes securing the canoes to the dock did not deter the apes. Over the years, they have also learned to brush their teeth, bathe themselves, wash clothes, weed pathways, wield saws and hammers, and soak rags in water in order to cool their foreheads with them. And they have done all of this without any instruction.

They’re also social:

But it turns out that adult female relatives stick together: they have overlapping ranges and periodically interact. “I grew up in rural Saskatchewan,” Russon, who now works and teaches at York University, in Toronto, told me. “And, for me, that is exactly what orangutan social life is like. There are communities, but they are very broadly dispersed. It might be fifteen miles to your cousin’s place, or another twenty miles to the next nearest relative, but everybody knows everybody.” Adolescent orangutans—curious and audacious—regularly make new friends. These wandering youngsters, vaulting from one tree to the next, are likely the torchbearers of orangutan culture.

Here is a paper on social behavior of Orangutans:

As they grew older males increasingly spent less time making physical contact, but the amount of time they spent in proximity (within arm’s length) to others increased. Adult females regularly played with other group members. Contact, allogrooming, and social play showed nonrandom relationships between individuals. Adult females showed the most allogrooming and contact, adolescent and subadult males the most play. There was no obvious dominance hierarchy. One adult male spent about 10% of his time walking around the perimeter of the island. One-year-old infants rarely interacted with other individuals apart from their own and the other infant’s mother. While orangutans lead relatively solitary lives in nature, it was concluded that the opportunities for social contact and play provided by the SZG orangutan island were beneficial to this species in captivity.

[Photo by George]

What is intelligence?

You may have heard that a recent GWAS study found three genes for heritable intelligence, though with tiny effects. There was a great quote in a Nature News article on the topic:

“We haven’t found nothing,” he says.

Yeah, you don’t want that to be your money quote.

Kevin Mitchell has been tweeting about the study – I hope he storifies it! – and linked to an old post of his suggesting that the genetics of intelligence are really the genetics of stupidity: it’s not that these genes are making you smarter, but that they’re making you less dumb (as I gather, a lot of evidence suggests that ‘intelligence’ is related to overall health.)

Anyway, the SNPs that the GWAS identified are in KNCMA1, NRXN1, POU2F3, and SCRT which all are involved in glutamate neurotransmission. This is always troubling to my tiny brain, because I never understand quite how ‘intelligence’ works. People like to think that is some kind of learning, so if we can just learn better we’ll be smarter. And that’s what the authors of the article hint at.

But how does that even make sense? Learning faster is, in a way, like being hyperreactive to the world. There’s a reason that overlearning is a problem in machine learning! There is an optimal level of learning that, presumably, evolution has stuck us with. So is the supposition that we’re overreactive to conforming to stimuli in the world something that is good? Or is it that the modern world favors it whereas historically it would not have? Or what?

Is it okay to eat fish if they don’t have any feelings? (Updated)


When a scientific paper begins its list of keywords with “fish cognition”, you know you’re in for a good read.

Culum Brown is tired of people eating fish, and he’s not going to take it anymore. Fish, he says, are smarter than you think. We need to cast off our view of them as dumb slimy creatures and recognize what they can really accomplish.

First, we have to realize that though they may have separated from us evolutionarily more than half a billion years ago, they are not ‘primitive’; it is not as if they stopped evolving. If a fish had stopped evolving could it do this:


That’s right – this bad boy, the cutlips minnow, gathers stones to build a mound to attract mates. And these aren’t the only ‘fishy masons’ (as Brown calls them). The jawfish builds itself a wall in front of its burrow, searching for rocks that fit together like lock and key, leaving only a hole just big enough for them to scurry through.  The Rockmover Wrasse builds itself a stone house every night. It also hunts in pairs, one member pushing rocks around so that the other can watch carefully in order to grab any prey that is revealed.

Fish also have sophisticated social intelligence. Take, for instance, the Cleaner Wrasse. They occupy stations – which I’ll generously call a storefront – where other client fish come by to have parasites and dead skin removed by the Cleaner. Brown points out that the fish have the option of several cleaners, so it is important to have a good reputation; should a Cleaner accidentally bite a client, they’ll chase after their fleeing clients and give them a good back rub to make up for it. They also prioritize certain customers over others. Model that, economists.

cleaner wrasse

Many other fish can recognize multiple individuals, and can count the number of fish in a group at a glance.

Some fish also use tools: a number of species use rocks to break open shellfish, or glue their eggs to leaves that they can them drag around as they go about their errands.

I actually came away impressed from this paper; I hadn’t known most of these fishy facts. Yet despite how smart fish are, people will still eat them; after all, they’re pretty okay eating piggies (they’re pretty smart). What matters more than any kind of intellectual empathy is a anthropomorphic one. After all, which would be more okay to eat: a really dumb monkey or a really smart (but ugly) fish?

(My biggest take-away from this is not to eat a Wrasse; those guys are pretty smart, and have a much larger brain for their size than you’d expect.)

via Marginal Revolution

Update: Ed Yong happened write an article today on this very subject! Lionfish are strategic, social hunters:

During night dives, Lönnstedt often saw teams of two to four lionfish positioning themselves around schools of smaller fish and using their fan-like pectoral fins to corral their prey “like fishermen with their nets”. The hunters then take turns to dart into the school of prey, picking them off one at a time…

“Fish social behaviour is much more complex than previously assumed. Moving away from a stimulus of major interest—prey—in order to actively recruit a partner that is initially out of sight suggests planning and awareness of objects that [they can’t see].”…But in these pursuits, the two partners are merely hunting next to each other and relying on their complementary abilities. The lionfish are doing something more impressive: they’re working together to corral their prey and taking turns to go in for the kill.


Brown C (2014). Fish intelligence, sentience and ethics. Animal cognition PMID: 24942105

No, Einstein was not smart because his brain was ‘well-connected’

 People will never tire of hearing how smart that Einstein fellow was. And following logically from that, apparently, is the truism that people will never tire of hearing about Einstein’s brain. This organ is so fascinating that it has it’s own wikipedia page full of information gleaned by its examination after it was stolen from the dear genius’ head (before being lost and then found again). And every so often a new study will exclaim about the extravagant protrusion arising from one portion of it or another leading to a series of silly articles in the popular press claiming the secret to Einstein’s smarts.

The latest explanations come from – I shit you not – a series of fourteen recently discovered photographs taken when Einstein’s brain was being sectioned. No, they did not actually examine his brain, they just looked at some photos and called it a day. Now, they’re examining these pictures and looking for things that are different about his brain from other brains, things that are known to change with recent experience and age, and they find certain areas that are larger than average or strange or so on and so forth. And they find certain things look different: “Although the overall size and asymmetrical shape of Einstein’s brain were normal, the prefrontal, somatosensory, primary motor, parietal, temporal and occipital cortices were extraordinary.”

We are now forced to wonder not just how a 76-year old Einstein’s brain was different from his youthful 20-year old self but also why we should be giving these differences credit for his intelligence rather than for his, say, keen ability at sailing. Did his engorged motor cortex really make him so smart?

The big problem here is the signal-to-noise. The thing about every person having a different brain is that every person will have something unique about their brain. Ascribing a single salient characteristic about a person, especially as an audience to a historical figure, to what is non-average about their brain is absurd. Einstein was more than just a physics-solving machine and the size of any part of his brain may have played very little role in his intelligence (or it may have: who knows).

And all this is neglecting the fact that what made him so special may be nothing at all about the hardware of his brain instead of the software of his mind (so to speak).

The truth is, we will never know what was special about Einstein by studying pictures of his brain and I can think of little that it will tell us beyond how easy it is to get a popular press article written about anything to do with Einstein. Instead, read about what psychology tells us about learning and motivation. Read what neuroscience tells us about the same. They have lots to say; the brain of Einstein does not, and never will.

Update – As pointed out to me by Alice Proverbio, Einstein was also a violinist and musicians are known to have a thicker corpus callosum, something never mentioned in the paper… Just highlighting how silly it is to pluck one aspect of a person (intelligence) and project onto it whatever oddities you find!


Men W, Falk D, Sun T, Chen W, Li J, Yin D, Zang L, & Fan M (2013). The corpus callosum of Albert Einstein’s brain: another clue to his high intelligence? Brain : a journal of neurology PMID: 24065724

Falk, D, Lepore, FE, & Noe, A (2013). The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: a description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs Brain : a journal of neurology DOI: 10.1093/brain/aws295