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Further Comments on Kohler's Work


This brief excerpt on Kohler's work is also from the book The Animal Mind by J.L Gould & C. G. Gould

But there is more to the story. First, Kohler's films are of chimpanzees that had repeatedly approached the problems in question; their successes, such as they were, were achieved slowly. The crate stacking behavior, after nearly three years of practice, remains laughably inept: the animals still try to balance on a corner, or even position the crates so that the open end faces up, which makes it difficult either to stack additional crates or find stable footing on the existing pile.

Later studies, notably Paul Schiller's attempt to reproduce Kohler's work in the late 1940s, demonstrated that experience kohler3.gif (142628 bytes)playing with the toys that later become tools was essential to eventual success. He noted that if provided with sticks, chimps poke and swing at almost anything ( and frequently at nothing at all), and try to connect them into pairs with no reward in sight. Chimps love to climb on crates to provide an elevated stage for swinging sticks, and to stack crates   for the apparent fun of it. Schiller reported that each tower-building chimp "climbed on the tower jumping upward from the top repeatedly with arms lifted above the head and stretched toward the ceiling. For the human observer it was hard to believe that there was no food above them to be reached. Needless to say, none of these animals had ever been tested in box-stacking problem situations."


Beyond that by now familiar lesson that the cognitive underpinnings of a behavior often seem to weaken as we learn more about the natural behavior of a species, there is the further complication that the "operant" may actually be constructed of innate motor programs linked together in just the UR-UR-UR-UR-UR sequence hypothesized by Watson. The discovery that typical laboratory operants are actually either innate gestures or at least innately constrained (as in the pecking styles of pigeons) should already have sown the seeds of doubt. Chimpanzees may indeed have insight ( and we will look at better-controlled experiments in later chapters); indeed, having the wit to realize that something done in play-as one of many possible behavioral sequences, explored apparently just for the fun of it-might solve a novel problem probably does qualify as insight. Of course it represents a low-level, everyday sort of insight, and if we take a hard line and require complete, from-the-ground-up novelty before conceding conscious inspiration, then Kohler's pioneering work, though charming to read and watch, does not provide much unambiguous evidence one way or the other. But by that standard few humans would get passing marks for cognitive prowess.

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