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Seeing the “human” side of orangutans

In “Orangutans show engineering skills when building nests” (BBC Nature, 16 April 2012), Victoria Gill reports,

Orangutans show remarkably advanced engineering skills when making nests, researchers say.

Their study, in the journal PNAS, reveals that the apes select thick branches for a scaffold and thinner branches for a springy mattress.

Roland Ennos from the University of Manchester, a senior member of the research team, told BBC Nature that the behaviour revealed the animals’ “sophisticated tool use and construction skills”.

“They show a lot of engineering know-how in how they build their nests,” he said.

Yes, but so do squirrels. And one doesn’t see many squirrel nests falling out of the trees …

One could say that squirrels show intelligence because they incorporate urban rubbish, new to the species, into their nests, instead of stricking by rote to the natural materials. But that point is much less likely to be made because it doesn’t follow the backstory of common descent.

Backstory? That’s a writer’s term for the history of the fictional characters before the novel opens. In this case, the backstory of common descent means, among other things, that engineering abilities that go largely unnoticed among squirrels – or paper wasps – are attributed to the orangutan’s intelligence – though it’s not clear how much more intelligence is needed.

One thing about building a sleeping compartment in a tree is that the error tolerance is quite low. So the incentive to learn and teach the correct method is quite high.

The other almost invariable feature of such stories is the claim that studying the ape’s habits will teach us something about people. Here, for example, we are told that

studying our primate cousins revealed insight into the origin of our own representational view of the world”.

“Instead of just [seeing] a branch, the orangutans also see a nest-building material,” he said.  (Vid provided.)

But mustn’t that also be true of squirrels?

The researcher was careful not to say that their work teaches us “how humans evolved to construct shelters” – probably because there is little evidence that most humans have ever wanted to live in trees. Surely, fear of falling to one’s death has something to do with that. As soon as one can abstract the idea of death in general, the obvious disadvantages of certain lifestyles become apparent.

Orangutans feeding in trees:

Also, squirrel nest:

And paper wasp nest:

This one is cute: An orang mother doesn’t let her baby wander off:

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One Response to Seeing the “human” side of orangutans

  1. But who’s studying evolutionary Biology???

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