In the Animal Kingdom, the Astonishing Power of the Number Instinct

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In the Animal Kingdom, the Astonishing Power of the Number Instinct

Andreas Nieder


Quote:A host of studies examining animals in their ecological environments suggest that they have evolved to use numbers in order to exploit food sources, avoid predators, and reproduce.



Quote:In 2005, a team of biologists at the University of Washington found that black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapilla) in Europe developed a surprising way to announce the presence and dangerousness of a predator. Like many other animals, chickadees produce alarm calls when they detect a potential predator, such as a hawk, to warn their fellow chickadees. For stationary predators, these little songbirds use their namesake “chick-a-dee” alarm call. It has been shown that the number of “dee” notes at the end of this alarm call indicates the danger level of a predator. A call such as “chick-a-dee-dee” with only two “dee” notes may indicate a rather harmless great gray owl. Great gray owls are too big to maneuver and follow the agile chickadees in woodland, so they aren’t a serious threat. In contrast, maneuvering between trees is no problem for the small pygmy owl, which is why it is one of the most dangerous predators for these small birds. When chickadees see a pygmy owl, they increase the number of “dee” notes and call “chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee.” Here, the number of sounds serves as an active anti-predation strategy.



Quote:Two conditions were presented to subjects: either the recordings of single female lions roaring, or of groups of three females roaring together. The researchers were curious to see if the number of attackers and the number of defenders would have an impact on the defender’s strategy. Interestingly, a single defending female was very hesitant to approach the playbacks of a single or three intruders. However, three defenders readily approached the roaring of a single intruder, but not the roaring of three intruders together.

Obviously, the risk of getting hurt when entering a fight with three opponents was foreboding. Only if the number of the residents was five or more did the lionesses approach the roars of three intruders. In other words, lionesses decide to approach intruders aggressively only if they outnumber the latter — another clear example of an animal’s ability to take quantitative information into account.
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell


[-] The following 4 users Like Sciborg_S_Patel's post:
  • Laird, Larry, stephenw, tim
I do think they are conflating two things - number detection as a process that seems easily ascribed to instincts gained via evolution and the actual comprehension of numbers.

The idea in the article seems to be the former elides into the latter, but we haven't found the right explanation quite yet. But I think these differ in the same way - as Hilary Putnam once pointed out - seeking out and eating meat is different than actual thinking about meat.
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell


[-] The following 5 users Like Sciborg_S_Patel's post:
  • stephenw, Silence, Typoz, Brian, nbtruthman
It's no surprise really.  What we as humans think of as a number is derived from an instinctive sense of amount, the simplest being a binary object or space.  As far as warning is concerned, is it not natural to scream for longer if the threat is scarier?  How precise was the count?  The information is too vague.
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  • Typoz
(2020-09-12, 11:44 AM)Brian Wrote: It's no surprise really.  What we as humans think of as a number is derived from an instinctive sense of amount, the simplest being a binary object or space.  As far as warning is concerned, is it not natural to scream for longer if the threat is scarier?  How precise was the count?  The information is too vague.

I think that (as Psi has pointed out), the instinctive use by some animals of some simple numbers for personal and group survival is fundamentally different than the human mental grasp of the abstract concepts of numbers and beyond that, abstract mathematical concepts like Pi, square root, e, etc. etc., and going into high level math. I don't think any animal is capable of abstract thought, and abstract thought is not in some sort of evolvable continuum with the simple use of numbers by some animals. Abstract thought is of an existentially, fundamentally different nature and is unique to humans.
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  • tim
(2020-09-12, 04:42 PM)nbtruthman Wrote: I think that (as Psi has pointed out), the instinctive use by some animals of some simple numbers for personal and group survival is fundamentally different than the human mental grasp of the abstract concepts of numbers and beyond that, abstract mathematical concepts like Pi, square root, e, etc. etc., and going into high level math. I don't think any animal is capable of abstract thought, and abstract thought is not in some sort of evolvable continuum with the simple use of numbers by some animals. Abstract thought is of an existentially, fundamentally different nature and is unique to humans.

Thinking about it wouldn't whales/dolphins (just for example) be capable of abstract thought?
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(2020-09-12, 04:42 PM)nbtruthman Wrote: I think that (as Psi has pointed out), the instinctive use by some animals of some simple numbers for personal and group survival is fundamentally different than the human mental grasp of the abstract concepts of numbers and beyond that, abstract mathematical concepts like Pi, square root, e, etc. etc., and going into high level math. I don't think any animal is capable of abstract thought, and abstract thought is not in some sort of evolvable continuum with the simple use of numbers by some animals. Abstract thought is of an existentially, fundamentally different nature and is unique to humans.

I think we are on the same page - I just meant that our abstract understanding has developed from an instinct that all animals have and therefore, it is not surprising that sometimes animals might appear to be counting when they are not.  Our number 2, for example, derives from a perception of two objects.  It doesn't seem likely that animals can separate 2 from objects the way we can.
(This post was last modified: 2020-09-12, 06:21 PM by Brian.)
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  • nbtruthman
(2020-09-12, 05:37 PM)tim Wrote: Thinking about it wouldn't whales/dolphins (just for example) be capable of abstract thought?

I suppose it depends whether or not they need it.  Is their any reason why a whale would have any use for 5 or 8 that has nothing to do with something that they need to interact with?
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  • Sciborg_S_Patel
I think you have to look at this from study to study. It seems the signaling function to detect the number of prior mates. for example, is different than what was being looked for in the bee studies?

All to say I [do] think the difference between humans and animals is partially a matter of degree rather than of kind, the notable exception in the case of mathematics being the capacity for doing proofs which gives calculus, computer science, etc. [Though that might also just be a level of abstraction rather than something wholly different, depending on how one looks at it.]

Dolphins and whales *might* be capable but not sure how you'd even show this.
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell


(This post was last modified: 2020-09-12, 09:40 PM by Sciborg_S_Patel.)
[-] The following 1 user Likes Sciborg_S_Patel's post:
  • tim
(2020-09-12, 06:17 PM)Brian Wrote: I think we are on the same page - I just meant that our abstract understanding has developed from an instinct that all animals have and therefore, it is not surprising that sometimes animals might appear to be counting when they are not.  Our number 2, for example, derives from a perception of two objects.  It doesn't seem likely that animals can separate 2 from objects the way we can.

What we are talking about is having abstract concepts of immaterial somethings that are totally independent of physical objects, i.e. like the number 10 for instance which is real but immaterial and exists as an abstraction or Platonic form regardless of there being that number of physical objects or not. I don't think this is in the consciousness of any animal. Could there be some sort of experiment to determine this?

My view is that abstract thought in man is probably one of the transcendental elements of the human spirit or soul.
Brainy Bees Think Abstractly

Quote:The capacity for abstract thinking does not belong to humans alone, as studies of other vertebrates, such as primates, pigeons and dolphins, have shown. Now new research indicates that invertebrates, too, possess higher cognitive functions. According to a report in the current issue of the journal Nature, the humble honeybee can form "sameness" and "difference" conceptsan ability that may help them in their daily foraging activities.


This seems to predate the bees recognizing zero stuff AFAICT...
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell



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