Humans: not so unique, not so special? The case of the clever Mandrill.

Humans: not so unique, not so special? The case of the clever Mandrill.  


Not so long ago the world of science was very different. Leading scientists of their age believed in alchemy, a 6000 year old (flat) Earth and that DNA was unimportant. Another belief was that humans were superior to any other animal on the planet. It wasn’t until Charles Darwin presented his theory of natural selection in the 19th Century that opinions began to change. As we all know, this theory made people think again about where or more importantly from what species originated and ultimately that humans are not so different from other animals.

Since that realisation, more evidence from genetics to behavioural studies has been gathered which further supports the theory. In the 1970s it was thought that humans were the only primates that used tools, but since then evidence of tool use and/or manipulation has been found in a number of primates including chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and capuchins. Current scientific thinking is to study these behaviours and see how they can help us understand the evolution of our own tool use behaviour.

Observation of tool use and modification for apparent hygiene purposes in a mandrill  

A paper was published in May this year which describes the use of tools by alpha male mandrill monkey in captivity at Chester Zoo, England. To confirm the use of tools the mandrills were videoed over 252 hours, of which the alpha male demonstrated tool use 7 times. The tool use observed involved the alpha male picking up and studying wood chip and bark from the floor surface. The preferred wood chip and bark was then broken down into twigs and again into splinters. The splinters were then used to clean underneath the toenails of each foot. After a splinter broke, or had worn down too much, a new splinter was selected.

It is clear from this observation that this captive mandrill is able to identify, manipulate and use tools. As the behaviour was not a one off, it can be implied that the act was achieved intentionally. It is unlikely the mandrill is imitating a human it has seen behaving in this way due to the mandrill’s environment. But it is possible the mandrill was only able to develop this behaviour due to the extra time available as a result of not having to find food.

While it is obvious more studies, using different mandrills are required to further support this study, mandrills can now be considered as a tool using and modifying animal. The study also provides more evidence that it is not just the great apes that display tool use, but also other old world monkeys such as the capuchins and mandrills.

Final thoughts

A question that has been frequently asked about the human species is: what makes us so special? For a long time people thought it was our tool use, but with so much evidence to contradict that being our unique feature it seems unlikely. A relatively new theory presented by Professor Paul M. Bingham and Joanne Souza suggests that our uniqueness is our ability to demonstrate non-kin independent social cooperation. That is, our ability to form a culture, to socialise within that culture and to cooperate regardless of relatedness. Obviously this is and can only be a theory, and like any theory it is being tested, but it is gaining scientific backing.

This case is an example of how scientists do get some things wrong, even fundamental knowledge such as the shape of the earth or the origins of our species. What is important is the progression from one theory to another one, with better evidence supporting that new theory – otherwise known as the scientific method. This method is the foundation of science and with its continual use we can begin to understand some of the most fundamental questions facing science.


Further Reading

Journal Article:

Pansini R, Et al. 2001. Observation of tool use and modification for apparent hygiene purposes in a mandrill. Behavioural processes.

News article covering the story:

5 thoughts on “Humans: not so unique, not so special? The case of the clever Mandrill.”

  1. Great article. I think in time all of the traits we typically identify as “human” will be found in animals. Our body is after all just flesh and bone like them! From the perspective of biology there is nothing that separates us. I agree with the theory of non-kin independent social co-operation, but would add that humans are still evolving and are yet to realise the implications of co-operating in a society. I think only once we learn how to understand others and work together as a single organism will we truly be separate from the animals!

  2. Understanding how we are so unique, ecologically dominant indeed, is a both rewarding and empowering venture. It enables us to relinquish any arrogance, proceed with objectivity (treating ourselves as biological organisms), and ultimately pave way for an optimistic, humane human future. Our progression to the species we are today was without question the products of a social rather than genetic revolution – the fruits of cooperating in a kinship-independent manner on a scale seen absolutely nowhere else in nature. Our closest living relatives find it a difficult chore to count to ten if trained, and cooperate in familial coalitions at best, yet we walk on the moon and perform open heart surgery amidst cooperation on the scale of nation states. To dismiss the power of this theory – that cultural information flow and access to kinship-independent cooperation leads to walking on the moon – is to miss the point. Of course, the fun part about powerful theories is the ability it gives you to make valid predictions, unifying what once seemed to be isolated bits and pieces of knowledge into a concept that fits the empirical data. In the case of our uniqueness, we now have the power to merge all such seemingly different disciplines e.g., evolutionary biology, anatomy, archaeology, linguistics, political science, psychology, etc…


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