Tools of labor, pigs and people: where is the border of reason

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Tools of labor, pigs and people: where is the border of reason
Tools of labor, pigs and people: where is the border of reason

Back in the 20th century, it was believed that only people can use tools and this is an undoubted sign of reason. In fact, they are used by many species - up to insects - and recently it turned out that even pigs can do this.


One of the weirdest science news of the week is the discovery that pigs use tools to dig nests for their piglets just before giving birth. Does this mean that we need to change the mind about the intelligence of pigs? Or is it more important to think about where the line between the rational and the unreasonable lies in general - and whether the tools have anything to do with this line?

Anyone who tried to make at least the simplest tool in childhood - from a slingshot to a spear thrower - knows perfectly well that it is far from easy even for a preschooler who seems to know what the final look of the tool should be. Therefore, for a long time it was believed that no one, except a person, makes tools himself, but only uses unchanged branches and stones of natural origin.

This misconception persisted for a surprisingly long time, mainly because primate biologists had preconceived notions about what should separate humans and apes. But the observation of monkeys themselves was not particularly fond of: for this it was necessary to spend a lot of time in the not very comfortable conditions of Africa.

The case was corrected by chance. Englishwoman Jane Goodall began observing chimpanzees in Tanzania in the 1950s, without the biological education she received later. She was guided only by her interest in these animals. It was through him that she found out that chimpanzees are not peaceful vegetarians, as they thought then due to insufficient efforts to observe them in nature. Noticing chimpanzees catching and eating termites, she found out that these animals pluck leaves from a branch in order to put it in a termite mound and extract insects from there.

The discovery caused a real shock. British paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey then stated: "We must now change the definition of a tool, change the definition of a person, or accept a chimpanzee as a person!"

It was not possible to change the definition of a tool: a wearable object changed by the labor of an animal remains a tool, no matter how much we would like to call it something else. Perhaps recognizing chimpanzees as equal, as some animal rights advocates demand? The same Goodall noticed that they hug each other (and not only sexual partners, but also family members). It is now known that some of them, observing the behavior of people, can collect firewood, light a fire and cook food on it:

By the way, they can also do the simplest stone tools surprisingly quickly - if you show them how:

Who else is equal to man

As soon as modern biologists moved away from the abstract ideas that "animals cannot", it quickly became clear that animals actively use the objects they have changed as tools. Of course, the process of such a radical restructuring of vision was not an easy task for biologists. Back in 1990, there was an opinion among them that of all animals, only chimpanzees know how to make tools, which created the question of recognizing him as such a "younger brother" of man.

But after a dozen years, they found out that orangutans also modify the branches, removing the bark from them and flattening the end (for example, for digging up insects). Moreover, the number of types of their weapons is counted in dozens. Mandrills in nature make short sticks for cleaning the ears, and in zoos they use similar sticks of their manufacture to clean the dirt from under the nails.Due to the specifics of the life of gorillas, it is still uncomfortable for biologists to observe them in nature, but in captivity, where it is easy, gorillas make different tools (including sticks to reason with opponents and throw them at human visitors), although people next to them are not so are engaged. Chimpanzees, as discovered by 2007, even sharpen the tips of sticks to hunt other species of monkeys.

The "primitive" capuchin monkeys in South America or cynomolgus monkeys in Thailand also use stone tools:

Moreover, the Capuchins often extract quartzite inclusions for their tools from large pieces of rock, beating off fragments from it with the help of other tools. According to archaeological finds, they have been doing this for a very long time, perhaps millions of years.

Not only primates

Perhaps to recognize as "younger people" all primates who make tools? Unfortunately, this is not an option. At the end of the 20th century, biologists began to intensively observe elephants as well. It turned out that they not only peel the branches and break them into pieces to drive away insects, but also engage in complex tool activities.

For example, with prepared sticks, they dig the ground over a water source. When they reach it, they drink, then peel the bark from a nearby tree, chew it, make a cork from the resulting lump for a water source so that it does not evaporate. Then they can come to the source again and again, every time after drinking, plugging it with a cork. This is not just a tool activity: before us is an analogue of a human well with a lid.

We will not dwell in detail on dolphins diving after bottom dwellers, wearing a sponge or a piece of shell on their nose for protection. The modifications of these objects on the part of the owners are minimal, and this is not quite a tool as an "extension of one's body" in the strict sense of the word. Even ants can use new objects, but not as an "extension of their body" - and not by rote, but by choosing new and most effective ones, such as industrial sponges, without declaring them to be a tool species:

But a woodpecker tree finch (Galappagos Islands), breaking off a cactus thorn to the desired length in order to get insects out of a tree, formally uses and modifies a real tool. Although it weighs a couple of tens of grams, and his brain is orders of magnitude smaller than ours. New Caledonian crows even make composite tools, forming hooks with which they extract the same insects. Many believe that this behavior makes them more advanced in terms of weaponry than even chimpanzees:

Now also pigs

In 2019, in the autumn issue of the journal Mammalian Biology, a scientific work was published, where for the first time it was recorded: to take, and, possibly, break off (this issue has not yet been fully clarified) branches of the required length and even pigs can dig with them - specifically Visay warty pigs. living on several Philippine islands. In addition, they take pieces of bark of the right size and can dig soft soil not only with a short stick, but also with such bark. They dig with tools only before the birth of piglets, in order to make a nest for them in the ground. At any other time, they showed no interest in tools. Some of this activity can be seen below:

This is not just an extraordinary discovery - although the use of tools by a new species is really not discovered every day. It is also a discovery that asks more questions than answers. It was not done by a typical field biologist studying pigs. An ecologist who watched rare pigs in the Paris zoo noticed the cannon activity quite by accident. Observation is not done in nature because such activity can be noticed there only after long and persistent field work. And we are not even talking about it yet. For this type of pig, the first decent photograph was taken only in 2012.

Modern biologists love experiments in controlled laboratory conditions, but they love field observations much less. There is nothing you can do about it, you can only put up with it.But this means that in nature, not only Visayan warty pigs, but also other types of pigs can dig the earth with fragments of branches and bark - and not necessarily just before breeding.

But is it worth redefining a person because of all this? No doubt about it. The avalanche of evidence from recent decades about other species' use of tools does not mean that pigs are becoming intelligent. Rather, it suggests that the human mind is much more complex than making the tools with which it was so crudely defined in the 19th century.

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