James S. McDonnell Foundation Has Baboons on the Brain, but Humans in Mind

Homo sapiens’ dominion over the earth is based on our superior intellect, but new findings from a team at the University of Rochester shows that at least one of our skills — the ability to count — isn't limited to human beings.

In a study printed in the journal Frontiers in Comparative Psychology and funded by the James S. McDonnell Foundation, the researchers found that baboons have quantitative skills that rival those of human children (see James S. McDonnell Foundation: Grants for Science Research). The scientists presented the group of olive baboons with two cups, each filled with a different number of peanuts. The primates had trouble discriminating between two cups with similar amounts of peanuts — say, six in one and seven in the other. But in cases where the difference was large, they showed significant skill in picking out the most desirable cup.

"This (research) tells us that non-human primates have in common with humans a fundamental ability to make approximate quantity judgments," co-author Jessica Cantlon said. "Humans build on this talent by learning number words and developing a linguistic system of numbers, but in the absence of language and counting, complex math abilities do still exist."

To the McDonnell Foundation, the research is about more than the counting skills of a baboon. The project was funded in 2011 as part of the foundation's Understanding Human Cognition project. The project's goal is to improve our understanding of the interaction among neural systems, cognitive function, and human behavior. 

This typically involves study of human cognition, but research like the University of Rochester's baboon study is considered if it is likely to provide insight into human activity. Primates, after all, are humans' closest relatives, and the baboon work is just one aspect of the Rochester team’s work. They are also using development research and neuroimaging to examine other aspects of the way the brain processes quantitative information.

This does not mean, however, that the foundation is interested in funding the famous studies that find areas of the brain that are more active when people perform certain tasks. McDonnell's science experts think such efforts take "too wide a leap in a single bound." They are more interested in targeted, interesting questions that will shed light on the brain’s functionality. (Read McDonnell president, John Bruer's IP profile).

Of course, the foundation also funds projects through its two other programs — aimed at brain cancer and the study of complex systems. As in the Understanding Human Cognition program, these grants are aimed at work that is creative but tailored to well-specified guidelines. Like Dr. Cantlon's baboons, the foundation is good at identifying what it wants.