Can animals be creative? In 1953, on a small island off the coast of Japan, scientists began observing macaques to compare their behaviors with those of other primates. In order to habituate the shy macaques to their presence, the primatologists provisioned the animals with sweet potatoes, dropping them on the ground. Then one day, a young female macaque, whom the researchers called Imo, carried a dirty sweet potato into a fresh-water stream and dipped it in the water. She soon took to wetting and rubbing clean all her potatoes before eating them.
But the story doesn’t end there. Cognitive scientists also distinguish creativity from innovation. Innovations are socially creative; they change the way groups think and act. Imo’s invention was also an innovation. Within a few months, Imo’s brothers and sisters, some of her friends, and her mother, too, were washing their potatoes. The behavior slowly spread to other young macaques, their older siblings and their mothers.
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