I'll be honest here. Although this is a serious question, what made me wonder about it is this comic from Wumo:
enter image description here

This question is not specific to monkeys. It applies to animals that live with or sufficiently close to human dwellings and would be able to observe our habits daily. I'm not referring to training animals.
Even among animals that have an opposable thumb like ours but different HAR regions, the use of tools seems to be too primitive. Chimps have been known to re-use tools and even cumulative cultural evolution is documented. Whales have been hypothesized to have high intelligence (although not necessarily) due to larger brains containing more spindle neurons. But I couldn't find any info on whether whales use tools (Dolphins are said to use sponges though).

On considering if mirror neurons were helping chimps copy each other and use tools, I found that the very existence of mirror neurons in humans is under question.

So if a chimp can use simple tools, what prevents them from looking at us and imitating our use of something as simple as using a plastic bag or a crude tray to carry a bunch of fruits? Is there a gradation of complexity of tool use that various brains can process? A reason that no matter what happens, a chimp would not be able to imitate our use of tools? Could this be compared to how aged people are unable to learn how to use a smartphone or computer no matter how many times it is explained to them (or even how young people fail to understand pointers and recursion)? Perhaps the ability is related to an animal's capability to form new neural connections of a certain type?

Training an animal like Jack the baboon is different from what I'm asking.

Some examples of primates trying to carry many fruits. enter image description here

  • $\begingroup$ Not an expert on this, and it's hard to prove a negative, but the only example I am aware of is that due to the way their vocal apparatus is setup, even the most close relatives to humans cannot exactly reproduce human vocalizations. It seems plausible that the stronger limitations are physical. If an animal has the means to use a tool and its survival depends on that tool's use, I do not see why it shouldn't be able to learn how to use the tool given enough time. $\endgroup$
    – vkehayas
    Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 17:13
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ What use would a monkey (or a chimp - chimps are not monkeys) have for a plastic bag? Those animals don't typically stockpile or collect foods, they eat on the go. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ Where would (wild) chimps see humans using plastic bags? (Also, I think you are mistaken about older people not being able to learn to use smartphones. I know many who have.) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Feb 5, 2019 at 18:59

1 Answer 1


Bags are not that useful if your are not human.

Most primates are too small to get any benefit from it, the bags are too large and would drag on the ground or get snagged on branches, even chimps and gorilla don't have enough ground clearance to not have this problem. Primates have been known to play with plastic bags, but they would not provide much benefit. A primate would need to carry the bag around for hours to fill it and wait before they could eat anything from it, all the while dragging it and hoping it did not tear. Upright humans are the only primate built to carry things long distance, a bag would not help other primates much.

Most primates are frugivores, carrying around extra fruit is not actually very helpful, most primates live near their food sources. Not to mention getting fruit in a tree into a bag is rather difficult task. Carrying around fruit is not very helpful because many primates have a different and much better way of storing ripe fruit in other primates AKA food sharing. Most primates will call other primates of the same species to ripe fruit since sharing in this way means they are more likely to have other primates share with them, thats far better food security than carrying around some extra fruit. It is also a lot easier to call many others to you than carry enough for everyone else.

The primates in your pictures are zoo primates which are both extremely bored and often very anti-social due to being raised in isolation. They might get some benefit, but they are not going to do well in the wild, and no zoo in its right mind is going to give its animals plastic bags.

  • $\begingroup$ Ok that's logical, but the question isn't really about plastic bags. It's about the thought process of animals going one step further to make more use of tools. I don't think even feral human children brought up by animals have learnt to use tools as well as we do. I know people who prefer using their hands in instead of pliers for better control while soldering, so I guess it's the hyperbolic discounting illusion of better control overriding the technical long-term benefit. $\endgroup$
    – Nav
    Commented Feb 7, 2019 at 4:02
  • $\begingroup$ f that is your question you are not clear about it. And you need to define what you mean by "a step further" tool use is quite widespread in animals. also there is no such thing as feral children brought up by animals. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Feb 7, 2019 at 11:22

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