Apes vs. Toddlers

Apes vs. Toddlers

Although equivalent in many intellectual tasks, human toddlers are much better than apes in social thinking.


Comparing ape and toddler thinking. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Apes can match human two-and-a-half year olds in numerical and spatial reasoning. But toddlers win hands-down in another kind of thinking, called social cognition. This according to researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. Cognitive scientist Josep Call says social cognition is thinking based on interactions with others.


And this includes things like learning from others, or things like communicating with others, or trying to assess what others know or do not know.

For example, the toddlers learned to open a tube by watching an adult do it, while the apes ignored the demonstration. Humans' superior social cognition may have helped create human civilization and technology, allowing us to share knowledge easily and pass it on to future generations. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

Social cognition is such a fundamental part of human learning that we take it for granted. In fact, just saying the word “learning” probably conjures up images of sitting in a classroom, reading a book, or taking lessons from a piano teacher or gymnastics coach: all of which are forms of social cognition.

In fact, with so many studies showing surprising intellectual abilities in apes, dolphins, birds, and even insects, our great capacity for social cognition may be the most important difference between our minds and those of apes, or other animals. That's called the “cultural intelligence hypothesis,” and it could explain why humans have created complex societies and technologies that no other animal species has even approached.

The authors compared chimps and orangutans to two-and-a-half year-old children. Previous studies had shown intellectual similarities between apes and children of this age. Another reason for choosing young toddlers is that most of them had not yet been exposed to school or other forms of organized learning. Presumably, then, any social cognition skills that they demonstrated would come from their genes, biology, and normal development, rather than the environment in which they were raised.

Overall, the apes scored about as well as humans on tasks like finding a treat, even when the treat was hidden, moved, or rotated so that it looked different from before. On simple tests of numerical reasoning, spatial challenges like using a tool to get a reward, and understanding cause and effect, the chimps also kept pace with the toddlers, even outscoring them on certain tasks. Orangutans, which are more distant relatives to humans, scored nearly but not quite as well.

However, on the social cognition tasks, the children easily outscored the apes. Those tasks included the one described in the radio story (learning to open a tube by watching somebody). Other skills in which children were superior to apes included communicating with gestures to get a treat, judging when an experimenter was paying attention, following the experimenter's gaze to locate a treat, and judging what the experimenter was trying (and failing) to do. And while it may seem that the human children had an advantage because they were interacting with another human, other studies have shown that apes don't perform any better or worse on similar tasks when dealing with another ape.

If this study's conclusions are correct, it poses further questions about human evolution. For example, at what point did our ancestors develop social cognition? Was it gradual, or relatively sudden? How long was the gap between the emergence of social cognition and the beginnings of civilization? Do complex, abstract kinds of thinking, like architecture or algebra, require a kind of superior overall intelligence that only humans possess, or are they simply the ultimate result of cultural forms of intelligence, like the creation of written numbers? Is cultural intelligence, in the forms of language, literacy, mathematics, and organized learning, responsible for most of our intellectual development? In other words, without cultural intelligence, would we all be no “smarter” than the average toddler—or chimpanzee?

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is social cognition? What is the cultural intelligence hypothesis? How are they related?
  2. Why does this study support the cultural intelligence hypothesis?
  3. An alternative to the cultural intelligence hypothesis is the “general intelligence hypothesis,” which states that humans are simply smarter than apes across the board. Why does this study contradict that hypothesis?
  4. In what ways has “cultural intelligence” made it possible for you to do things that you've done just today?

You may want to check out the October 5, 2007, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: The mosquito's exquisite sense of smell, how genes affect our odor perception, the cognitive skills of apes and toddlers, new analysis of old fossils leads to surprising discoveries, and how forensic scientists get DNA from blood.

For Educators

For a glimpse of how social thinking shaped early human civilization, check out Ancient Mesopotamia: Mathematics and Measurement, from the EDSITEment-reviewed Oriental Institute. It explores the ways in which humans experimented with math at the dawn of recorded history. You might discuss how social cognition made it possible to communicate and develop these ideas.

The National Geographic News article "Hobbit" Island Tools Predate Modern Humans reports that an early relative of humans may have passed toolmaking tips down to future generations starting around 800,000 years ago.

Tufts University's Primate Use of Language site provides more insight into the linguistic abilities that apes and humans share.

Read about some possible examples of primitive cultural learning in apes in the National Geographic News Article Orangutans Show Signs of Culture.

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