Social Tests Flounder Apes

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ScienceNOW: “Do Social Smarts Set Us Apart?

A Congolese study headed by doctoral student Esther Herrmann and her advisor, Michael Tomasello, both of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, is the latest research to highlight humans’ intellectual distinction from apes.

Reporting in Science, the researchers describe tests conducted on a group of 106 chimpanzees, 32 orangutans, and 105 two-and-a-half-year-old German toddlers. The participants were given a series of tests, six of which were social and ten of which were physical. The results? “On the physical tasks, children performed no better than the chimps or orangutans. The chimps even outperformed the children on three tasks. When it came to social cognition, however, the toddlers were well ahead of the game.”

The chimps and orangutans were unable to replicate the demonstrated solution.

The study particularly focuses on the human children’s “specialized skills of social cognition” that allowed them to ape (pun intended) the scientists’ demonstration of how to extract a toy from a plastic tube. The chimps and orangutans were unable to replicate the demonstrated solution.

Puzzlingly, Daniel Povinelli, director of the Cognitive Evolution Group at the University of Louisiana–Lafayette, thinks the children may have had an unfair advantage because:

[T]he children [may have] outperformed on the social tasks not because the tasks were social but because they were inherently more difficult and abstract than the physical challenges[.]

We don’t understand how this gives the children an advantage; it merely supports the idea that the human mind is more capable of complex, abstract (and, in this case, social) thinking.

This study conveniently piggybacks on the conclusions of University of Pennsylvania researcher David Premack, whose eight-year study reviewing ape and human mental processes led him to conclude that there are “more dissimilarities than similarities in complexity and purposes among species” than Darwin assumed when hypothesizing ape-to-human descent. (We reported on this brief story in last week’s News to Note.)


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