Friday, September 07, 2007

Are Tots Smarter Than Apes?

Are Tots Smarter Than Apes?

NO say some researchers who have tested toddlers and nonhuman apes in the same cognitive tests - such as indicating which container has more raisins in it or retrieving food hidden inside a box. Other researchers say YES, human two year olds are more able to infer the action of another and to use imitation to solve problems.

I haven't read the studies, both published recently in Science, but they sound like the usual findings: One group finds evidence that apes can solve problems by watching someone solve a problem; another groups finds no evidence for it.

So what gives?

I'm always a little suspicious of these experiments for two main reasons.

On one hand is the issue of the nonhuman participants. How old are they? Apes show progressive cognitive development like humans (and for that matter other animals) do, and the apes mature a bit slower. Often the researchers compare the performance of adult great apes to human toddlers. When researchers don't find evidence that tots and apes can solve the same problems, sometimes it is because the two species are not at the same developmental stage.

On the other hand, sometimes researchers test apes who have not grown up in an enriched, human enculturated world. Of course apes can't solve the problems tots can solve if they haven't been exposed daily to the problems and especially the tools and materials of human culture. I suspect this is the reason the researcher mentioned in the press release didn't find that apes could solve the imitation problem. They used apes housed in wildlife sanctuaries in Uganda, Congo, and Indonesia who probably did not spend their early developmental years surrounded by human culture.

I can see why they would conduct these cognition tests (largely of social learning/imitation) with relatively naive apes. If it turns out the naive apes learn by imitation then we'd be able to infer that imitation is something innate to apes, not uniquely human, and that it probably evolved long before apes diverged into the species present now.

A similar sort of experimentation is going on now with dogs and wolves with regard to understanding gesture. Dogs, and puppies, can quickly learn to read human gestures but can wolves? If wolves can't respond correctly to human gestures, such as going to the location of hidden food, then we can infer dogs evolved the ability to read human gesture. It also might mean humans have selectively bred dogs to be responsive to human nonverbal communication.

We'll never know whether wolves and nonhuman apes' cognitive performance is matter of nature or nurture or both unless they are raised in human homes like puppies and babies are.

You can read the press release here.

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