Now show me how to do the thing with the termites and the stick.
December 13, 2005 10:12 AM   Subscribe

It's official, humans are dumber than chimps. These guys show (at the NY Times level) that human kids will over-imitate every ritualized nuance modeled for them, whereas chimp kids just wanna get the damn cookie out of the box. Their website also describes more of their studies.
posted by Eothele (42 comments total)
The researchers turned to humans. They showed the transparent box to 16 children from a Scottish nursery school.

Well, let's not pat the chimps on the back just yet.
posted by Rothko at 10:16 AM on December 13, 2005

That's cold, man.
posted by bashos_frog at 10:21 AM on December 13, 2005

I say we take the transparent box of cookies and the chimps over to the White House for the "finals".
posted by Zorro on Doughnuts at 10:28 AM on December 13, 2005

The children are demonstrating a desire to imitate and obey. This comes in handy later when it's time to kill & stuff.
posted by CynicalKnight at 10:30 AM on December 13, 2005

There seems to be an obvious problem here of comparing human children with adult chimpanzees, yet the researchers (in the article at least) generalize the experience of the human children to be the behavior of humans more generally. It seems more plausible that children specifically--possibly even chimpanzee humans--learn best through imitation. This could be explained through social, rather than biological reasons.
posted by kensanway at 10:31 AM on December 13, 2005

There seems to be an obvious problem here of comparing human children with adult chimpanzees

They were chimp children.

What an awesome bit of research!
posted by Slothrup at 10:37 AM on December 13, 2005

It seems more plausible that children specifically--possibly even chimpanzee humans--learn best through imitation.

'Chimpanzee humans'?
posted by item at 10:41 AM on December 13, 2005

damn, rothko!

on topic: i find the implications of this research saddening. we're hardwired to obey and imitate authority figures even when doing so results in behaviors that don't help us reach our goals? good grief.

did they also do a study to see whether children imitated other children?
posted by lord_wolf at 10:43 AM on December 13, 2005

we're hardwired to obey and imitate authority figures even when doing so results in behaviors that don't help us reach our goals? good grief.

Maybe, maybe not. I'd like to see what effect socialization has on how children attempt to solve problems. If chimps and humans do not socialize the same way, then the effect may cause a difference in the level of collaboration in solving a problem.
posted by Rothko at 10:45 AM on December 13, 2005

One problem that I see with this is that I expect the chimps place a higher value on the food than the kids do on stickers or plastic turtles. I wonder how the perceived value of the goal object would change the likelihood that the children would choose imitation? Unfortunately, I can't think of any ethical experimental setup to test this, and there's the whole issue of determining perceived value in the first place...
posted by agent at 10:48 AM on December 13, 2005

Hmm, Chimps 'n Chumps.

All this proves is the children value the knowledge of their elders more highly than the chimps. Seems reasonable.
posted by scheptech at 10:51 AM on December 13, 2005

"At the New York Times level" - heh.

I don't think the implications are quite saddening. We're incredibly social creatures, and it's in our interst to learn social rules before basic-survival rules. And our sociality often trumps other characteristics. I liken this to a dog playing tricks - in some sense, the dog has learned that imitation is the best form of flattery. So it does all sorts of dumb stuff when we give it the right cue.

But don't tell the dorky teenager, who just can't seem to keep his social skills in line, that he's failed at the only thing humans are really good at. It's just not nice.
posted by metaculpa at 10:53 AM on December 13, 2005

we're hardwired to obey and imitate authority figures even when doing so results in behaviors that don't help us reach our goals?

lord_wolf, of course. I'm guessing that despite your name, you use a fork even when you eat alone. Yeah?
posted by booksandlibretti at 11:03 AM on December 13, 2005

Isn't this phenomenon related to neoteny, which some people think is why we evolved? I'm not sure how the whole "learn by imitation" fits in, but perhaps it's because we have so much else to learn in the way of language, communication, and technology.

A chimp pretty much learns all he/she's gonna learn by age 5. We continue developing long after that. (From reading Naked Ape long ago (which I realize many people don't take seriously.))
posted by mrgrimm at 11:11 AM on December 13, 2005

Metaculpa and Rothko have got it. This is about socialization, both in terms of a child's relationship to authority, and proclivity to play. I can't see how this experiment says anything at all about how we are "hardwired."
posted by TonyRobots at 11:18 AM on December 13, 2005

The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore proposes that imitation might be the single most important difference between animals & humans: Imitation created a replicaiton mechanism for basic memes, and memes quickly came to dominate the genes. She also supports Dennitt's "user illusion" idea, that our sense of self & internal dialog are memetic constructs, not genetic ones.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:24 AM on December 13, 2005

I'm guessing that despite your name, you use a fork even when you eat alone. Yeah?

yeah, i do, b/c i hate getting my fingers messy.

on the other hand, when i'm alone i sometimes use a fork to eat things that i wouldn't use a fork to eat when i'm around others: e.g., pizza and french fries. again, b/c of the finger thing. i go through a lot of napkins when i eat, lemme tell you. ;-)

(btw, i do see the point you're trying to make.)

i would have been unsurprised to see these results if the researcher had stayed in the room while the child attempted to open the box. when the authority figure's actually standing over you, yeah, you want to comply. but the researcher left the room, and the children still mindlessly imitated. i think that's why i'm so bothered by the results.
posted by lord_wolf at 11:26 AM on December 13, 2005

My thoughts about a possible explanation:
Due to the more complex life humans live, children routinely see actions which, although necessary, are, to them completely unintuitive. A young child might think that logically, putting food in the oven should be enough to make it warm (lust like the refrigerator), but they see that Mommy always twists some dials too. Likewise, they'd think that pushing a door should be enough to open it, but, for some incomprehensible reason, sometimes Mommy needs to stick in a little key. You'd think that pushing buttons on the remote wouldn't change what shows up on the TV far away, but, inexplicably, it does.

Given these unintuitive actions and processes that surround children all day long, it seems unsurprising that they would 'trust' adults that some additional action is necessary, even if it seems completely irrelevant. This isn't necessarily a result of cognitive differences, but perhaps simply a difference in experience. I suspect that baby Mowgli would have reacted more like the chimps did. Same might go for children from less-technologically-advanced cultures.
posted by kickingtheground at 11:39 AM on December 13, 2005

If he was so smart how come he's dead?
posted by parallax7d at 11:49 AM on December 13, 2005

Poor Algernon.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:55 AM on December 13, 2005

(kickingtheground's comment seems spot-on.)
posted by nobody at 12:03 PM on December 13, 2005

good points, kickingtheground. thank you: now i don't feel so depressed by the study. :-)
posted by lord_wolf at 12:05 PM on December 13, 2005

somethings to note:
1. 9-month-old kitten can survive on its own while 9-month-old human baby has little chance of survival if left alone. yet i don't see scientists arguing a kitten being smarter than a human child.

2. chimps, they can live up to 55 years or so, do have shorter life span than humans. perhaps chimp babies develop certain cognitions faster than human child of the same age but the development slows down earlier in age than that of human child.

3. the ability to "play dumb" or "play for the sake of playing" is a sign of intelligence and higher cognition.

4. the article never notes the subject's primary interest - was it the food the subject was interested in or the box that contains the food? depending on one's interest, the outcome with what one does with the box will differ significantly.

my thoughts.
posted by grafholic at 12:34 PM on December 13, 2005

Actually I think it shows that a chimp is so dumb you can't lie to it, whereas a child presumes there must be some reason why the "nice man did it that way" and so trusts him.

Reasoning everything from first principles is great when you are using a stick to get food out of a hole (and if not misdirected by unnecessary steps the kids do just fine at that anyway). If your goal is spinning thread and making cloth, or worse smelting iron, then insisting on going back to discover all the steps for yourself from first principles each time is hugely wasteful when there is someone around who you can watch to learn how to do it.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 12:42 PM on December 13, 2005

Quinbus Flestrin: You can totally lie to a chimp. They effectively lied to a chimp when the box was black, but not when the box was clear. I told a chimp that I loved it and it hugged me, I think it believed me, but I didn't love it.
posted by I Foody at 1:03 PM on December 13, 2005

The only possible reason to be saddened, disturbed, or otherwise bothered by this is if it challenges one's assumption that humans are somehow better than chimps as a species. Since we aren't, no problem.
posted by soyjoy at 1:38 PM on December 13, 2005

" Chimpanzees are now extinct in five of the 25 countries they once inhabited... Numbers in four countries ... are so depleted that extermination is expected soon, and another five ... contain such small, dispersed remnants that the populations are severely at risk. Only ten nations still contain 1,000 or more Chimpanzees." UNEP

"In 2000, the world had 6.1 billion human inhabitants. This number could rise to more than 9 billion in the next 50 years." PRB

The human strategy is better.
posted by alasdair at 1:42 PM on December 13, 2005

I foody: You utter, utter slut. I bet you didn't call it the next day, either.
posted by Sparx at 1:44 PM on December 13, 2005

You can totally lie to a chimp I'm sure you're right; I don't know that much about chimps.

My point was really that, though the research is interesting, as reported it doesn't show that the humans are dumb compared to the chimps -- it's easy enough to spin the story the other way even though the OP went for the "dumb humans" angle. That small children may behave in ways that have no obvious immediate benefit, may well just be a sign of their immaturity -- and a good window into human learning.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 1:55 PM on December 13, 2005

Has it not been said that human beings are the slowest-maturing animals? Thus, the necessity of feeding the little creatures who cannot feed themselves, the extended childhood, even years of schooling.
Are chimps and children of similar chronological age near the same level of development? Are mature chimps and mature human beings near the same level of development?
So what exactly did this circus act prove?
posted by Cranberry at 2:26 PM on December 13, 2005

Interesting, kickingtheground.

I'm also thinking about ways that humans are different from other chimps, and language stands out as a biggie. Language just might be something you have to learn solely by imitation. I mean, yes, there are more direct ways to do certain things, such as hurt someone, than to mimic the sophisticated language of one's elders. But at some point humans must have seen a huge advantage to the kind of subtlety of communication that's only possible through language, which might have required kids to put a premium on their imitative skills.
posted by CrunchyGods at 2:33 PM on December 13, 2005

Quinbus Flestrin - also, chimps can lie in their own right. To each other, and to us. They do have something of a sense of other selves, at least in that sense.

Yeah, the dumb humans example is dumb.

My girlfriend is a primate ecologist, so I know a little bit about this stuff (but not much, nay!). In general, a few things scale with longevity - body size, sociability, and learning abilities. Humans are much more social than chimps (which are about as social as non-human apes can get) - at least in adulthood. And that sociability really changes our development.

The human strategy is better.

True, in the sense that we win. False, in the sense that we destroy things that are interesting and worthy to us, for no reason at all.
posted by metaculpa at 2:34 PM on December 13, 2005

Alasdair, assuming that this strategies are related to the behavior in the study, we'll still have to wait and see how having 9 billion people on the planet works out for us before we evaluate thm. And that's allowing that the goal is to cram as many individuals onto the planet as possible, as opposed to eating a cookie or playing with a turtle.

Quinbus, good point. I posted because I thought it was interesting, I went for the "humans are dumber than chimps" angle for laughs, which says more about my misanthropic biases than about the study. My intention was to poke fun at the discomfort felt by the author and many posters (and at my own schadenfreude) at seeing our conspecifics out-preformed by chimps. Another mefite posting with a "human kids duplicate memes more faithfully than chimp kids" (I'm being both facetious and serious, sorry jeffburdges) angle might have generated a very different discussion. I also tried to make it clear ("at the New York Times level") that we're not talking about the actual science yet, we're talking about people reacting to results that arent' what they would have expected.

Cranberry, IANA primatologist, but my armchair understanding is that cognitive development between chimps and humans is more or less parallel for five years, then the chimp stops and the human keeps going. Help us, metaculpa'a girlfriend.

Let's see what happens when this thing hits peer review.
posted by Eothele at 2:50 PM on December 13, 2005

The human strategy is better.

Too early to tell.
posted by mrgrimm at 5:15 PM on December 13, 2005

CrunchyGods hit it. This is about language. Without trying to imitate the more subtle aspects of language--as opposed to just the intention--we don't talk; we make chimp-like noises that convey the basic idea, "I'm angry," or "I'm hungry." When you consider the fact that babies will naturally endeavor to imitate the language their parents speak, even though they may get everything they need simply by crying, it's hardly surprising that children are unwilling to give up on imitation in other situations.

By the way, people also learn such things as mathematics by imitation. You repeat the steps you have been shown until it becomes natural. It's only after you've done it enough times to master it that you begin to use it really creatively. I'm sure that, after enough tries, most of these children would do away with the useless steps.

When's the last time you had a good conversation about math or science with a chimp?
posted by dsword at 5:25 PM on December 13, 2005

Eothele: My intention was to poke fun at the discomfort felt by the author and many posters ... conspecifics out-preformed by chimps.

But that's the point. We're not out-performed. We have a different strategy. If you measure success on numbers then our strategy wins. Sure, you could use a different measure, something like 'appreciation of art' but, I hate to point out, that's fundamentally what the human kids did do better and you thought you could mock it as dumb!

Fair point on the 'too early to tell' aspect of whether our evolutionary strategy is better long-term, but our strategy is definitely better than those employed by the species we've made extinct.

Good post, by the way.
posted by alasdair at 7:20 AM on December 14, 2005

I wasn't trying to mock anything as dumb (well, maybe science reporting in the NYT), but I see how it could have come across that way. I thought the tongue-in-cheek factor was more obvious than it might have been. Also, the older I get, the more I prefer cookies to art.

To clarify what I think the study shows: A significant difference in behavior between species during development is strongly supported. That's much more interesting than one species "winning."

The strategy question is murky enough to defy clarification. But here's how I would be more inclined to approach it: If you live in the jungle (3-d environment, billions of evil microbes), you wanna be a chimp. If you live on the savannah (2-d environment, orders of magnitude fewer evil microbes) you wanna be a human. The Savannah is arable, the jungle is not. Arability -> agriculture -> lots of food/technology -> reduced infant mortality -> lots of individuals. So we'd have to parse out what's due to strategy and what's due to our good luck of getting the savannah in the divorce. To me, "strategy" conotes biotic factors intrinsic to the lineage in question, but there's alot of other stuff in play.

Also, a strategy is specific to the environment in which it is deployed. If you can't win a football game if the endzone keeps moving, no matter how good your strategy is. The chimps aren't disappearing because there's a problem with their strategy, they're disappearing because their habitat is disappearing. So I disagree, our strategy is not necessarily better than those of extinct species, unless you conflate biotic/abiotic & intrinsic/external factors, and hold the strategy responsible for every possible ammendment to the rules.

But you wanna know what I really think? (don't answer that) I think all of this imitative behavior and technology and meme duplication/art appreciation is just what chimps do when they get taken out of the jungle and put in the savannah.

Thanks, btw.
posted by Eothele at 12:07 PM on December 14, 2005

Good points, but if I may disagree: the chimp strategy is failing because their ecology includes smarter primates with chainsaws, not because we're unfairly competing with them or because extrinsic factors somehow don't count. We are part of their environment, and we compete for the same resources better than them. To argue otherwise is like saying "wind-pollinated plants were doing just fine until insect-pollinated plants came along: sure, they're not doing so well now, but it's not fair to bring in insect-pollinated plants as they are an external factor." More interesting is one-off events, like enormous asteroids: is that an external event, so "doesn't count," or do we recognise that catastrophic asteroid strikes are a normal event and that species that stay small, common omnivorous are pursuing a better strategy when bigger, more charismatic species end up in the Natural History Museum as rocks?

The genes now in chimps should have gone with their cousins who lived on the savannah, as you suggest, or gone with the "be really useful to or parasitic on humans" strategy that has worked for wheat and rats. But I guess that statement shows up the absurdity in this whole enjoyable argument: they don't choose their strategy, they just get selected and we anthropomorphise the process. Saying a strategy is "right" or "wrong" means nothing beyond the very specific circumstances of that particular situation. It's fun though!

Long term, of course, we have the problem of the heat death of the universe: and we're currently the only contenders for doing something about that...
posted by alasdair at 6:45 AM on December 15, 2005

...but if I may disagree: the chimp strategy is failing because their ecology includes smarter primates with chainsaws...

Actually, I think we're agreeing, but you're conception of "strategy" is broader than mine. As long as you're enjoying the argument, I'll berate you and anyone else still reading with the details of why I prefer the narrower.

If you want to compare two strategies in a way that is meaningful and informative, you have to parse out what is due to strategy and what is due to circumstance. Going back to the football analogy (checks, sees that alasdair is British), uh...ok, switching to a generic team sports analogy. I can study videos of your team, sus out your weaknesses and figure out how to exploit them, sus out your strengths and figure out how to avoid them, and then when I beat you I can brag about my strategy. Or, let's say I get drunk and go to a strip club instead, but then when I show up at the game all of your strong players are out with food poisoning and we beat you anyway. In the latter situation, bragging about my strategy does not illuminate the processes
that lead to my victory.

So asteroids and chaisaws count, but I don't see them as reflecting on the strategy. If you don't separate the strategy from the circumstances, you're just arguing backwards from the present state of affairs and not learning anything.

Two more quibbles- 1) In the chimp's environment, we compete side by side with the chimp for overlapping resources. We dominate the chimp when we either a) remove their environment and resources or b) recolonize their environment with chainsaws and rifles, which for purposes of our argument are adaptations associated with a different environment, because blah blah blah Jared Dimond. And 2) While there's greater species diversity in insect pollenated plants, the conifers and grasses are doing just fine and arent' in any trouble, let alone the kind the chimp is in. At this point, I definitely wouldn't bet against the grasses outliving the insect pollenated plants.

Long term, of course, we have the problem of the heat death of the universe: and we're currently the only contenders for doing something about that..

Stop Cosmic Heat Death!
Reunite Gondwaanaland!
Free the Mitochondrion!!
posted by Eothele at 10:41 AM on December 15, 2005

I think we're agreeing, too. Okay, how about this: the wider definition is to be preferred when looking at longer periods of time and larger views of the entire system. Natural selection doesn't care whether a change in your fitness comes from a 'fair' increase in a competitor's lung volume or from an 'unfair' event like an asteroid impact. There is therefore a need, in some contexts, for analysis when all 'fair' or 'unfair' selection pressures are taken into consideration.

You want to exclude 'unfair' events (and I'm putting words in your mouth here, apologies) because they aren't helpful in the context of studying, for example, how chimps have evolved and survived in their natural habitat. And that's a completely reasonable position, but not what we're discussing here.

Clearly, selection pressures on chimps include 'unfair' events, such as humans having strategies based on tool use, and asteroids, and the heat death of the universe. And I think that is one of those valid contexts in which this wider definition is of use because of the way you first framed the debate: we are studying whether getting biscuits out of boxes is a measure of whether or not, to use your own words, "humans are dumber than chimps."

Or to put it another way: you want to blame your team losing on food poisoning, claiming it's an external event, but I'm pointing out that factors outside of the sporting event itself, like diet, are just as important, and my team knew to be careful what they ate the night before the match. (I think that analogy holds up!)

I'm not sure reuniting Gondwaanaland would benefit us. Splitting up Asia might be good: more temperate areas from more Atlantic climates. And the mitochondria are doing very nicely, I think - although I suppose it might be a gilded cage.

Thanks for the sport conversion, very courteous of you!
posted by alasdair at 6:44 AM on December 16, 2005

You misread: my team won despite its laziness and lack of strategy, because your team had food poisoning. The point being you can't evaluate our strategy purely from the fact that we won (6 billion points and counting).

But ultimately strategy is just a word, and we have happily inherited from Humpty Dumpty the power to bend it to suit our whims. I concur that you can call the whole shooting match "strategy" and still distinguish between different kinds of factors (as you have).

Bringing it all back to what we're discussing here, I agree with the very solid hand-waving posted upthread by yourself and others that this could well be an big part of why humans are verbal and dominant. But it wasn't a big picture study- they weren't getting at strategies of lineages to dominate the earth (although I'm sure they intend to discuss that in their discussion sections and grant proposals), they were looking at strategies of individuals to procure desired objects. The chimps did it quicker. The leap was made (thank god-boring thread otherwise) to big-picture stuff like why do we have language and why are there 6 billion of us, and at that point it just makes sense to parse out the factors.

And you're right about the mitochondria- I think we can agree that endosymbiosys was a stunning bit of strategy on their part.
posted by Eothele at 10:58 AM on December 16, 2005

Sorry, I changed teams round simply because I was allotting my team my strategy (chainsaws) and your team my representation of your strategy (grab the fruit.) I guess that was confusing...

Anyway, splendid stuff! Think we're at some kind of local minimum now, thanks very much.
posted by alasdair at 5:51 AM on December 17, 2005

« Older Proper Suishi Etiquette.   |   The Year in Media Errors and Corrections Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments