Developing Intelligence

In 1948, Alan Turing wrote: “An unwillingness to admit the possibility that mankind can have any rivals in intellectual power occurs as much amongst intellectual people as amongst others: they have more to lose.” Accordingly, comprehensive comparisons between the intellectual powers of great apes and humans are rare – perhaps because we feel safe in assuming that the human intellect is superior to that of other primates. But recent work suggests this assumption may not be entirely sound, as described below.

For example, a recent New Scientist article (via NeuroEthics) contains a provocative statement by primatologist Tetsuro Matsuzawa, who argues that chimps may systematically outperform humans in certain tests of short-term memory. Given a task in which subjects must press stimuli in the order in which they appeared, all of the adult chimps tested have been equal or superior in performance to humans. This trend holds when the comparison is between adult chimps and adult humans, as well as between chimpanzee infants and human infants.

Perhaps just as surprisingly, children are frequently better at these games than adults, both in humans and chimpanzees. This finding meshes well with previous indications that, like the great apes, children may in specific cases be intellectually superior to human adults. For example, Elman has shown how limitations in working memory span – characteristic of children – can in some cases result in language learning benefits (although the applicability of this model to the real world has been hotly debated). Other work has shown that human children are in some cases better able to inhibit false memories than human adults are. Finally, Fisher & Sloutsky have shown that children in some cases have better recognition memory than adults.

Mindblog has recently pointed out this new Science article by Pennisi, in which the author argues that the higher cognitive capacities of animals have been only recently appreciated, based on the recent emergence of the view that intelligence arises from the demands of social living. According to this view, higher cognitive skills become an exaptation, in which they found use not only in social settings but also in more everday situations (e.g., finding ripe fruit and later remembering its location).

In the same article, Pennisi details how we managed for so long to overlook the startlingly advanced cognitive skills of higher primates. “Apes rarely did well on self-awareness, memory, gaze-following, gesture, spatial learning, and other tests at which even young children excel,” writes Pennisi, but “6 years ago, Hare and his colleagues showed that under the right circumstances, chimps could pass some of these tests with flying colors. The secret was that chimps are exquisitely tuned in to their competition, particularly when food is involved, and will do everything they can to get a treat.”

The implications for developmental approaches to intelligence are startling. We know that social interaction is a critical part of human development; to what extent might the current lack of “social interaction” among artificial intelligences influence their potential? Of course, there are a few notable exceptions to the idea that current AI is socially isolated, but in large part, this aspect of intelligence development remains relatively unexplored.

Related Posts:
Scientific Paradises
Intelligence Tradeoff

NOTE: This post was originally published on July 11th, 2006.


  1. #1 Gerry L
    June 29, 2007

    I have watched video of Matsuzawa’s chimp subjects performing various tests. In one, squares with numbers (say 1-2-5-7-8) appear scattered on a screen. As soon as the chimp touches the first (lowest) number, all the squares go blank, and the chimp continues tapping each square in order — lowest number to highest — from memory and very quickly.

    I attended the Chimpanzee Mind conference in Chicago a few months ago, a dilitante among practicing scientists. I was bothered by the way some of the presenters stated their conclusions: the chimp subject couldn’t figure out the solution or couldn’t perform the desired task. Is it really “couldn’t” or is it “wouldn’t”? How can they know for sure?

  2. #2 Drugmonkey
    July 12, 2007

    and a digital computer is superior to human “intellect” in many tasks as well. so what?

    although comparisons between humans and other species may not be “comprehensive”, they sure are numerous. Gerry L apparently attended one of the conferences, and raises an excellent point above. these people in comparative cognition are hampered by a considerable theology of approach. one being “we don’t food restrict” and “we don’t ‘train’ the animals” thus the studies are totally different from traditional operant psych experiments. but it is all BS. The fact that they don’t systematically control appetitive motivation just introduces variance, it doesn’t guarantee that the behaviors are “spontaneous” like they claim. the above pennisi quote is apropo.

    the individual animals in these types of models are evaluated in many studies (see georgia state’s famous language research center chimps, for example) and have a GREAT deal of training. ditto field studies- everyone’s heard about termite fishing chimps right? evidence of “spontaneous” ability to use tools, right? crap. it is limited to particular geographic populations of chimps- it is a culturally LEARNED behavior. i bet you could set out to train troups of many kinds of nonhuman primate to do some complicated foraging behavior, go away and 5 generations later let some unsuspecting field comparative cognition type “discover” an amazing fact.

    finally, what really ticks me off is the straw manning. oh, people don’t appreciate that chimps / monkeys /what have you are smart. c’mon. sure we do. we just recognize that they are a long bloody way from humans, that’s all. take the language nutsos. (go see retrospectacle on the wonder parrot for example). lot’s of head-of-pin debates about what is / is not ‘language’. It is very, very VERY difficult for me to believe anyone can entertain these questions after having parented a toddler through normal language acquisition. It is even more difficult for me to understand such beliefs for anyone who has interacted with Down Syndrome or other human conditions in which we consider them to be significantly impaired, are clearly language impaired and yet are so categorically better at language than any animal to date it isn’t even remotely similar!

  3. #3 Rick Bogle
    August 8, 2007

    “Pennisi details how we managed for so long to overlook the startlingly advanced cognitive skills of higher primates.”

    It wasn’t so long ago that mainstream science wouldn’t countenance serious discussion about non-human animals’ minds. There really is a revolution occurring in this area.

    Some scientists have actually stopped to consider the implications and have begun speaking out against about our use of animals — particularly other primates — in harmful biomedical and behavioral studies. The majority, especially those with a financial interest in the status quo, refuse to see what is plainly before us.