The Loom

Chimpanzees at Pre-School

There are few things as fascinating to me as the question of how our ancestors evolved from small-brained, tree-dwelling apes. But sometimes it all can feel a bit abstract. After all, we’re talking about things that happened six million years ago. Recently, though, I had a weird experience that brought our evolutionary history smack into my face. Some Yale psychologists came to my daughter Charlotte’s pre-school looking for volunteers for a study that would compare how children and young chimpanzees learn. It turns out that chimpanzees can be a lot more logical than children, Charlotte included. I’ve written an essay about the experience that appears in tomorrow’s New York Times.

(For those interested in the scientific background to this experience, here’s the paper that inspired the new study.)


  1. #1 Apesnake
    December 12, 2005

    “It turns out that chimpanzees can be a lot more logical than children”

    True, but children shed less. They should really be comparing the learning ability of the chimpanzees with that of the fellows of the discovery institute. Now that might be enlightening.

  2. #2 Daniel Newby
    December 13, 2005

    And how do you explain a difference like this as the result of random chance? You don’t. It’s conclusive proof that an intelligent Creator designed humans.

    Designed them to memorize video game levels.

  3. #3 Jason Malloy
    December 13, 2005

    This was also the experience of Winthrop and Luella Kellog, the psychologist couple that raised a baby chimp along side their infant son, Donald. Maybe they expected the chimp to act more like a human, but what actually happened was the chimp acted like a chimp and their son imitated the chimp! Key words: ‘biting’ and ‘noisy hooting’.

  4. #4 Kai-Mikael Jää-Aro
    December 13, 2005

    Interesting. In the book “Rigidity of behavior” by Luchins & Luchins, the authors confirmed through a long series of experiments that humans, having found out a solution to a problem, will tenaciously stick to that solution method even when it is suboptimal (or even wrong). In the book it was hinted that this might be due to a misplaced emphasis on rote-learning in schools, but perhaps the issue lies deeper.

  5. #5 Theresa
    December 13, 2005

    Very interesting!

    I wonder how children on the autistic spectrum would compare to non-autists and to chimps?

    People on the autistic spectrum appear to have impaired ‘mirror-neuron’ systems, i.e. the mirror neurons of autists “respond only to what they [themselves] do and not to the doings of others.”* Autists/Aspies also typically have difficulties imitating others, very likely due to their impaired mirror-neuron system.**

    On the other hand, high-functioning individuals on the autistic spectrum are typically better in the realm of “folk physics” than non-autists (who are better at “folk psychology”) — that is they have a better feel for the mechanics of how things work.***

    Given these two characteristics — poor imitation skills & good folk physics — I’d wager that children on the autistic spectrum might perform more like chimps and skip those unnecessary steps.

    *”Autism Linked To Mirror Neuron Dysfunction”

    **”Impaired mirror-image imitation in Asperger and high-functioning autistic subjects”

    ***”The autism/engineering link: a replication of Baron-Cohen, et al. (1997)

  6. #6 Molly
    December 13, 2005

    I think it’s a good thing that humans are willing to accept that there might be reasons for something that aren’t apparent — yet. I recently started a new job and was trained to do a whole bunch of things that I thought were pointless at first: then, as I continued in the job, I realized there was a reason for all the “pointless” things I was shown. Don’t tear down walls unless you know why they were erected in the first place. Don’t be discouraged.

  7. #7 Stan
    December 14, 2005

    My take on this data is closer to Molly’s. If children (and many adults) assume that others do things for a reason and not whimsically unless there is evidence for whimsy, then Charlotte would do what she had seen the experimenters do because she would believe they had good reasons for their actions, even if she couldn’t figure out what they were. That is, she didn’t do it for “rote” reasons, but for “reason” reasons. Surely scepticism takes some time to develop and it is the lack of scepticism that leads her to “blindly” follow. I would assume that the reason the chimpanzees did not follow the experimeter is not that they have a highly developed sense of sceptcism.

  8. #8 B. J.
    December 14, 2005

    If humans follow the leader and do all the peripheral but apparently unnecessary things the leader (or group we want to be associated with) does, rather than just doing what needs to be done, what might the implications be with regard to religious (and other) rituals that humans follow that often seem so bizarre or at least pointless, but which we perform because…well just because that’s how it’s done (and it seems “important”).

  9. #9 Dave
    December 14, 2005

    Interesting experiment. I wonder if there was any thought put into the fact that the demonstration was given by a human in both cases? In other words, would a child react differently if she were watching a chimp slide the bolt and tap on the top?

  10. #10 Chris
    December 15, 2005

    Good points above.

    I think it would be unwise to conclude that chimps are more logical based on the results of this study.

    Some factors that should be considered include:

    a) the desire of the children to please the demonstrator by doing the task in the way that it was taught
    b) as mentioned above – the concept that the children may have felt there might be non-evident reasons for the extra steps
    c) the concept that the chimps may lack the intelligence to consider indirect effects resulting from their reckless disregard of the seemingly unnecessary steps

    To make this clearer, imagine that the experiment was set up so that skipping the seemingly unnecessary steps did in fact cause an indirect negative result (such as the participant being sprayed with a foul odor). I would assume that if the experiment were re-run in this manner, the children would end up looking a lot smarter by comparison.

  11. #11 Zeteo Eurisko
    December 16, 2005

    There are several factors that may contaminate the results of this study.

    First and foremost, we know from Milgram’s classic psychology study that adult humans are susceptible to blindly following instructions – even if those instructions lead them to compromise their morals or logical thinking ability. The effect is especially notable when the person giving the commands is an authority. The children in the chimp/child study would be more likely to assign to the researcher a position of authority, thus making them more likely to follow directions strictly.

    Second, the means of communication are incredibly different between the two groups. The child receives both verbal instructions and a demonstration, while the chimp can only watch the actions of the researcher. This solidifies even more in the mind of the child what is necessary to complete the task. Thus, the situation is not completely controlled between the two groups.

    Finally, the rewards have vastly different meanings to the two groups. For the child, the actual reward being sought is likely – as other posters have mentioned – pleasing the researcher (and the parents that signed them up for the study). Thus, they will have a heightened sense of desire to follow directions. The reward for the chimp is food, which is tied strongly to their survival instinct – a very different part of their psyche.

    Unless these factors can be more controlled, I am not sure that the conclusions drawn from the study have merit. We already know from human infant imitation studies that we are born with the innate desire to imitate. I do not believe this new study advances our understanding with enough justification to draw new conclusions.

  12. #12 BOKE
    December 16, 2005

    [rhetorical verse / haiku]

    Doesn’t this explain

    why monkeys don’t need artists

    to “un-play” patterns?

    # # # BOKE {smile}

  13. #13 jim
    December 16, 2005

    this study is pretty loosey-goosey anyway;is there anybody with commentary on those valsequillo “footprints”?, i know the Renne/White/Feinberg group is a “dream team” but a lot of pictures(pathways?) do look like hominid type prints. Owen Lovejoy at Kent State is the expert on this subject-what does he think?

  14. #14 Stephen
    December 16, 2005

    Humans and chimps mature at unique rates. Human brain physiology takes a bit to get going, but no one will argue that they are higher functioning when they get there. So it’s going to be very hard to have a chimp and a human that are “the same age”.

    Show a math major how to get from A to B, then from B to C, and he knows how to get from A to C. Even when A and C are nearby, he goes by way of B.

  15. #15 Ty
    December 22, 2005

    Proclaiming themselves wise, they became fools.

  16. #16 Gerry L
    December 24, 2005

    I spend quite a lot of time around adult chimpanzees. I have never done any studies, but I was not surprised by the results you reported. My experience has been that chimps are not inclined to imitate. Imitation is one way to solve a problem, but they have a plenty of others in their toolkit.

  17. #17 Sarah
    February 16, 2006

    That’s interesting. But I can not even imagine what that experiment looked like.

New comments have been disabled.