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Comparing how children and chimps learn

Some day when my brain is back and I no longer have an infant I would love to do a book about the pro-homosapien bias in the media. 

Exhibit A: This clip from a National Geographic documentary comparing the way humans and chimpanzees learn.

It's pretty interesting: When asked to perform a series of motions in order to get a treat out of a box, the human child will copy the adult's motions exactly. The ape copies the motions as well, until the box is replaced with a translucent version. Once it is, the ape — but not the child — will realize that half of the motions are pointless and take a shortcut to get the treat.

Conclusion? According to the filmmakers: Both humans and chimps learn through copying, but children are "better" at it.

I love it. The fact that children blindly follow the leader is portrayed as a sign of our intelligence while the chimp is seen as a slacker. C'mon, give the chimps some credit! For one thing, you're asking them (but not the kids) to imitate a creature of a different species. Would children be as good at copying if they were asked to imitate chimps? Secondly, the ability to imitate isn't the only thing in play here. The children, for instance, could simply be more obedient — or, at least, more obedient to other humans. Lastly, if learning is the goal, shouldn't the chimps get serious props for problem solving?

Granted, this clip is only a piece of a larger documentary and I'm undoubtedly taking some of this out of context. (In another scene, the author of the study addresses some of these issues. ) Still, the suggestion that this experiment is evidence of how "humans came to be the most successful species on the planet" rankles.

Then again, it's no surprise that the children are applauded for simply aping their teacher. After all, this is the educational model of grade school.

Posted by carrie on 12/30/2008 | Permalink


This is simply brilliant! I didn't know that was possible. Stumbled it for you.


Posted by: Jollibee Food Corporation | Jan 6, 2009 6:55:12 AM

Er... but humans *did* become "the most successful species on the planet" (at least until we blow the whole thing up).

I mean, I think you're actually right that it's odd to call imitation better than problem-solving---looking at this, my question would be "given that human children seem to be inferior problem-solvers to chimps, how did they manage to surpass them so completely?"

Perhaps the answer is that the children's imitativeness indicates a greater willingness to stay focused on instruction, whereas the chimps getr distracted in their quest to get the food as quickly as possible. But it hardly strikes me as speciesist to treat "humans have superior learning abilities to chimps" as a premise for learning studies, given that we have, y'know, culture, technology, books, and grammar.

Posted by: That Fuzzy Bastard | Jan 6, 2009 12:15:44 PM

I could certainly see an argument that humans are the most successful species -- and that our learning skills are greater than the other great apes. But my point is that this study, at least as described in this film clip, doesn't illustrate this. The bit about human success comes off as presumptive and self-congratulatory.

Posted by: carrie | Jan 6, 2009 3:24:55 PM

Hi Carrie,

Thanks for posting my clip. I think you may be drawing the wrong conclusions from it, though, at least in my opinion from watching the rest of the documentary from which I extracted this.

My intent for posting it, and the context in which it resided within the rest of the doco, was to highlight the similarities between ape and human abilities, not to be speciesist. The lead-out commentary from this clip led into a pre-commercial segue to the next scene, where they were basically just pontificating over why, with *so many* similarities between humans and apes, did we end up being able to develop tools and technology, space shuttles and diving bells, high speed communications networks and complex abstractions such as mathematics.

This particular experiment was of interest to this question, as there was speculation on whether or not the careful, seemingly thoughtless parroting on the part of the human children was part of the reason for this, in this segment, anyway. Many other questions both about human development and the status of the apes themselves were brought up by the documentary as a whole, though.

It really does take a positive standpoint from both perspectives, and is an excellent documentary, in my opinion anyway.

Hope that helps clarify things.

Posted by: Jason (tehinfidel) | Jan 8, 2009 5:50:51 AM

What's unsettling about this video is that Jessica is set up to look like a fool for following the instructions to get the "reward" - which we are informed is a sticker. Perhaps the implications of receiving some sort of praise for following the actions, not simply taking a sticker out of the box, are what drive Jessica. Anyway, I don't actually have any expertise in this area but the whole thing seems a bit whacked to me. Thanks for the posting, I have enjoyed reading your blog.

Posted by: Shannon | Feb 3, 2009 12:14:57 AM

I saw the original documentary, and was blown away! Children (and, I believe,adults) will readily 'learn' directly by being told by others. Undoubtedly this HAS helped create society... learning can be more rapid. Inevitably there are costs. We can be taught to learn without critical thinking, and this does occur on a very large scale (advertising, religion, political views etc). Thus, a successful human society must TEACH critical thinking skills as part of eduction and upbringing. Critical thinking may not be our genetic strength.... it must be learned? -R

Posted by: Richard | Feb 16, 2009 9:09:37 PM

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