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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 | Comments (6)