A new report must be accurate if it comes from some place called the Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and their building is located in Germany. Whereas a new report from, say, the Fudd Institute for Wabbit Behaviors in Schenectady might not carry the same weight.
Results from the German report announced last week were enormously reassuring to new parents: The study proved that human toddlers as young as 2 1/2 possess better social skills than chimpanzees, and they display a form of “cultural intelligence” that is unique to humans. That humans were better than chimps at understanding nonverbal communications and reading the intention of others was welcome news to first-time parents who often experience a secret angst wondering if a monkey would have been easier to potty train or take on airline flights.
The numbers were good: On social tests that involved interpreting gestures and learning how to solve a simple problem, human toddlers solved 74 percent correctly, compared to 33 percent for chimps and orangutans. There’s no indication as to whether or not that really smart orangutan from the Clint Eastwood movies was involved. That little dude could have easily tipped things the other way.
The human kids possessed stronger social cognition, which caused them to imitate an action like carefully opening a plastic tube with a treat inside of it when the chimps would just try to bite it or break it open. Although that finding flies in the face of every home video ever taken of children opening Christmas presents.
And I’m not the only one with some questions. One scientist noted that the chimps were unfairly tested by humans, not by another of their own species. Alas, with college tuitions going up, the number of orangutans making it even as far as graduate school has diminished their ranks on research teams. Another scientist wondered if the tests should have included activities for the children from the world of monkeys. Having spent considerable time with other people’s two-year-olds, I can assure you that would have only improved the toddler’s numbers.
We should be glad the results backed human kids. Think of the impacts on parenting if it were a known fact that monkeys are better at such tasks as picking up their room or doing chores without balking. Results favoring monkeys would have also had long-term repercussions, such as changed entry requirements for spelling bees and perhaps a very special week of Jeopardy.
But if there’s still some concern that monkeys might be better learners, it’s not the Planck Institute study we should be looking at. We should instead consider the mountain of evidence suggesting that monkeys show more innate sense than humans in various forms of day-to-day decision making. Consider these observations from just the last few months of human endeavor:
Not one monkey was seen standing in line at dawn to pay $600 for an Apple iPhone on the first day they became available, although now that the price is down several hundred bucks perhaps more orangutans will be dialing up the Internet at Starbucks.
Not one chimp has been arrested for a DUI, entered rehab, again been busted for a DUI and again entered rehab… especially in a very public way. There are reports that, after seeing themselves on TV dressed up in little costumes to look like spies and dowdy old women, some chimps turn to booze. But their handlers know to take away the tiny chimp car keys.
Again, the German study based its findings on a theory that humans possess a “cultural intelligence” that monkeys don’t have. Yet the audiences for “Balls of Fury” have been nearly 90 percent human, with chimps and orangutans showing very little interest. I say we dig into that mystery, even if our findings don’t end up favoring humans.