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Higher social skills are distinctly human, toddler and ape study reveals

Chimpanzees participated in a set of tasks as part of a study comparing their physical and social cognitive, or logic-related, abilities to those of 2-year-old human children. [Image courtesy of MPI EVAN/JGI-USA]

You may wonder about your younger sibling’s social abilities, but new research reveals that while they may sometimes act ape-like, they are really showing their higher social skills by the time they are 18-months-old.

Apes bite and try to break a tube to retrieve the food inside while 18-month-old children follow the experimenter’s example to get inside the tube to retrieve the prize, showing that even before preschool, toddlers are more sophisticated in their social learning skills than their closest primate relatives.

This innate proficiency allows them to grow in both physical and social skills as they begin school and progress through life.

Apes were tested and compared to 2-year-old human children in a comparison of their physical and social cognitive ability. [Image courtesy of MPI EVAN]

“We compared three species to determine which abilities and skills are distinctly human,” explained Esther Herrmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and lead author of the research paper. Humans differ from their great ape relatives because human brains are about three times the size of the closest primate relatives and humans have language, symbolic math and scientific reasoning.

“Social cognition skills are critical for learning,” Herrmann said. The children were much better than the apes in understanding nonverbal communications, imitating another’s solution to a problem and understanding the intentions of others,” she said.

This is the first comprehensive test comparing social and physical skills of children, chimpanzees and orangutans, Herrmann explained.

About 230 subjects – chimps, orangutans and 2.5 year-old children – were compared using similar tests. In physical tests there were all about equal. In the social skills of communication, learning and determining what others mean when they act, the children were correct in about 74 percent of the tests, while the two ape species were correct only about 33 percent of the time.

Researcher Esther Herrmann at work in a wildlife sanctuary in Africa. [Image courtesy of MPI EVAN]

The researchers chose to study children at an age when they have about the same physical skill level of chimpanzees. Children at 18 months are old enough to handle these tasks and people have not taught them too much so they provide a good comparison, Herrmann said. The apes ranged in age from 3 to 21.

The researchers plan to test other closely related species to map out the evolution of cognitive ability through systematically testing a variety of primate species and eventually comparing their genomes as they become available.

This study appears in the 7 September issue of the journal Science.

About the Scientist

By age 10, Esther Herrmann was already wondering about chimpanzees because they look so similar but behave so differently than humans. “I wanted to find out the similarities between chimpanzees and human,” she explained.

Herrmann studied biology but wanted to really be around animals So, she worked in the Thailand’s forest studying right-handed Gibbons in the wild. “I followed the animals from about 5 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every day and recorded all of their behaviors,” she said.

Her research interests took her to Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany where she works. But her research takes her to ape sanctuaries. For this research, she traveled to wildlife sanctuaries in the Congo and Uganda in Africa. There, orphan apes live together in the forest where they are safe and well taken care of, she said.