Friday, September 07, 2007


I would hope so.

Human toddlers outperform apes in social learning

One theory holds that humans have distinctive "cultural intelligence," she said. Alternatively, some think humans hold an advantage in social cognitive tasks simply because they have more general intelligence.

Human toddlers show markedly better social learning skills compared to their primate cousins, a new study finds.

"Social cognition skills are critical for learning," Herrmann said in a news release.

"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.

Hermann's study involved 230 subjects -- 100 chimps, 30 orangutans and 100 children.

The children were two-and-a-half years old. That age was picked because the subjects could handle the test's tasks, but they were not old enough to know too much.

The apes resided in sanctuaries in Africa and Indonesia. They ranged in age from three to 21 years.

All the subjects were subjected to the cognitive tests of the Primate Cognition Test Battery.

In areas such as space, quantities and causality, the toddlers and the primates were found to be about equal.

For communication, social learning and theory-of-mind skills, the children scored 74 per cent and the primates only 33 per cent.

Sometimes it takes an art historian to define what science and religion cannot agree on; what makes us human.

In "The Human Animal in Western Art and Science" (University of Chicago Press, 320 pages, $40), the Oxford art historian Martin Kemp offers a new solution.

Mr. Kemp's new solution proposes to draw a line between man and beast not on the basis of reason or the presence of a soul, but in accord with a subtler distinction. Although some animals use crude tools, no animal uses what he calls "indirect tools." These are tools, such as a needle or a bow and arrow, which require a series of imaginative "pre-visualizations," both to invent and to use.

To conceive a needle, one must be able to envisage the process of connecting two pieces of material; this in turn involves picturing such implements as thread or the needle's eye and, in a further stage, the specific looping motion of sewing. As in chess, the ability to picture objects and processes in future and successive stages is required. This seems clearly beyond the capacity of any animal.

Mr. Kemp's argument is persuasive. Such strategic visualization, proceeding by a logic of images rather than of concepts, does appear peculiarly human. And yet, the puzzle of our apartness remains; to be human is to be caught in a strange midway kingdom. We sense but can't know the minds of our fellows in that neighboring realm. Montaigne put it best, in a remark Mr. Kemp quotes: "When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?"

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