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Great apes might be just as smart as humans after all

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Our closest relatives - including chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans - have long been considered fundamentally less intelligent than humans. But that could soon change.

Tests of primate intelligence may have been unfairly biased in humanity's favor. The question of whether one species is more intelligent than another can be incredibly tricky, not least because intelligence itself is such a hard thing to define in the first place. So, for our purposes, we'll just focus on one definition of intelligence, and that's how much an individual is able to engage with another on a given topic. This ability, which is first displayed during infancy, allows an individual to get someone else to focus on something by pointing at it or shifting its gaze between the other person and the object.


This is known as joint attention, and although it might seem pretty basic, it's one of the strongest indicators of overall cognitive development. In all previous studies, humans have consistently outperformed great apes, seemingly indicating their greater intelligence. But Professor Kim Bard, a psychologist at the UK's University of Portsmouth, believes those tests had hidden variables that unfairly tilted the advantage toward humans.

As Bard points out, those tests made use of the most readily available humans and great apes, but those two groups fit very different profiles. The humans were almost always infants from Western countries who were raised in close families. The apes, on the other hand, were adults who were generally raised in orphanages and so lacked any close familial bonds. When dealing with a mark of intelligence like joint intelligence, which can be very much affected by an individual's overall social skills, the difference in backgrounds is a very big deal.


Bard hopes her new research will fix this problem, and she believes it will reveal apes and humans aren't so different after all:

"The claim that joint attention is a uniquely human trait has been developed by studying Western human infants compared to great ape adults. Results of my own such 'niche environment' studies have shown apes can be more or less clever than Western human infants depending on their rearing conditions. What none of these or other studies have measured, though, is the comparative differences when you take out all the confounding variables of type of parenting and culture. That is what my new research aims to do — to reveal what really sets humans and great apes apart. I think I will find that great apes are capable of 'joint attention'."

I'm all for furthering scientific knowledge and all that good stuff, but this seems to run a very real danger of proving Planet of the Apes was right all along. And once you start proving one Charlton Heston sci-fi movie right, well...I'd stay away from the Soylent Green, that's all I'm saying.

[University of Portsmouth]