Friday, September 07, 2007

Humans and Other Apes

I heard a report on NPR today ("Ooh! He listens to NPR! He's sooo smarrrt!") that made me want to throw my poop at someone. The report was on research comparing the innate intelligence of human children to that of other primates, which is all well and good, but the reporter kept making reference to "humans and other apes." Now, maybe that kind of language is in vogue in scientific circles these days, but I'm not so far along in the evolutionary process that calling me an ape doesn't sound like an insult. I can accept the designation "primate," but "ape" is demeaning, I daresay dehumanizing.

The report indicates that human children showed no special advantage over chimps and orangutans when it came to mechanics and simple logic; chimps were at least as likely as the future leaders of our nation to be able to find a banana or do simple math. Where our prodigious progeny proved their evolutionary superiority, it turns out, was in their social intelligence--in their ability to figure out what the researcher was trying to show or tell them, and to turn that information to their advantage. Little kids were far more likely to learn from observing how to open a container and retreive the food inside, and they were much quicker to let the researcher know where food was hidden in the room once the expectation that the researcher would feed them was established. From this report I learned, among other things, what makes humans unique among the primates and, apparently, what makes kids today so fat.

The report went on to suggest that what sets apart humans from other primates more than anything is the ability to codify language, so that learning became socially cumulative rather than isolated and transitory. Once human beings learned how to communicate their wants and needs to each other, and to let each other in on the secrets they'd uncovered, and beyond that to archive that information for other human beings, the i-Phone was simply an inevitability.

There are some flaws in the research, of course. There were, to my knowledge, no nonhuman researchers, so the human children didn't have to do any inter-species translation work. The chimps and orangutans were at a shockingly obvious cultural disadvantage, and so the research is hopelessly biased, as far as I'm concerned. But it's an interesting premise nonetheless, and certainly smugly self-satisfying for a writer-editor such as myself: the ability to parse a sentence is an indication of higher social intelligence. We're kings of the jungle based on our command of language. Revenge of the nerds at last!


Web said...

I'm surprised that you didn't mention the Infinite Monkey Theorem.

And next time I see you, please don't hurl any excrement in my direction.

Mr Steve said...

The report also failed to mention that the human children gained advantage over the apes by crying out "Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!" every time the chimps would get near them.

And one researcher was particularly surprised by the child who upon finding one of the containers empty cried out: "You Maniacs! You ate it all up! Ah, damn you! Damn you all!"

Allen A. Fawcett said...

Dr. Zaius is already hard at work updating this research to control for the inter-species translation issues you so rightly raise.

Bob/Serpentuh said...

The tone of this particular blog is very agitated.
Maybe the real answer is to stop listening to NPR...

May I suggest Smooth Jazz WNUA 95.5 - Chicago?