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Why apes’ abilities have been misunderstood for decades

Hundreds of studies have told us that apes are smart – but just not as smart humans.

But apes’ intelligence may be entirely misunderstood because researchers have so far failed to measure it fairly and accurately. 

The study suggests that what we think we know about apes’ social intelligence is based on wishful thinking and flawed science, and apes may actually be smarter than currently thought.

One of the suggestions made by the researchers is to conduct studies where apes are ‘adopted’ by humans to gives the clearest available comparison between the two species.

In order to improve upon flawed experimental designs in ape intelligence studies, researchers cited four possible remedies. For example, if apes were cross-fostered – adopted by humans – it would give the clearest available comparison between the two species

A team of researchers based in the UK and the US  published their study in the journal Animal Cognition. 

‘The fault underlying decades of research and our understanding of apes’ abilities is due to such a strongly-held belief in our own superiority, that scientists have come to believe that human babies are more socially capable than ape adults,’ said Dr David Leavens, a researcher at the University of Sussex and the corresponding author of the study. 

‘As humans, we see ourselves as top of the evolutionary tree. 

‘This had led to a systematic exaltation of the reasoning abilities of human infants, on the one hand, and biased research designs that discriminate against apes, on the other hand.

‘Even when apes clearly outperform young human children, researchers tend to interpret the apes’ superior performance to be a consequence of inferior cognitive abilities.

‘There is not one scientifically sound report of an essential species difference between apes and humans in their abilities to use and understand clues from gestures, for example. 

HOW TO IMPROVE APE STUDIES  

A new study argues that previous studies about apes have flawed methodology, leading to a misunderstanding about ape intelligence.

In order to improve upon flawed experimental designs in ape intelligence studies, the researchers cited four possible remedies for what they describe as the pervasive superiority complex in comparative psychology research:

  • Humans ‘adopt’ apes : When apes are ‘adopted’ by humans, it gives the clearest available comparison between the two species. The method has a long history and raises many ethical issues, so while it is a theoretically strong remedy, it isn’t often ideal in practice. 
  • Only using objective measures: Where scientific explanations for comparisons between apes and humans are grounded in variables which can be objectively measures. One of the authors of the study says that many explanations for skills in comparative psychology research can’t be observed or measured, and as such can’t be scientifically tested.
  • Training apes too: This argues that is apes are to be compared to humans, they should first be given training and experience in the skills being tested. The researchers say that science has for too long assumed human behavior is spontaneous and not taken account of the training and experience a human child has, for example, in seeing others point and learning and understanding the gesture. As such, specifying the amount and types of training necessary for a naive ape to learn a skill would advance the field. 
  • Comparing different types of humans and apes : Almost all studies comparing humans with apes have compared humans from a small group – Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic – with apes who have been orphaned and/or raised in sterile institutions. In 2014, the researchers proposed that more than a single group of humans should be compared to more than a single group of apes to determine the influence of environment on communicative outcomes. 
According to the researchers, this is not the first time that science has seen a collapse of rigor - 100 years ago scientists were sure that people of northern European descent were the most intelligent in our species

According to the researchers, this is not the first time that science has seen a collapse of rigor – 100 years ago scientists were sure that people of northern European descent were the most intelligent in our species

‘Not one.

‘This is not to say such a difference won’t be found in future, but much of the existing scientific research is deeply flawed.’

According to the researchers, this is not the first time that science has seen a collapse of rigor – 100 years ago scientists were sure that people of northern European descent were the most intelligent in our species. 

This racial bias is now seen as antiquated, but this new study argues that the field of comparative psychology is applying the same bias to cross-species comparisons between humans and apes . 

Professor Kim Bard, a researcher at the University of Portsmouth and a co-author of the study, said that the team had found a gap between evidence and belief about ape intelligence. 

‘This suggests a deep commitment to the idea that humans alone possess sophisticated social intelligence, a bias that is often not supported by the evidence,’ said Professor Bard. 

A new study suggests that what we think we know about apes' social intelligence is based on wishful thinking and flawed science, and apes may actually be smarter than currently thought

A new study suggests that what we think we know about apes’ social intelligence is based on wishful thinking and flawed science, and apes may actually be smarter than currently thought

According to the researchers, in comparative biology research, if an ape makes a pointing gesture, the meaning is ambiguous, but if a human does it, a double standard of interpretation is applied – concluding that humans have a degree of sophistication, a product of evolution that other species can’t possibly share.  

‘For researchers interested in the origins of language, focusing on behaviors without considering the animal’s specific learning experiences will easily and inaccurately load results in favor of humans,’ says Professor Bard. 

An example of this bias is one large set of studies which included an analysis of children who were raised in Western households, well ware and exposed to the cultural conventions of nonverbal signalling, whereas the apes they were being compared to were raised without that cultural exposure. 

When both were tested on their understanding of Western conventions of non-verbal communication, the children out-performed the apes on some tasks, but it remains ambiguous whether this was due to their evolutionary histories or their specific learning experiences with respect to non-verbal communication. 

In another study, children aged 12 months were compared to apes aged between 18 and 19. 

The study concluded that humans alone have evolved the ability to point towards an absent object, taking no account of the differences in the humans’ and apes’ age, life history, or environment. 

But more recent studies have demonstrated that, like human children, adult apes do communicate about absent objects. 

In order to improve upon flawed experimental designs in ape intelligence studies, the researchers cited four possible remedies for what they describe as the pervasive superiority complex in comparative psychology research. 

For example, if apes were cross-fostered  – adopted by humans – it would give the clearest available comparison between the two species.

Another proposal suggests that scientific explanations for comparisons between apes and humans should only be grounded in variables which can be objectively measured, as many explanations for skills in comparative psychology research can’t be observed or measured. 

Researchers suggest that if apes are to be compared to humans, they should be given training and experience in the skills being tested because science has not taken into account the training and experience a human child has

Researchers suggest that if apes are to be compared to humans, they should be given training and experience in the skills being tested because science has not taken into account the training and experience a human child has

The researchers also suggest that if apes are to be compared to humans, they should be given training and experience in the skills being tested because science has for too long assumed that human behavior is spontaneous, not taking into account the training and experience a human child has.

Finally, the researchers said that almost all studies comparing humans with apes have compared humans from a small group – Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic – with apes who have been orphaned and/or raised in sterile institutions.

In 2014, the researchers proposed that more than a single group of humans should be compared to more than a single group of apes to determine the influence of environment on communicative outcomes. 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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