Test compares the way humans and chimps learn

Carrie McLaren is a guest blogger at Boing Boing and coauthor of Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture. She lives in Brooklyn, the former home of her now defunct Stay Free! magazine.

Here's an interesting clip from a National Geographic documentary that compares the way humans and chimpanzees learn. When asked to perform a series of motions in order to get a treat out of a box, the human child will copy the adult's motions exactly. The ape copies the motions as well, until the box is replaced with a translucent version. Once it is, the ape realizes that half of the motions are pointless and takes a shortcut to get the treat; children, on the other hand, continue to do the meaningless motions that they were taught.

According to the filmmakers, this illustrates how both humans and chimps learn through copying, but children are "better" at it. That very well may be. But shouldn't the chimps should be given props for problem-solving here?

Experiments like this always drive me a bit crazy because the social setup isn't exactly parallel. Children are being asked to copy other humans, whereas the apes are expected to follow a different species. Would children be as good at copying (or obeying) if chimps were the ones giving instructions?

Of course, even if chimps were asked to imitate older chimps, they probably wouldn't copy as precisely as the children, and that's ultimately the filmmakers' point. The children are able to see rote repetition as the point of a game whereas the chimp might only be able to grasp "getting the treat."