Apes' abilities misunderstood by decades of poor science

August 31, 2017
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Apes' intelligence may be entirely misunderstood, because research has so far failed to measure it fairly and accurately, according to scientists.

Hundreds of scientific studies over two decades have told us that apes are clever - just not as clever as us.

A new analysis argues that what we think we know about apes' social intelligence is based on wishful thinking and flawed science.

Dr David Leavens, of the University of Sussex, with Professor Kim Bard, University of Portsmouth, and Professor Bill Hopkins, Georgia State University, published their analysis in the journal Animal Cognition.

Dr Leavens said: "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. 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. Not one.

"This is not to say such a difference won't be found in future, but much of the existing is deeply flawed."

This isn't the first time science has seen such a pervasive collapse of rigor - 100 years ago scientists were sure that northern Europeans were the most intelligent in our species. Such bias is now seen as antiquated, but comparative psychology is applying the same bias to cross-species comparisons between humans and apes, the researchers say.

Professor Bard said: "In examining the literature, we found a chasm between evidence and belief. This suggests a deep commitment to the idea that humans alone possess sophisticated , a bias that is often not supported by the evidence."

The starting point in comparative psychology research is that if an ape makes a pointing gesture, say a point to a distant object, 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, which other species can't possibly share.

In the absence of rigorous scientific research, Professor Bard said, "it is reasonable to ask if current comparative or developmental psychology has anything useful to contribute to our understanding of the 'cognitive foundations' of communication development.

"For researchers interested in the origins of language, focusing on behaviours without considering the animal's specific learning experiences will easily and inaccurately load results in favour of humans."

Examples of this bias include in one large set of studies, the children were raised in Western households, steeped in the cultural conventions of nonverbal signalling, whereas the apes were raised without that cultural exposure. When both were tested on their understanding of Western conventions of non-verbal communication, of course the children out-performed the apes on some tasks, but it remains ambiguous whether this is 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, on average, 18-19 years old. The study found that humans alone have evolved to be able to point towards an absent object, taking no account of the differences in the humans' and apes' age, life history, or environment. More recent studies have amply demonstrated that, like human children, adult apes do communicate about absent objects.

The researchers cite four possible remedies for what they describe as the pervasive superiority complex in comparative psychology research:

  • Cross fostering - where apes are 'adopted' by humans, gives the clearest available comparison between the two species. The method has a long history and raises many ethical issues, so this is a theoretically strong remedy but one that is often not ideal in practice. Cross fostering has shown that apes brought up alongside humans cannot produce many spoken words, but they can communicate in ways other apes do not.
  • Radical operationalisation - where scientific explanations for comparisons between apes and humans are grounded in variables which can be objectively measured. Dr. Leavens and colleagues say many explanations for skills in comparative psychology research can't be observed or measured, and therefore can't be scientifically tested.
  • Training - if apes are to be compared to humans, they should first be given training and experience in the skills being tested. Science has for too long assumed human behaviour is spontaneous and not taken account of the training and experience a child has, for example, in seeing others point and coming to learn and understand the gesture. Specifying the amount and types of training necessary for a naïve individual to learn a skill, would advance the field.
  • Sampling - almost all studies comparing humans with apes have compared humans from a small group - Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic - with apes who have been orphaned and/or raised in sterile institutions. In 2014, Professor Bard and Dr Leavens proposed, in the Annual Review of Anthropology, 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, for example.

Explore further: Online test reveals if humans instinctively understand apes

More information: David A. Leavens et al. The mismeasure of ape social cognition, Animal Cognition (2017). DOI: 10.1007/s10071-017-1119-1

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18 comments

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thingumbobesquire
1.4 / 5 (10) Aug 31, 2017
Apeshit "science" alert.
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (6) Aug 31, 2017
"This isn't the first time science has seen such a pervasive collapse of rigor"

-except that

"it remains ambiguous whether this is due to their evolutionary histories or their specific learning experiences"

-I don't see how 'ambiguous' can automatically lead to 'pervasive collapse'. I do see how exaggerated misanthropy can lead to 'wishful thinking and flawed science' however.
Anonym
4.8 / 5 (6) Aug 31, 2017
"A pervasive collapse of rigor" --- where have we seen that recently? Everywhere?
avandesande2000
1 / 5 (4) Aug 31, 2017
Who made these claims? It's well known that human babies are unique in the animal kingdom for their level of helplessness and slow development. Why would thinking that human babies were somehow 'superior' even be important?
dnatwork
4.3 / 5 (6) Aug 31, 2017
This is what I've always said about Chomsky assuming that human language is different in kind, not degree, from other animals' capacities. If that's the fundamental axiom of your theory, the theory will always be wrong.
julianpenrod
1.2 / 5 (13) Aug 31, 2017
Take a lesson where a lesson is offered.
Note where the article says, "100 years ago, scientists were sure that northern Europeans were the most intelligent in our species. Such bias is now seen as antiquated".
Why? What experiments proved it is wrong? What proof has been provided that northern Europeans aren't the most intelligent?
Note that, in addition to not mentioning any supposed proof the idea is wrong, the article declares the idea "antiquated", not "false"! And not even "antiquated" but "seen as antiquated"! Basically saying it's not that it was proved incorrect, it's simply fallen out of vogue! They article itself won't state overtly that that idea is false!
TheGhostofOtto1923
2 / 5 (8) Aug 31, 2017
Take a lesson where a lesson is offered.
Note where the article says, "100 years ago, scientists were sure that northern Europeans were the most intelligent in our species. Such bias is now seen as antiquated".
Why? What experiments proved it is wrong? What proof has been provided that northern Europeans aren't the most intelligent?
Note that, in addition to not mentioning any supposed proof the idea is wrong, the article declares the idea "antiquated", not "false"! And not even "antiquated" but "seen as antiquated"! Basically saying it's not that it was proved incorrect, it's simply fallen out of vogue! They article itself won't state overtly that that idea is false!
Huh. So julians bible is actually The Bell Curve.

Let us not forget julian that your god was a semite.
dnatwork
4.7 / 5 (12) Aug 31, 2017
Take a lesson where a lesson is offered.
...
Basically saying it's not that it was proved incorrect, it's simply fallen out of vogue! They article itself won't state overtly that that idea is false!


Sounds to me like they are avoiding the very mistake that they are criticizing. Previous researchers assumed a thing and based conclusions on that "fact." These guys are pointing out the fact that the assumption is a bias, not a fact, and therefore the conclusions are invalid. They do not then assume the opposite conclusions are true, that they know the answer just because they know the other guys were wrong. That would be a logical fallacy. Instead, they offer better ways to do research that would be valid. That's a virtue, not a vice.
bschott
1 / 5 (8) Aug 31, 2017
They do not then assume the opposite conclusions are true, that they know the answer just because they know the other guys were wrong.

Excellent comment.

"A pervasive collapse of rigor" --- where have we seen that recently? Everywhere?

Excellent observation.
sascoflame
1.3 / 5 (15) Aug 31, 2017
If humans are so stupid why aren't the apes running the experiment? All the article does is assume that Europeans are monsters from hell and because of that everything western scientists say is wrong by definition.
sevensixtwo
1 / 5 (8) Sep 01, 2017
That's like when the idiots send their cretinous underling to assess me and they write in their reports, "He doesn't even understand the thing I think is important and I'm not going to check if he is correct to view what is important to me as unimportant."
Dingbone
Sep 01, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Da Schneib
4.6 / 5 (10) Sep 01, 2017
Having actually had a pretty unpleasant conversation with one of these supposed animal psychologists while paying a great deal of money to be insulted and have my obvious observations contradicted seconds after the real events that were being denied, I found that they not only don't consider the experimental controls discussed in this article or its underlying paper, they actively reject them. As such I have little resistance to the thesis of the paper. Looks pretty much right to me from what I've seen of so-called animal psychologists.
Da Schneib
4.2 / 5 (10) Sep 01, 2017
Not to put too fine a point on it, @Dingbat, but you don't have the chops to be anything but a committee. Most of us prefer to have our own handles. We don't consider ourselves interchangeable.

You wanna talk some string theory, right here right now? The longer you wait the more likely you've summoned a comrade or cadre who has specific knowledge to replace you. I won't wait long for a ringer to show up.
HeloMenelo
4.6 / 5 (9) Sep 03, 2017
Aaaah, Spot On, DingDung and his sock puppet biscuit (aka antigoracle,waterptophet sockpuppet) have been misunderstood all along (their actually dumber than we thought)
Urgelt
not rated yet Sep 04, 2017
Hot Sasco wrote, "All the article does is assume that Europeans are monsters from hell and because of that everything western scientists say is wrong by definition."

Does all that heat impair your cognitive function, Sassy? Your reading comprehension is failing you.

The article points out biases in psychological research. That's all it does. It certainly does not conclude that '...everything Western scientists say is wrong by definition.'

Though when it comes to psychology, Western or otherwise, it's perfectly routine to ignore the scientific method and to construct conclusions based on unverified assumptions. Psychology is not a science. It *could* be a science. But as currently practiced, it is not.

But I said it, not the researchers. Blame me, not them. Those poor guys are psychologists who are trying to get closer to the scientific method in their field by critiquing the field's obvious biases.

That alone won't make psychology a science, but it's a start.
jshniper
not rated yet Sep 04, 2017
Maybe a fruitful approach to comparing Simian to Human ( wait! Aren't Humans Simians??) Intelligence would be to motivate Apes to test Human Intelligence in relation to situations which occur in Simian Natural Environments! It's about time we STOPPED being the SOLE Judge of ourselves! At any rate it is ridiculous to gauge Simian Intelligence with regard to Human Environments that are Alien to them!
jloohunret
1 / 5 (1) Sep 22, 2017
Psychology's beginning and misunderstanding of apes abilities has caused much lost time and effort that was built upon those misunderstanding. A faulty start, troubled start, forever ruins psychology until an entirely restart of the field occurs and psychology comes to an end.

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