Toddlers may act up like little apes, but researchers who compared the species concluded a 2-year-old child still has the more sophisticated social learning skills.
In one test, preschoolers who wanted a toy hidden in a trick tube intently copied a scientist's movements to retrieve the prize. Chimps watched the lesson, but then mostly tried to smash or bite open the tube. When it came to simple math, however, the apes seemed to know more than the youngsters, apparently "adding" how many tasty raisins researchers had hidden.
In a novel study, scientists lured 106 chimpanzees, 32 orangutans and 105 toddlers to sit through five hours of testing over several days. Researchers were trying to tell which innate abilities are distinctly human.
"Human children are not overall more intelligent than other primates, but instead have specialized skills of social cognition," concluded the lead researcher, Esther Herrmann of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. "They learn in a way that chimpanzees don't learn."
But the findings, published in Friday's edition of the journal Science, conflict with other research that suggests the great apes, humans' closest relatives, are quite good at social learning, too. In fact, a second study in the same journal suggests chimps and monkeys have some capacity to infer someone's intentions by their actions. That is pretty complex, human-like thinking.
In that work, the animals sought out food containers that a researcher had grasped purposefully, not just tapped, or a container that he had touched with his elbow when his hands were full, but not one elbowed when his hands were empty.
The chimps and monkeys expected someone to behave rationally and adjusted their own actions accordingly, according to the lead researcher, Justin Wood of Harvard University.
"That shows quite a subtle social understanding going on in these animals," said Dr. Frans de Waal of Emory University's Yerkes National Primate Research Center, a well-known expert in primate cognition who was not involved in the research published Friday.