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Does Social Ability Distinguish Human Intelligence from That of Apes?

Not altogether, of course, but it plays a bigger role than we sometimes assume

In Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny, professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Michael Tomasello tries to understand, from his two decades of research, what makes humans unique. He says that it is not intelligence as such but social intelligence, our “ultra social ability”:

One of our most important studies was a huge study we did with over 100 human children and over 100 chimpanzees. We gave them a big battery of tests – a big IQ test if you will. It covered understanding of space, causality, quantities, as well as social learning, communication, reading the intentions of others.

We found that 2-year-old children – before they can read or do anything mathematical – look just like the apes on physical things, such as causality, quantities and space. But in the social domain, they are already way ahead.

So it’s not just that humans are generally smarter, it’s that we have a special kind of smarts. We are able to plug into the knowledge and skills of other people and to take their perspective, by collaborating, communication and learning from them in unique ways.

Duke University, “Michael Tomasello: What makes humans human?” at Phys.Org

He provides a video illustration:

He was asked, in particular, about the pointing gesture:

So, the pointing gesture. Human infants typically start pointing at around 11 or 12 months of age, and when you point for them, they understand it immediately. Neither apes nor any other animals use the pointing gesture in their natural communication. So if a child is looking for something and you point behind the couch, they know you are intending to help them find the thing behind the couch.

With chimps, if they’re looking for something and you point … they’re clueless, absolutely clueless. They don’t understand that you’re trying to help them. Having unique communicative skills such as pointing—not to mention language as socially shared conventions—is absolutely essential in children’s development.

Duke University, “Michael Tomasello: What makes humans human?” at Phys.Org

Curiously, chimpanzees may not understand what pointing means but dogs, according to other research, do understand quite well:

Perhaps surprisingly, domestic dogs are skilled in using a variety of communicative cues, including pointing, in object choice tasks. Their performance cannot be explained by learning during the experiment as in many studies they demonstrate such skill from the very first trial. Also their performance cannot be explained by major learning during ontogeny as puppies from an early age seem to use human communication flexibly. It is more likely that dogs’ skills with human communication are an adaptation to life with humans and are influenced by selection processes during domestication. This is also supported by the fact that untrained wolves perform poorly. Even though wolves can learn how to use pointing after receiving special training, e.g. clicker training, dogs develop this skill earlier and need no specific training in order to follow pointing. Kirchhofer KC, Zimmermann F, Kaminski J, Tomasello M (2012) Dogs (Canis familiaris), but Not Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), Understand Imperative Pointing. PLoS ONE 7(2): e30913. (open access)

As Tomasello points out, the notion of a “tree” of intelligence (where, for example, apes would always be smarter than dogs) misstates both the nature of intelligence and what aspects of it are unique to humans. We might well ask then, why do children and dogs readily believe that pointing conveys information but chimpanzees and wolves do not?

Tomasello’s profile at PNAS lists some of his studies on apes and children.

See also: Dogs are not as intelligent as seals, say some researchers.

Crows can be as smart as apes

Yes, even lizards can be smart

Is the octopus a second genesis of intelligence?

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Does Social Ability Distinguish Human Intelligence from That of Apes?