There are ways that chimpanzees are more intelligent than us
Sep 2, 2014
We humans assume we are the smartest of all creations. In a world with over
8.7 million species, only we have the ability to understand the inner workings
of our body while also unraveling the mysteries of the universe. We are the
geniuses, the philosophers, the artists, the poets and savants. We amuse at a
dog playing ball, a dolphin jumping rings, or a monkey imitating man because we
think of these as remarkable acts for animals that, we presume, aren't smart as
us. But what is smart? Is it just about having ideas, or being good at language
Scientists have shown, time and again, that many animals have an extraordinary
intellect. Unlike an average human brain that can barely recall a vivid scene
from the last hour, chimps have a photographic memory and can memorize patterns
they see in the blink of an eye. Sea lions and elephants can remember faces from
decades ago. Animals also have a unique sense perception. Sniffer dogs can
detect the first signs of colon cancer by the scents of patients, while doctors
flounder in early diagnosis. So the point is animals are smart too. But that's
not the upsetting realization. What happens when, for just once, a chimp or a
dog challenges man to one of their feats? Well, for one, a precarious face-off --
like the one Matt Reeves conceived in the Planet of the Apes -- would seem a tad
less unlikely than we thought.
In a recent
study by psychologists Colin Camerer and Tetsuro Matsuzawa, chimps and
humans played a strategy game -- and unexpectedly, the chimps outplayed the
Chimps are a scientist's favorite model to understand human brain and behavior.
Chimp and human DNAs overlap by a whopping 99 percent, which makes us closer to
chimps than horses to zebras. Yet at some point, we evolved differently. Our
behavior and personalities, molded to some extent by our distinct societies, are
strikingly different from that of our fellow primates. Chimps are aggressive and
status-hungry within their hierarchical societies, knit around a dominant alpha
male. We are, perhaps, a little less so. So the question arises whether
competitive behavior is hard-wired in them.
In the present study, chimp pairs or human pairs contested in a two-player video
game. Each player simply had to choose between left and right squares on a
touch-screen panel, while being blind to their rival's choice. Player A, for
instance, won, each time their choices matched, and player B won, if their
choices did not. The opponent's choice was displayed after every selection, and
payoffs in the form of apple cubes or money were dispensed to the winner.
In competitive games such as this, like in chess or poker, the players learn to
guess their opponent's moves based on the latter's past choices, and adjust
their own strategy at every step in order to win. An ideal game, eventually,
develops a certain pattern. Using a set of math equations, described by game
theory, it is easy to predict this pattern on paper. When the players are each
making the most strategic choices, the game hovers around what is called an
In Camerer's experiment, it turned out that chimps played a near-ideal game, as
their choices leaned closer to game theory equilibrium. Whereas, when humans
played, their choices drifted farther off from theoretical predictions. Since
the game is a test of how much the players recall of their opponent's choice
history, and how cleverly they maneuver by following choice patterns, the
results suggest that chimps may have a superior memory and strategy, which help
them perform better in a competition, than humans. In other words, chimps seem
to have some sort of a knack when fighting peers in a face-off.
Their exceptional working memory may be a key factor for chimps' strategic
skills. A movie clip,
part of a study in 2007, impressively captures the eidetic memory of a 2-year
old chimp as he played a memory masking game. It makes jaws drop to see him
memorize random numerical patterns within 200 milliseconds, about half the time
it takes for the human eye to blink. Memory of such incredible precision is rare
in human babies and close to absent in adults, save for fictitious characters
like Sheldon Cooper.
It may seem dispiriting to have chimps make chumps of us. But such human-chimp
comparisons point to how the two species have evolved along different
trajectories. The human brain is three times larger, and has about 20 billion
neurons in the cortex, the seat of cognition, compared to 6 billion in chimps.
This means that our brain is capable of highly specialized functions that a
chimp brain isn't. For example, we can build and use
language in a myriad ways unlike chimps. But, to get such an advanced brain,
psychologists believe that humans may have had to "tradeoff" the fine working
memory and strategic thinking of the apes. Chimps use their strategic minds to
get a competitive edge over their peers and climb their way up to be the alpha
male. Whereas the human brain, with its unique language-related and
collaborative skills, gives us a survival advantage in an egalitarian society.
It's the result of use it or lose it, where the environment has a major say.
In sum, what we garner from these studies is that every species has its own
idiosyncrasies. Evolution is not just about adding on to existing prototypes, it
is about fine-tuning them by eliminating the non-essential to create newer
species that are, on the whole, better adapted to their surroundings — even if,
in some particular ways, they are inferior.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Madhuvanthi Kannan is a neuroscience postdoc at Yale and a freelance reporter
for LabTimes. You can read her stories on