60-Second Mind

Is Civilization the Result of Humans' Need to Share?

A 2007 study published in Science shows that young human children perform as well as apes on intelligence tests, but that kids beat apes in social skills. The lead researcher explains why this difference is crucial. Christie Nicholson reports.

 [Below is the original script. Some textual variations may have been made during the recording of this podcast.]


Last August I covered research showing two-year-old kids are remarkably similar in intelligence to the great apes on scores of spatial and quantitative intelligence.

Where humans left the apes in the dust, however, was in social skills, according to Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute.

He claims in a follow-up in The New York Times Magazine that our culture, language, economy and sophisticated tools exist because of our tendency for "collective cognition".

Comparing children and chimps, Tomasello found that humans recognize and commit to group tasks, whereas chimps have no such expectation of others.

Apes communicate to get others to do what they want, but children talk or gesture to share information. (Some say this human need to voluntarily share is why we have language...and may, as a recent aside, explain the popularity of sharing on the Web.)

Also, only children pretend. They imagine a stick is a horse, and Tomasello connects this with our ability to build institutions—that is, assign someone to be president, teacher or husband.

These adaptations, Tomasello writes, set us apart from apes, thereby allowing us to build modern civilization.

- Christie Nicholson


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