Education found to be key in human evolutionary success

The next time you’re stuck in Quantum Malarkey 101 and wondering what use there is listening to the professor orate abstract theorems, perhaps you should reflect on a study published March 2 in Science Magazine.

A study called “Identification of the Social and Cognitive Processes Underlying Human Cumulative Culture” took a hard look at and compared the sequential problem-solving capabilities of groups of chimpanzees, capuchin monkeys, and human children, attempting to answer the question “What is it about humans that separate us so drastically from the rest of the animal kingdom?”

As anyone might hypothesize, it was found that the children were significantly more successful at demonstrating higher functional cognitive capabilities than both the monkeys and the chimps.

“Success of the children, but not of the chimpanzees or capuchins, in reaching higher-level solutions was strongly associated with a package of sociocognitive processes —including teaching through verbal instruction, imitation, and prosociality — that were observed only in the children and covaried with performance,” the paper noted.

The researchers presented each group with a three-stage puzzlebox that offered differing rewards of increasing desirability as the subjects progressed from stage to stage, then compared the results. The first stage simply involved sliding a door to reveal a feed-tube. The next stage required the subjects to push a button either up or down, which in turn allowed the door to be opened farther and revealed a second feed-tube. The final stage had subjects turn a dial left or right that allowed the door to be opened, granting access to the last feed-tube.

The experiment involved 35 three-to-four year-old human children, 74 chimpanzees, and 40 capuchin monkeys.

Amongst the monkeys, only two were able to reach the second stage, but none made it to the last.

The chimpanzee groups, being our closest animal kingdom relatives, received special treatment. After presenting the puzzlebox to a total of 33 individuals for 30 hours, four made it to stage two, while only one made it to stage three. Taking the matter further, the researchers even went so far as to train one female of assorted social status from each subsequent group to complete the puzzlebox to stage three, in order to observe if social standing might have influence on knowledge transmission — no appreciable difference was observed in chimpanzee performance.

Amongst the human child groups, researchers observed a marked difference in performance. Despite a much briefer exposure time of 2.5 hours to the experiment all but two groups saw multiple individuals progress beyond stage one — five of eight groups had at least two individuals reach stage three.

This study is not significant strictly for its statistics on species success; the scientists also paid close attention to the behaviours of their subjects that appeared to have direct impact on each group’s compilation of cumulative culture. In the human children, “a total of 23 unambiguous instances of teaching by direct instruction” were noticed, as opposed to none amongst the animal groups. Equally significant, the observers also witnessed 215 instances of human children donating a successfully retrieved reward to other juveniles who were unable to receive any for themselves, while such acts of altruism were not recorded even once amongst the monkeys or chimpanzees.

“Our findings,” the researchers write, “ . . . constitute strong support for the view that cumulative culture requires a package of key psychological processes — specifically, teaching through verbal instruction, imitation, and prosocial tendencies — that are present in humans but are absent or impoverished in chimpanzees and capuchins.”