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Of chimps and children

August 30, 2006

According to the Independent, Chimpanzees have the same ability to spread learned behavior as three-year-old humans.

Scientists have known for some time that chimps possess “cultures” – learned customs that are passed down through generations. For example, some groups of wild chimpanzees fish for ants with sticks.But researchers did not know how accurately chimps learn from each other, or how long their “cultures” lasted. Scientists in Scotland and the US designed a study to simulate transmission of behavior over multiple generations.

Animals from two test groups were taught to open a box containing fruit one of two ways, either by sliding or lifting a door. In both social groups, the technique used by the original chimpanzee was passed along an unbroken chain of six individuals. A comparative study with three-year-old children – humans – revealed similar results.

In my opinion, this should demonstrate once and for all that the great apes occupy a very special place in the animal kingdom. Biologically – and now it seems, psychologically – they really are our next of kin, and special attention should and must be given to the preservation of our hairy cousins.

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