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Ape intelligence research poisoned by human ego, scientists argue

"There is not one scientifically sound report of an essential species difference between apes and humans in their abilities to use and understand clues from gestures, for example," researcher David Leavens said.

By Brooks Hays
New research suggests there is little scientific evidence to suggest human infants are cognitively superior to apes. Photo by Enrico Ferorelli/University of Portsmouth
New research suggests there is little scientific evidence to suggest human infants are cognitively superior to apes. Photo by Enrico Ferorelli/University of Portsmouth

Aug. 31 (UPI) -- In a newly published study, researchers argue the intelligence and cognitive abilities of apes are continually underestimated and discounted.

According to a team of international scientists, decades of ape research has been poisoned by the base assumption that humans are smarter and more capable than -- and all-around superior to -- their ape ancestors.

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David Leavens, a professor at the University of Sussex, says such an assumption is wrong and makes for flawed science.

"As humans, we see ourselves as top of the evolutionary tree," Leavens said in a news release. "This had led to a systematic exaltation of the reasoning abilities of human infants, on the one hand, and biased research designs that discriminate against apes, on the other hand."

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As proof of the problem and often twisted logic deployed in ape research, Leavens and his colleagues cite studies in which the superior cognitive performance of apes over human infants is explained as a consequence of an ape's inferior cognitive abilities.

"There is not one scientifically sound report of an essential species difference between apes and humans in their abilities to use and understand clues from gestures, for example," Leavens said. "Not one."

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Leavens and his colleagues aren't arguing that apes boast cognitive abilities equal to humans. In their new study -- published this week in the journal Animal Cognition -- researchers simply make the case that the current science doesn't support the assumption of human superiority.

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"In examining the literature, we found a chasm between evidence and belief," said Kim Bard, a professor at the University of Portsmouth.

One of the biggest problems, researchers argue, is apes are often pitted against human children in tests where exposure or Western cultural norms are an advantage. For example, apes and human infants are sometimes tested on their ability to understand Western conventions of non-verbal communication. The apes, of course, have not been exposed to Western conventions of non-verbal communication.

In their latest study, scientists argue ape researchers must worker harder to put apes and human infants on equal footing prior to cognitive testing. Leavens and Bard suggest researchers can do this by improving methods of studying cross-fostered apes, undertaking intensive training studies, and studying subjects that have been raised in a wider variety of environments.

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