Nov. 1, 2010 Great apes might be much more similar to us -- and just as smart -- than science has led us to believe.
A new study will examine the extent to which common designs of comparative psychology research, which rates humans as more advanced than apes, are fatally flawed.
Professor Kim Bard, a comparative developmental psychologist from the University of Portsmouth, has spent a lifetime studying great apes, their cognitive development and what sets them apart from humans.
She has won a three-year £135,000 Leverhulme Trust grant to allow her to investigate cross-group variations in great apes' and human abilities and development. If she finds what she expects, her research will form a new gold standard for future research into cognitive abilities of both apes and humans.
Professor Bard will re-visit all available archives and studies of human and great ape development focusing on 'joint attention', the process whereby an infant engages with another about an object or event. Joint attention can be communicated by pointing, or shifting gaze from an object to another individual and back again when you want the other to look at the same object, for example.
Joint attention is also a key indicator of brain development and studies of this ability have always rated humans as more developed than apes.
But Professor Bard says such studies do not compare like with like. For example, many studies compare the abilities of a Western child raised in a close family with an ape reared in an orphanage.
She will devise a new method for measuring the cognitive social and emotional abilities of human and great ape infants to eliminate such variables. This would reveal much more precisely how and when we differ from our great ape cousins and help build better theories of the evolution of social cognition.
She said: "The claim that joint attention is a uniquely human trait has been developed by studying Western human infants compared to great ape adults.
"Results of my own such 'niche environment' studies have shown apes can be more or less clever than Western human infants depending on their rearing conditions.
"What none of these or other studies have measured, though, is the comparative differences when you take out all the confounding variables of type of parenting and culture. That is what my new research aims to do -- to reveal what really sets humans and great apes apart. I think I will find that great apes are capable of 'joint attention'."
Professor Bard said she was delighted to have won a grant from the Leverhulme Trust.
"There is an urgent need to revise evolutionary theory and what I propose to research is innovative and important. Moreover, I hope to contribute to a major paradigm shift in our understanding and future research into developmental processes underlying great ape cognitive outcomes."
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