Sunday, May 25, 2008

Humans: Vorsprung Durch Unique

As if cupcakes weren't enough to settle the matter, today's New York Times Magazine has a poorly thought out essay on what makes humans unique. Now you might think that it is our superior intelligence that sets us apart from our simian friends. But Michael Tomasello, an evolutionary anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute, is eager to tell us that we'd be wrong. He recounts :

"To test this idea, my colleagues and I recently administered an array of cognitive tests — the equivalent of nonverbal I.Q. tests — to adult chimpanzees and orangutans (two of our closest primate relatives) and to 2-year-old human children. As it turned out, the children were not more skillful overall. They performed about the same as the apes on the tests that measured how well they understood the physical world of space, quantities and causality. The children performed better only on tests that measured social skills: social learning, communicating and reading the intentions of others."

Those "social gifts," he concludes, "make all the difference." The article then drones on about how Romper Room is our natural habitat and, much to my amazement, ends with this howler:

"Human beings have evolved to coordinate complex activities, to gossip and to playact together. It is because they are adapted for such cultural activities — and not because of their cleverness as individuals — that human beings are able to do so many exceptionally complex and impressive things."

I agree fully with Tomasello that humans can be stupid. One need go no further than reading the transcript of any presidential debate. But how does he arrive at sweeping generalizations about human intelligence by testing 2-year-olds and then comparing their scores with chimps? It is as if he concluded all humans were less than three feet tall because he could find no child above that height.

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