Most Research on Ape Capabilities Faulty and Biased, say leading scientists

The way many researchers have measured, perceived and interpreted how capable apes are has been biased and the conclusions are all wrong, argue some scientists.  Leading scientists in the field of ape cognition have conducted a study that reveals apes’ abilities have been unfairly measured, throwing into doubt the assumed belief that human infants are superior to adult chimpanzees.

Study Overview

Researchers studied published work comparing human and ape social cognition and came to the conclusion the studies had got it wrong.

They say it should come as no surprise that apes raised in institutions would not perform well compared with humans raised in western families, especially when tested with western cultural practices, for example, gestures such as pointing.

The researchers argue that it’s possible that apes and humans are equally capable in some aspects of social cognition, for example, social signalling — pointing at a desired object — and scientists have misjudged their abilities because of an underlying bias and poor experimental designs.

They also suggest that without a rigorous, scientific approach to designing experiments and interpreting results, comparative psychology fails to contribute to our understanding of human uniqueness.

“These studies suffer from the same type of prejudice that once existed in studies of human intelligence, which started from a biased position of assuming northern Europeans were innately more intelligent than southern Europeans. We argue the same type of bias is apparent in cross-species studies.”


How can scientists redress their faulty research designs and biased conclusions?

“Historically, many researchers have claimed humans are superior to apes in social intelligence, but the research is based on studies of captive adult apes isolated from European-style social interaction and human (usually children) from rich western cities. These experiment designs are simply not valid for the comparative study of species differences.

“If an ape from an ape orphanage doesn’t appear to understand a communicative signal that western, middle class humans commonly use, it might not mean the ape is socially less able than a human, because there are many non-western humans that also don’t use these signals. To truly understand the abilities of each species, research needs to examine specific individual learning histories within specific ecological circumstances for both humans and for apes.

“We urge researchers to stop using fallacious research designs and reasoning in studies of comparative cognition.”

-Professor Kim Bard, Researcher and Comparative Developmental Psychologist, University of Portsmouth


Journal Reference:  David A. Leavens, Kim A. Bard, William D. Hopkins. The mismeasure of ape social cognition. Animal Cognition, 2017; 22 (4): 487.

Overview/Study DOI: 10.1007/s10071-017-1119-1


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