Humans' Complex Social Skills Due to Larger Brains

Kate Ravilious
for National Geographic News
September 6, 2007

The uniquely human abilities to build relationships with others, talk, and even gossip are all boons of a large brain, a new study says.

Researchers who put human toddlers and great apes through a series of physical and cognitive tests found that human social skills are superior to those of our closest genetic relatives, whose brains are smaller.

But whether we are better at putting our social skills to good use is still a matter of opinion.

"Compared [with] baboons we waste an awful lot of time gossiping about one another," said Joan Silk, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study.

Superior Social Skills

Esther Herrmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues put 106 chimpanzees, 32 orangutans, and 105 young German children through a series of complex tests.

The children were all about two-and-a-half years old and had been speaking for at least a year.

The apes had all been made accustomed to humans.

The researchers designed 16 different puzzles to tease out the differences in ability between humans and apes.

Some of the puzzles, such as tracking the position of a reward under a cup, involved only physical skills. Others, such as selecting the cup that the researcher pointed to, involved social skills such as communication.

The results found that chimpanzees, orangutans, and human children were all equally successful in the physical skills tests.

But the human children were significantly better at the social skills tests—scoring around 74 percent correct on the tests compared to scores of 33 percent from both groups of apes. (Related news: "Monkeys Deaf to Complex Communication, Study Says" [January 22, 2004].)

Continued on Next Page >>


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