RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Scientists have known since the 1980s that humans and other apes share pretty much the same genetic code. A new study in the journal Science adds to what that means exactly, with the help of hundreds of little bundles of DNA - human toddlers, chimpanzees and orangutans.
NPR's Patricia Neighmond reports.
PATRICIA NEIGHMOND: Just think about it, says anthropologist Brian Hare, practically the same DNA, and yet such different lives.
Mr. BRIAN HARE (Anthropologist, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology): We have cars, and trains, and rocket ships, and you know, Internets. And we're the only organism on the planet that does all these crazy things.
NEIGHMOND: Chimps are terrific at solving their own problems, of course, and they get along perfectly well without the Internet. But is there a difference in a way humans learn that might explain why we took a different evolutionary path?
In order to investigate that question, Brian Hare and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute in Germany did some extensive testing of humans and other apes.
Mr. HARE: Our subjects in this study were two-and-a-half-year-old children, and we had 106 children we looked at. And then we had chimpanzees that live in two orphanages in Africa - and we had 105 of them. And then we also had a group of orangutans that we studied in an orphanage in Indonesia.
NEIGHMOND: Some scientists have argued that kids would be able to outperform apes on all measures. But in this study, that was not the case. Children did not perform any better than apes on many tests that measured concrete knowledge.
Mr. HARE: They weren't any better than the apes at solving things like adding different numbers or understanding where something was hidden. They weren't any better on those types of things. Where they were really different was in these types of social problems.
NEIGHMOND: By social problems, Hare means being able to watch somebody else, figure out what they're trying to do, and what they want you to do. So in his study, tests also looked at how adept children and apes were at understanding someone else's intention.
Mr. HARE: We put food underneath a cup, and the subject saw where the food was, but an experimenter didn't know the food was there. And the question was would the child with the chimpanzee, with the orangutan, would it point to the correct location, or somehow communicate to the experimenter where the food was hidden, so that then the experimenter might give them the food.
NEIGHMOND: Most of the children immediately pointed out the hidden food to the researcher, the apes did not. In another test, treats were placed in a tube. After researchers demonstrated the series of steps needed to open it, most of the toddlers copied them and opened it the same way. The apes, on the other hand, did not. That's not to say the apes didn't open the tube.
Mr. HARE: They did lots of different things, like trying to crack the tube, or banging it on the cage or the room that they were being tested in. But in general, they didn't use the method that was demonstrated to them.
NEIGHMOND: Being able to learn quickly from others is a social skill. The human children certainly excelled. Kathryn Hirsch-Pasek is a psychologist from Temple University. She says partly because we humans are so social, we were able to develop a sophisticated language and that has allowed us to record and transmit our history.
Dr. KATHRYN HIRSCH-PASEK (Psychologist, Temple University): So it means in some sense, we can even speed the course of evolution through language and not have to relearn everything with each child born anew.
NEIGHMOND: All primates are social, but the new study underscores that humans are ultra-social with all its benefits.
Patty Neighmond, NPR News.