Aired Wednesday July 6th, 2011 at 8:00 pm on KUED HD Ch. 7.1
At a research site in Fongoli, Senegal, a female chimpanzee breaks off a branch, chews the end to make it sharp, then uses this rudimentary spear to skewer a tasty treat hiding inside a hollow tree. Captured in exclusive video, it is the first time anyone has documented a chimpanzee wielding a carefully prepared, preplanned weapon, and it is a tantalizing glimpse into the depths of ape intelligence. But it's only the latest in a slew of extraordinary new findings about ape behavior. The more researchers learn about the great apes -- chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans -- the more evidence they see of creative intellect. What, then, is the essential difference between us and them?
NOVA explores that provocative question and startling new discoveries that are illuminating the ape mind on "Ape Genius," a NOVA-National Geographic Special, airing Wednesday, July 6 at 8:00 p.m. on KUED Channel 7.
The spear-wielding chimps were documented by anthropologist Jill Pruetz, a National Geographic grantee, who also observed the Fongoli colony doing something else never documented before: holding a pool party. Chimps were long thought to be afraid of water, but the charming poolside footage shows these hairy bathers swinging from trees and taking plunges in high spirits.
Today, scientists and investigators are converging on an explanation for why apes never made the breakthrough into a community that builds on the advancements of previous generations. After all, apes are stronger and more agile than we are. They have also shown unsuspected talents for reasoning, problem solving and other intelligent traits. Some have even demonstrated rudimentary language abilities. And their emotional lives seem on a par with ours, as NOVA filmmakers witness an emotional mother chimp dealing with the sickness and death of her baby.
NOVA takes viewers to the African savannah and research labs in Texas, Germany and Japan to explore a number of fascinating new experiments that shed light on just what apes are thinking. Through careful design, such tests spotlight different features of the ape mind. For example, NOVA shows that bonobos are far more cooperative than chimpanzees and will work together on a simple task that yields a box of food to split. Chimps are more selfish under such circumstances, but they appear to have a code of conduct and will seek revenge when they have been wronged intentionally.
One of the program's most startling experiments suggests that chimps can easily outsmart young children. In this test, toddlers follow a series of steps shown to them by an adult teacher to obtain a piece of candy. Some of the steps are clearly unnecessary and nonsensical, but the toddler mindlessly follows every stage of the instructions. In contrast, chimps cut out the unnecessary steps and get the candy quickly. Yet the chimps' greater cunning can't disguise an important implication of the experiment: We humans have a built-in expectation that others are trying to teach us, an expectation that may have played a vital role in the unique growth of human intelligence.
Something as simple as a common gesture, pointing, marks another key difference between apes and humans. Apes don't seem to relate to the act of communication involved when a researcher points at an object. They can't understand it as a request to attend to the same object. Therefore they miss out on a crucial link in the learning process.
Ultimately, such gaps between humans and apes -- the little differences that make the big difference -- may explain why we study them and not the other way around.
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