Science Says Toddlers Are Smarter Than Apes, Barely

by Parent Co. June 27, 2017

Two children fighting

Having two children pulled out of my uterus seemed barbaric, but I kissed their goopy heads all the same. Once they were clean, sleeping, and smelling of milk and the doctors had put me back together again, I thought the barbarity was over and that we were on our way to becoming civilized. Silly me.

I've just spent the last three years trying to make something human out of these two. As twins go, they could be a species unto themselves. They've got their own language, manner of dress, favorite haunts, feeding times, and nocturnal habits. They even groom each other if a particularly enticing booger is stuck in the other's hair. However, it's not the twin thing that sets them apart from the rest of humanity, it's the toddler thing. Toddlerhood is the jumping-off point for children as they begin to use reason, even as it disables our own.

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Any parent of a toddler becomes a sociologist for a time, if only to ask: what am I doing here and how do we all get out alive? In his book "A Natural History of Human Thinking," psychologist Michael Tomasello argues that children in this early stage of cognition finally begin to deviate from their natural similarities with the chimpanzees, meaning less poop throwing and more conversing. In early infancy, children and apes aren't all that dissimilar in their physical and communication milestones. They develop different cries and learn to move and self-feed at comparable rates. It's not until the toddler-phase that kids begin to participate in "shared intentionality." As Tomasello puts it, this "‘we’ intentionality, refers to collaborative interactions in which participants share psychological states with one another."

Basically, this is the age that kids begin to learn to work together for the benefit of the group. They begin to intuit and to show signs of sympathy – all the things they need to prove they're not little sociopaths, or apes. As an inherently competitive and autonomous species, chimpanzees do not feel the need to cooperate in the same way. But we humans need each other. Cavemen hunted better together. The colonists couldn't have survived New England winters without creating a solid collective. Thriving in the modern world means possessing the ability to express oneself in a manner the rest of society can understand.

I can see glimpses of this in my own kids, albeit at a painstakingly slow pace. I see it when they team up to climb the pantry shelves to get the jelly beans. I see it when they look to each other before explaining what happened to the now-beheaded flowers in the yard. I see it when they help each other unbuckle their car seats on the highway. They're learning to work together and often to my downfall. However I also see it when they help each other strap on their bike helmets, introduce themselves to other kids on the playground, and Velcro each other's shoes. We're getting the good stuff too.

A chimp will steal the banana right out of your hands if you let him. So will my children, but they might also decide to share. That's a step in the right direction. As they are now, they're only starting the path to full-blown rational adulthood. They've just begun to diverge from the monkeys. The little glimmers of lucidity tell me that the signs are there, and they are enough to keep me pushing forward – at least enough to keep me from leaving them at the zoo.




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