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Ape Genius

Classroom Activity


Activity Summary
Students use a viewing guide while watching a program about the science of ape intelligence and, after watching, discuss answers to questions related to similarities and differences between intelligence in apes and in humans.

Learning Objectives
Students will be able to:

  • discuss different ape and human behaviors and how they are related to intelligence.

  • describe experiments that scientists use to assess ape intelligence.

  • compare and contrast intelligence in apes and humans.

Materials for each team
  • copy of "Ape Genius?" student handout
    (PDF or HTML)
  • copy of "Studying Apes and Humans" student handout
    (PDF or HTML)
  • pencil or pen

One of the ongoing discussions in behavioral research is about whether the non-human great apes (chimps, bonobos, orangutans, and gorillas) are as intelligent as human beings. Intelligence refers to the ability to learn, reason, plan, think abstractly, comprehend ideas, and solve problems. It involves the ability to understand and profit from experience and to apply that knowledge to cope with, interact with, and manipulate the outside world.

A number of experiments and field research projects have been conducted to assess ape intelligence. These studies look at key skills and behaviors that are associated with intelligence in humans. Key factors include:

  • mechanical aptitude (Do apes make and use tools? Can apes manipulate items in their environment for a purpose?)

  • imitation (Do apes learn by copying?)

  • cooperation (Will apes cooperate to maximize self-interest?)

  • social emotions (Can apes understand responsibility and intent? Do they exhibit impulse control? Can they empathize?)

  • math and communication skills (Do apes demonstrate an understanding of symbols and numbers? Can they communicate ideas either verbally or nonverbally? Do they engage in an exchange of ideas and information?)

  • comprehension (Can apes comprehend abstract ideas? Are they able to apply previous knowledge to new situations?)

  1. Organize students into teams. Assign each team to track experiments and field observations in one of the following categories:

    A: Mechanical Aptitude
    B: Imitation
    C: Cooperation
    D: Social Emotions
    E: Math/Symbol Skills
    F: Communication

  2. Distribute a copy of the student handouts to each team before viewing.

  3. Show the program and have students individually take notes on the topic their team has been assigned.

  4. After watching the program, have students meet in their teams to discuss their notes. Ask teams to come to consensus on the observations made in each experiment and the conclusions drawn based on those observations.

  5. Use the following questions to have a class discussion about what researchers inferred about the experimental results and observations in regard to what the similarities and differences are between apes and humans:

    • What examples indicate that apes can manipulate items in their environment for a purpose? (Some examples included chimps making spears and apes finding ways to get food that would otherwise have been inaccessible.)

    • How is imitation similar and different in apes and in humans? (Both apes and humans will imitate processes they see others of their own kind doing. Humans will copy other humans verbatim even if it includes unnecessary actions, while apes will not.)

    • How is cooperation similar and different in apes and in humans? (In general, apes do not cooperate well—with the exception of the bonobos—because they tend to let emotions such as rivalry and lack of impulse control impede cooperation. Humans cooperate more extensively.)

    • How is communication similar and different in apes and in humans? (Like humans, apes can communicate their wants or respond to direct commands or questions. Unlike humans, apes seem to lack an "intent to communicate," that is, there is no direct sharing of such things as thoughts, questions, and ideas.)

    • What evidence supports the concept that chimps exhibit signs of intelligence similar to that of humans? (Apes exhibit the ability to imitate, to determine intent, to use symbols, to display positive social emotions, to cooperate, and to problem-solve.)

    • What are some abilities that humans have that set them apart from apes? (Humans are better able to control their emotions, they have a more powerful ability to infer what others are thinking, and they are invested in teaching and learning, which allows the continued transfer of knowledge to future generations.)

  6. To conclude, ask students to consider the conclusions drawn by the researchers. Which experiments or field observations and conclusions did students think were most valid? Why? Which did students think were least valid? Why? (Students may be more confident in experiments that were done many times or with many subjects, or field observations that were done over a long period of time or by a number different research groups. They may be less confident about an experiment done with one individual or with a researcher who may appear to have a research bias with his or her subjects.)

  7. As an extension, have students generate questions they have about ape intelligence. Group together students who have related questions. Have teams research and answer their own questions and present their findings to the class.

Activity Answer

The following chart lists some of the observations made and conclusions drawn in the experiments shown in the program.


Experiment/Field Observation

Research Question(s)





Mechanical Aptitude

chimpanzees in Fongoli, Senegal

Is ape making tool?


chimps broke off branch, sharpened with teeth

apes are demonstrating mechanical aptitude

peanut placed in clear tube

Can ape get peanut?


ape did nothing for 10 minutes then suddenly used water as a tool

apes are demonstrating mechanical aptitude



grape in slot machine

Can apes from the same troop learn from another ape? From watching an ape from a rival group?


apes learned easily from same and rival troops

apes can learn by observation

treat in opaque puzzle box, then in see-through box

Will ape and human copy actions to get treat?


chimp and humans copied well on first box; on see-through box, chimps realized first step was unnecessary; humans did not

kids may imitate adults because they believe adults are performing the actions for a good reason



food hidden under heavy stone

Can apes cooperate with apes, or with humans, to get food?


chimps did not cooperate with each other but eventually did with humans

maybe chimps knew humans wouldn't compete for food

food is placed on tray with rope attached to pull it in

Can apes cooperate to get food?


chimp went to get help

cooperation is the exception; teamwork doesn't come naturally to chimps

food placed in central box

Will apes cooperate and split food?


bonobos cooperated

more congenial temperaments make bonobos more inclined to cooperate


Social Emotions

treats dispensed on table; rope can be pulled to end experiment

Will ape choose to end experiment?


chimp ended experiment when ape stole food but not when human moved food away

chimps can gauge who is responsible for something done; can determine intentions

young ape dies

Will apes help others despite big risk?


chimps mounted defense of dead bonobo

bonobos will help another at risk to themselves

candy is placed in two dishes

Which dish will ape choose?


chimp always chose dish with more candy

chimps did not exhibit impulse control

candy placed in two dishes

Will children wait to get more candy?


some children were patient; others were not

children with impulse control exhibited higher SAT scores


Math/Symbol Skills

numerals displayed on screen

Could chimp count?


chimp performed several tasks with the numbers

learned numbers very differently from humans

symbols are placed in two dishes

Which dish will ape choose?


chimps pointed to smaller numeral to get bigger prize

symbols can help distance ape from impulses

bonobos follows verbal instructions

Can apes communicate?


bonobo performed a number of requested tasks

shows ability to communicate but does not use language like human



treat under a cup

Will child or chimp know where treat is if pointed to?


child could find treat; chimp could not

maybe natural selection allowed humans to use cooperative tools in ways other species do not

child and parent watching puppet show

Will child understand what pointing means?


children understood that pointing meant to pay attention to another object

mother and babies pay full attention to each other with shared goal and commitment

ball moved from one bag to another

Will child be able to infer when someone else will or will not know the ball has been moved?


three-year-old did not know what others knew; four-year-olds did

humans could know what someone else thinking

experimenter shows he wants to steal food

Will chimp take into account what the researcher knows?


chimp stole food from place chimp thought experimenter could not see

chimps exhibit some ability to determine what others know

Links and Books

Web Sites

NOVA—Ape Genius
Features articles, interviews, interactive activities, and resources to accompany the program.

Chimpanzee Central—The Jane Goodall Institute's Chimpanzee Resource
Includes information about chimpanzees' habitat, physical characteristics, social organization, and communication.

Living Links
Provides information about current research on primates, an audio and video library, academic publications, and more.

Primate Info Net: About the Primates
Includes an extensive series of fact sheets about the different primate species, which cover morphology, ecology, behavior, and conservation along with range maps, images, and a glossary of terms. Also includes resources on evolution, myths and legends, diseases, and taxonomy.

Think Tank
Examines the question "What is thinking?" as it relates to the great apes. Includes detailed articles about the science behind the exhibit as well as a photo gallery.


The Great Apes: Our Next of Kin
by Michelle A. Gilders. Greystone Books, 2000.
Presents information on the different great apes' habitats, members, behavior, and mating habits, along with anecdotes of the animals' depiction in literature, myths about members of the species, and tales of famous animals.

The Great Apes: Our Face in Nature's Mirror
by Michael Leach. Sterling Publishing, 1998.
Provides an introduction to the great apes that includes comparisons of human and ape behavioral and cultural adaptations.

Reaching into Thought: The Minds of the Great Apes
by Anne E. Russon, Kim A. Bard, and Sue Taylor Parker, editors. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Investigates the qualities that set the intelligence of chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans apart from that of other non-human primates and humans.


The "Ape Genius?" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards (see

Grades 9-12
Life Science

• Biological evolution
• The behavior of organisms

History and Nature of Science
• Nature of scientific knowledge

Classroom Activity Author

Margy Kuntz has written and edited educational materials for more than 20 years. She has authored numerous educational supplements, basal text materials, and trade books on science, math, and computers.

Teacher's Guide
Ape Genius

Video is required for this activity

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