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January 12th, 2010
Program Two: So Human, So Chimp
Video: Full Episode

Alan Alda joins researchers studying human children and chimpanzees to discover why we share some skills with our closest living relatives, but have far surpassed them in our most uniquely human capabilities. Though we both descend from a common ancestor and are genetically so similar, why are we worlds apart in our behaviors and abilities?

  • Jim kelly

    Other programs about Neanthertal and Modern man have stated they merely intermarried and were absorbed into our society. This program acerts that they died out. Who’s correct here?

    Also, American Indians have been here for almost 10,000 yers but changed little until the White man intervened. Why didn’t they progress?

  • Marc

    The Native Americans did progress, Jim. Math, science, arts, architecture, construction, social constructs, and more. It sounds like you just aren’t aware of the sort of progress and development that went in during that time. Your statement that they did not progress is based on a lack of knowledge as opposed to the reality of the situation.

  • Brendan

    “Why didn’t they progress?”

    The answer to this depends on one’s definition of progress.

  • Anthony Casabianca

    Dr. Shea is the man.

  • Parker

    So….the difference between humans and chimps is that humans understand pointing is a cooperative act, but chimps don’t. And so dogs, who understand the pointing gesture, are human? That must be why we keep them (and not chimps) as pets — at least for the most part…

  • Cro

    I like the program, I don’t like Alda. His biases get in the way of the message. Some examples are:
    1. Dogs understand what is meant when humans point at something. This is glaringly misleading. Most dogs are clueless and stare at your finger instead of the intended target unless trained otherwise. 2. Monkeys understand that they are dealing with other MINDS when you turn your back on food. They do not understand anything of the sort. What they do is see an opportunity to get away with stealing unguarded food. This behavior is exhibited in many species, including fish. It is more likely explained as hard-wired instinct. 3. Chimpanzees do not understand the concept of heavy and light objects. When asked to speculate on this, Alda’s knee-jerk reaction was to anthropomorphose chimpanzee thinking to attribute it to a God. Alda’s attempt to ridicule the concept of God was shot down immediately because God is a complex abstract concept that animals are incapable of understanding. (Frankly, I was surprised that this was not edited from the final product.) Einstein said that “God does not play dice with the universe.” If given the choice, I’ll go with Einstein.
    This episode was dedicated to demonstrating the differences between human thinking and animal thinking. Virtually every exhibition and experiment demonstrated that the human mind is capable of processing complex abstract concepts, whereas animal minds are not.
    I was asked once “What is more powerful, the human brain or a computer?” My reply was; Computers are number crunchers, humans are idea crunchers. A human can build a computer, a computer cannot build a human.

  • Lucas Clay

    I like the program a lot, but it got me to wondering if they did the heavy/light box test with dogs. That would be a far better test to see if the dogs are picking up on cues from people. Other thoughts: chimps that have been taught sign language have been shown to be able to think in very human ways like simple metaphors and adapting their signs to try to convey new situations. For more details see Something like this should clearly have been put in the video.

  • Cro

    Quote from Lucas Clay: “chimps that have been taught sign language have been shown to be able to think in very human ways like simple metaphors and adapting their signs to try to convey new situations”

    Adult chimpanzees do not think in very human ways. They are not able to process complex abstract concepts such as posting an opinion on a forum. Or even harnessing fire as a tool. They are able to communicate wants and needs and simple emotions. They are capable of communicating as a very young human child and never advance beyond that.

  • Lucas Clay

    I agree, I wasn’t trying to say they are our equals, but trying to show that they have a glimmer of our type of intelligence. If they were our equals, or even close, they would be inventing things and using abstract thought patterns. They are probably comparable to humans around a million years ago (just a guess and not even an educated one). I’m not sure if you read the article I suggested, it’s not very long, but if so what do you make of the chimp calling radishes “cry hurt fruit”? This seems to me to be a very simple metaphor, even though it is far from adult human levels, and what is a metaphor if not a combining of abstract thoughts? (By the way, I did look up both metaphor and abstract in the dictionary to make sure I was using them correctly, and while neither says anything about the other they seem to me to be linked, though I’m having trouble putting into words exactly how.)

  • Daniel Povinelli

    You go Cro! — I would point out, however, that even young human children are communicating about things (concepts) that are far beyond the ken of apes.

    I was not surprised at the conclusion of this program: that chimps have a very watered down version of the human mind. It’s the easy way out. It’s what most people want to hear. No one wants to hear that chimps are as smart as us because that’s threatening (not to mention prima facie silly). But no one wants to hear that they’re not like us at all, either. So the natural, dumbing down instinct is to run to the comfort of “they’re minds are just like ours except they are weaker, smaller, duller, etc.” Reminds me of the new BUD LIGHT advertising campaign. What an insult to the chimps! The idea that chimps (and other animals) are mentally both radically similar to us AND radically different is an idea that the media folks just can’t seem to get their minds around. Do they think the public is too dense to understand this possibility? I don’t think so. Humans and chimps come from a common ancestor 5-6 million years ago. Psychologically, the human line changed A LOT — the line leading to chimps hasn’t. Some of the changes involved new ways of representing/thinking about the world that chimps — no matter how or where you raise them — have never and will never achieve (despite the fact that scientists like myself have been trying for a century now). That doesn’t mean we’re superior to them — except in terms of the intellectual abilities we possess that are the very subject of that The Human Sparkateers (Alda, Chedd and company) are so eagerly exploring.

    Great show! Keep up the good work!

    One thing I was surprised about were the factual errors. Just to name one: allowing Frans de Waal to show Alan Alda an old film of chimpanzees cooperating to pull in a heavy box as proof that they understand what they are doing. Good grief! Crawford (who conducted these studies in the late 30s (published a bit later) would roll over in his grave at de Waal’s narration. Crawford Stressed how hard it was to TRAIN them to do this (months of dozens and dozens of sessions) and how little they seemed to grasp the symbolic underpinning of the task. This contra De Waal’s commentary… (BTW, Danielle O’Neill and I repeated Crawford’s studies with a twist a number of years back. After we trained the chimps to cooperate with each other, we then paired the “experts” with nubbies. There was not a single instance — in any of the trials with any of the expert-novice pairs — of an expert trying to direct the attention of the novice to the task or trying to show them what to do. Hmmm…so much for this task measuring reasoning about each other’s unobservable intentions… And this doesn’t mean chimps (and many, many other species don’t exhibit natural behaviors where they “cooperate.” But if you want to suggest they cooperate with an understanding of the minds of each other the way humans do, you better have better evidence than this!

    Again, congratulations to the Human Spark team! You certainly sparked something in me… ;-)

  • Assi Degani

    I would like to refer to Prof. Aie Katz Hub-pages, where she describes her efforts in the field of animal communication, and her achievements with her Chimp Bow-Keshet, who understands two human languages. At this stage he points at letters upon a glass wall. One can surf to one of her Hub-pages and continue from there:

    –Assi Degani

  • Tom Delane

    Some people strangely have adopted the dogma that consciousness or even thinking is all-or-nothing, so that other animals do not have any level of consciousness or thinking ability, no matter what the evidence. This egotism extends even to scientists and hampers our understanding of what truly makes us human.

  • Cro

    Lucas Clay suggested that I visit the link that he posted.

    I found this quote.

    “Chimps employ a rich variety of gestures and facial expressions to keep in touch with each other, and more importantly, there is intelligence behind the exchanges that makes for a level of understanding unseen elsewhere in the animal world. This sort of communication ability is what makes chimps appear far more socially advanced than any other animal.”

    Perhaps we should elect them to Congress.

  • Ludmila

    >>Daniel Povinelli wrote: “One thing I was surprised about were the factual errors. Just to name one: allowing Frans de Waal to show Alan Alda an old film of chimpanzees cooperating to pull in a heavy box as proof that they understand what they are doing …”<<

    Actually, Daniel, you need to review the episode. Neither of the commentators propose that the chimpanzees, as you put it, "understand what they are doing," but rather that the chimpanzees' capacity for coordinated actions is evolved to the extent that made them capable of learning to cooperate in accomplishing a simple task in unison (if only after an extensive training). And further conclusion was made that while the primates can learn some behaviors by observing and repeating, they don't deliberately transmit what they learned to the unlearned.

  • Ludmila

    Actually, Daniel, you need to review the episode. Neither of the commentators propose that the chimpanzees, as you put it, “understand what they are doing,” but rather that the chimpanzees’ capacity for coordinated actions is evolved to the extent that made them capable of learning to cooperate in accomplishing a simple task in unison (if only after an extensive training). And further conclusion was made that while the primates can learn some behaviors by observing and repeating, they don’t deliberately transmit what they learned to the unlearned.

  • Cameron

    Beautiful, thank you.

  • Joanne Tanner

    In my opinion the point of the Crawford film, and its great importance, is not whether the chimps were trained on the cooperative task or reasoned about each others intentions. It is the spontaneous occurrence of the gestures, and their forms, which in Crawford’s written account are plentiful, varied and elaborate. Another significant point is that in this replication and also in a more recent one by Melis & Hare, the age, living situations, and relationships of the chimpanzees are quite different from the Crawford chimps. Anyone with a real interest in this issue should go back and very carefully read the original Crawford. It is an extremely rich account. And a last note- the tone of insult at showing an “old film” is not warranted. Someday all our studies are going to be “old,” folks. And so are we. That shouldn’t have anything to do with intrinsic value.

  • rke

    Great show. Thanks to Hawkeye and the crew for putting this together — we need more of this kind of accessible & engaging science available!

    The bit about dogs raised a question for me… Has anyone ever tried breeding chimps for “human” characteristics? How long (how many generations) would it take to get chimps to respond to pointing? What might that lead to? Could we select for the human spark?

  • James Gordon

    One more idea: whenever I observe animals, it is always remarkable how embodied their thought is, which does not reduce such a phenomenon to instinct, but rather calls us to extend our consideration of what might define “thought.” We might yield to consider thought which exceeds our strict, thought-as-rationality definition; for, other forms of thought are not as easily codified as abstract thought, which is mapped, tracked, and represented. How might we more richly ponder and investigate the domain of non-representational existence, and begin to understand the deep intelligence at play?

  • Joanne Tanner

    Thank you for a perceptive comment, James G. The study of gesture in apes (and I am not referring to taught sign language) is a very active field now, and I believe this is the answer to your question. Gesture and action are a continuum; hopefully study of forms of gesture in animals other than the great apes will get on the radar also.

  • James Gordon

    Darwin argued forcefully that we frequently underestimate the cognitive powers of animals, and while there are profound differences between humans and other primates (and ways in which humans are clearly superior); we consistently measure their complexity– in its cognitive and social forms– by our own measuring stick, and on our terms. This is not unlike the way dominant, Western notions of intelligence were historically employed to assess as inferior and ultimately dismiss the value of traditional cultures and their knowledge structures. Only over the past fifty years has this stance started to change on a broad scale (and there remains much work to be done). Moreover, we still lack knowledge for truly assessing animal intelligence; our understanding is in its infancy and we should proceed with methodological sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and imagination. A more “on their own terms” approach might wrestle with the difficult epistemological questions regarding how conventional notions of intelligence might be thought of differently, which would oppose the self-congratulatory tendencies of human exceptionalism (particularly those that position Western notions of abstract thought as supreme).

  • Brett Bahn

    …. and the winners write history!

  • Angelina

    Is it at all possible that the reason that chimps lack understanding of concepts about heavy weight and light weight ( as we perceive them), because of their own strength? They posses so much power in their arms and they really seem to have very little use for the thing that we may deem delicate or light weight, that they can’t seem to wrap their minds around the idea that somthing so far out of the realm of what THEY are use to. I don’t know much about chimps at all but just in just watching the film it seemed to be a possibility. If you know about these things I would be interested in your input.

  • Alex S.

    An important point this segment makes is how humans are able to grasp -concepts- much quicker than primates. For example, the primates after 400-800 trials are able to distinguish between heavy and light whereas for the humans it took not more than a few times. The key is perhaps that the humans are actually forming a concept whereas the primates are habituating themselves to a pattern.
    Additionally, humans are more inclined to teach rather than, like primates, allow themselves to be observed. This points out that humans are more cooperative than primates, in general helping for the sake of helping and being able to help in more complex ways like opening the door for the man carrying the newspapers.
    Lastly, humans are much more capable of strictly following directions whereas primates, if they don’t have to, will not follow instructions. This again ties into the more cooperative nature of human beings.

  • dogman


    Einstein was an agnostic

  • Sam

    Thank you so much for making this available to people in the UK,

    I cannot say the same for the NOVA website who have blocked there programs to people in the UK

    Thanks again : -)

  • Facebook triggers asthma

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