You little ape… This new study says it proofs Vygotsky wrong

A study on how little children (just like apes) use tools without somebody showing them how seems like a fun article to share, but you might overlook an important detail: this study claims to proof one of the more well known theorists in education, Lev Vygotksy, wrong on one point of his theory.

From the press release:

Young children will spontaneously invent tool behaviours to solve novel problems, without the help of adults, much as non-human great apes have been observed to do. The findings, from the University of Birmingham, are contrary to the popular belief that basic tool use in humans requires social learning.

Lev Vygotsky, one of psychology’s most influential representatives, claimed that humans only learn how to use tools by learning from others, including parents, and that children’s spontaneous tool use is “practically zero”. However, this study has proven said theory wrong.

The findings, publishing in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, are the first to investigate children’s tool-use abilities with great ape tasks.

The researchers based the tasks on tool behaviours observed in wild chimpanzees and orangutans, and mirrored them for 50 children aged between 2.5-3-years-old.

The findings also suggest that the cognitive abilities underlying these tool behaviours are shared by both humans and their closest living relatives.

The team found that in 11 of the 12 tasks children spontaneously invented the correct tool behaviour. They also found that those behaviours which occur frequently in wild great apes were also invented more frequently by the children, which indicates a large overlap in the physical cognition abilities of humans and great apes.

Eva Reindl, PhD student at the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology, said, “We chose great ape tasks for three reasons: Firstly, they are unfamiliar to children. This ensures that children will have to invent the correct behaviour instead of using socially acquired, previous knowledge. Second, they are ecologically relevant and third, they allow us to make species comparisons with regard to the cognitive abilities involved.”

In one of the twelve tasks, children needed to use a stick as a lever to retrieve pom poms from a small box. Similarly, great apes use twigs to remove kernels from nuts or seeds from stingy fruits. The tasks could only be solved by using a tool, but children were not told that.

Dr Claudio Tennie, Birmingham Fellow, explained, “The idea was to provide children with the raw material necessary to solve the task. We told children the goal of the task, for example to get the pom poms out of the box, but we never mentioned using the tool to them. We would then investigate whether children spontaneously came up with the correct tool behaviour on their own.”

Miss Reindl noted, “While it is true that more sophisticated forms of human tool use indeed require social learning, we have identified a range of basic tool behaviors which seem not to. Using great ape tasks, we could show that these roots of human tool culture are shared by great apes, including humans, and potentially also their last common ancestor.”

In the future, the researchers will try to extend their findings by presenting children and great apes with tool tasks that are completely novel to any of these species, e.g. tasks based on tool behaviors observed in non-primate animals but not shown spontaneously by children or great apes.

It’s hard to tell what the consequences are for education, as most of the time we tend to learn “more sophisticated forms of human tool use”, but I do think we’ll get some reactions on the nature-nurture discussion based on this study.

Abstract of the study:

The variety and complexity of human-made tools are unique in the animal kingdom. Research investigating why human tool use is special has focused on the role of social learning: while non-human great apes acquire tool-use behaviours mostly by individual (re-)inventions, modern humans use imitation and teaching to accumulate innovations over time. However, little is known about tool-use behaviours that humans can invent individually, i.e. without cultural knowledge. We presented 2- to 3.5-year-old children with 12 problem-solving tasks based on tool-use behaviours shown by great apes. Spontaneous tool use was observed in 11 tasks. Additionally, tasks which occurred more frequently in wild great apes were also solved more frequently by human children. Our results demonstrate great similarity in the spontaneous tool-use abilities of human children and great apes, indicating that the physical cognition underlying tool use shows large overlaps across the great ape species. This suggests that humans are neither born with special physical cognition skills, nor that these skills have degraded due to our species’ long reliance of social learning in the tool-use domain.

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