If a chimp of average intelligence is about as intelligent as your average 3 year old, what’s the barrier keeping a truly exceptional chimp from being as bright as an average adult?


That’s pretty much it. I searched, but I didn’t find anything that addressed my exact question.

It’s frequently said that chimps have the intelligence of a 3 year old human. But some 3 year olds are smarter than others, just like some animals are smarter than others of the same species. So why haven’t we come across a chimp with the intelligence of a 10 year old? Like…still pretty dumb, but able to fully use and comprehend written language. Is it likely that this “Hawking chimp” has already existed, but since we don’t put forth much effort educating (most) apes we just haven’t noticed? Or is there something else going on, maybe some genetic barrier preventing them from ever truly achieving sapience? I’m not expecting an ape to write an essay on Tolstoy, but it seems like as smart as we know these animals to be we should’ve found one that could read and comprehend, for instance, The Hungry Caterpillar as written in plain english.

In: Biology

Well, there’s some disagreement, but some people like Chomsky think that using language- as in formulating sentences according to rules, not just individual words- is a matter of the specific way human brains are set up, not just more raw intelligence.


The human brain goes through some quite interesting milestones as it develops. To start off with it’s basically identical to a mid-range animal brain – hence why babies are dumb as shit. Towards about age 4, it first develops an ability called Theory of Mind, which is a set of skills that allow it to understand that other creatures perceive the world differently to itself. This can be demonstrated quite well by [tests](https://youtu.be/YGSj2zY2OEM). Here, the child named Alfie is demonstrating theory of mind when he says that he thinks his mother will think the sun is a lion. A younger child would think that its mother would know it was a sun, because they do not have the theory of mind necessary to know that other people do not know the same things they know. Many animals don’t have a complete theory of mind. Chimpanzees, however, [do](https://youtu.be/BmISd0v7AdM), which is a big part of why some people say they’re about as smart as a 3-4 year old.

Theory of mind isn’t a continuous effort though. For a long time, children have absolutely none of it, then over quite a short period of time, they gain the entire thing all at once. This is how developmental milestones all behave in humans, and these milestones have specific brain structures that cause them. So you have milestones like the ability to use symbols and the ability to do abstract thought, and those are steps rather than slopes as well. These steps act as basically caps on development. An animal that doesn’t have the brain structures necessary for abstract thought will never gain them. You’ll still have a range of intelligence within the species, but none will be able to overcome milestones they lack the structures for, so the smartest… salmon lets say, will never be smarter than a 3 year old because it won’t develop a complete theory of mind.

These steps aren’t strictly ordered though. There’s nothing in particular stopping an animal from having two milestones but missing the one that comes inbetween in humans. That does make it harder to compare to humans though. If an animal can do something an 11 year old human can do but can’t do something a 3 year old human can do, what’s the point of comparison for that?

The other major difference between human brains and the brains of other animals is that we dedicate a *huge* amount of our brain power to language. This is the [cognitive tradeoff theory](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktkjUjcZid0), the idea that language was such a huge advantage to us that our brains sacrificed cognitive power in other departments for the sake of becoming even better at communicating. This would mean though that even if all other aspects were the same, humans and chimpanzees would still have intelligences you can’t directly compare, because it’s kind of like comparing a submarine to an aeroplane – both have similar aspects like being made out of metal, but they’re designed to do very different jobs. A plane would suck at diving and a submarine would suck at flying, but that’s not a very useful comparison to make.

Edit: I woke up to 159 notifications because of this post.

I think it is about its construction. I think brains as computers. It could be similiar in power but without having the spesific hardware or softwares it won’t do what the other one does.

The average 3 year old line is a useful comparison, but you’re taking it too literally. It’s like when someone is pregnant and they say the fetus is the size of X fruit at each stage – that doesn’t mean it’s exactly that sized, and it certainly doesn’t mean it’s literally that fruit.

In short while it’s a useful laymans comparison – chimps simply don’t have the same level of potential capability as a human. There is a ceiling there which is much lower than humans. So while a human 3 year old can be very bright and act more like a 4 or 5 year old, chimps hit their ceiling long before that.

Watch “Ape Genius” on YouTube. It will answer your question completely. The big points are:

Lack of the ability to cooperate as readily as most humans.

Lack of a desire to be taught complex tasks, mostly due to lack of joint attention.

Lack of language syntax (e.g. chatting about how the weather makes you feel).

Lack of mental time travel (e.g. making a decision based on past experience, present circumstances, and future consequences).

Lack of emotional regulation.

A lot of the above differences are due to a prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain behind and above your eyes) that isn’t nearly as large compared to humans, but it’s never just about differences in brain structure. Brain structure does not equal function, but that’s another story for another time.

Are truly exceptional three year olds as smart as the average adult?

Biological fact: they held back by a gene responsible to regulate the jaw muscle thickness on the skull. Sounds funny tho but HSS gave up bone cracking bit force for bigger brain cavity, ergo brainsize. Source: some documentary on nat geo back in the days when they still fluttered around science stuff.

The actual answer is that chimps aren’t as smart as 3 year old human children.

The number is made up.

Chimps can equal toddlers in some tasks, but their general intelligence is far lower.

As for why?

Genetics. Intelligence is almost entirely controlled by genetics. Humans evolved to have vastly larger and more sophisticated brains.

Chimps are smart for animals but are vastly below human intelligence. Same goes for parrots, dolphins, corvids, and parrots.

Humans underwent some really strong selection for intelligence. Why is unclear.

One reason is that human brains and chimp brains don’t work the same way, they each have evolved to adapt to their environment and needs. Human brains are built to develop language and abstraction, whereas chimp brains are better adapted to agility and other chimpy things.

What this leads to is that chimps can easily get *really good* at simple tasks, but it would take a particularly special chimp to get anywhere near being able to read.
On the other hand, humans need a lot of practise for even simple stuff like walking, but we’re able to go much deeper and form much more complex models in our minds, which is why we can read and write, do mathematics, design machines, etc…

I read a funny and sad comment at the same time. There was a question that went something like “why is there a problem to design a proper trash can” in one of the public wilderness parks. And the response from the forest ranger was that there is a significant overlap from the dumbest people and smartest bears. If that makes sense? English is not my first language so it might have been worded differently

You should check out the book Humankind by Rutger Bregman.

He’s got a whole section about the evolution of humans and why we are more emotionally intelligent than the chimpanzee, and then goes onto explain how our cultural ancestry is more closely related to that of the bonobo.

He makes the really compelling argument that we’ve been looking at our evolution wrong.

It’s not survival of the fittest, it’s *survival of the friendliest*

We evolved to work together as a team, learning from one another, mirroring one another, and it’s often the most friendliest of us that gets to reproduce (you don’t learn dad jokes when you become a dad, you become a dad because you make dad jokes and she thought you were cute and fun to be with)

It’s a great read either way and has given me the hope that I needed for humanity. That in spite of what our television and media has been telling us, that alone won’t stop our genetic growth towards being a kinder and gentler species.

Part of the basis to this question has more to do with the way study results get twisted in reporting and the way intelligence testing is flawed in the first place than anything else.

Intelligence testing, particularly early childhood intelligence testing are based on estimations through the observation of specific skills appropriate for an age group within a given society.

A toddler’s limiting factor on language skills is experience, a chimp’s may be total ability, observers from the outside see the same level of evidence of mastery, but the internal process can be quite different and difficult to judge.

Apes would likely do much better if we had standardized IQ tests based on something they actually had use for in daily life, but they would still not surpass adults on anything where reasoning can beat dexterity.

Dogs beat chimps in some of the more human centric tests because they have better skill at reading the human intention in some situations and natural abilities that make some of the tests easier.

This gets further muddied by the reporting that takes a paper that says something like “ape trained in sign language for 12 years now has language recognition scores approximately equivalent to the average intelligence 3yr old” and says ‘ape as smart as 3yr old’

The other thing that at least used to be true was that most of the tests from 0-3 involved very little problem solving, so any animal that could be trained to recognize things could score reasonably well, after three many of the common tests started to introduce reasoning which most animals have limited capacity for compared to humans unless it is something that the animal has an evolutionary reason to be concerned with.

At the end of the day, while interesting, the results of giving human IQ tests to non-humans is rather apples and oranges and since most animals have no interest or need for most of the skills we measure they will always score in the range of early childhood development.

In all likelihood larger primates are smarter than a 3yr old, we just aren’t giving them a fair test, but the scale on a fair test for other primates would be different and diverge into it’s own direction away from the human measures as it moves up the scale.

I think it was in Carl Sagan’s book “The Dragons of Eden” where I first learned about Imo, a potential genius in the primate world. It’s been a long time, so I may get some details wrong. Apologies.

Imo was a Macaca fuscata (Japanese monkey also known as the snow monkey) who lived on the island of Kōjima in an archipelago. She lived near the coast/beach. They were studied by Japanese primatologists in the 1950s who would leave them food. The other members of her tribe, would ignore food that had been dropped/covered in sand, and search for clean fruit.

Imo was the first to realise that sweet potatoes could be held under the water, (running fresh water was best but the sea would give a salty flavour) and the sand washed off.

Human researchers, watching the tribe, saw that she tried to pass this trick on to the male leaders of the tribe, who weren’t interested. She was able to pass it on to her offspring though, so they were able to claim a lot of previously unavailable food.

Proving the first discovery wasn’t a fluke, Imo also learned how to sift wheat grains out of the sand by throwing handfuls of sand and wheat into the water, then catching the wheat that floated to the top. You could argue this was her EUREKA moment.

Like the washing, this technique also spread. But there were too many monkeys on the island with too little wheat coming from the humans. Competition became too fierce and the stronger monkeys would steal the collected wheat from the weaker ones, so they stopped the learned behaviour in self-preservation. The stronger ones (the jocks?) were happy to steal from the nerds, but not to do the sifting themselves.

Imo (or her sibling) started another innovation after the submerging of food and wheat in water – the monkeys started submerging more of their bodies in the water, and play-splashing in the ocean. They lost their fear of the water. They can swim up to half a kilometer, but they usually do not like to.

Lyall Watson came up with a theory (in the 1970s) called the 100th monkey effect to explain the sort of psychic Jungian group-mind as the means by which this skill propagated even to monkeys on other islands, because it never occurred to him that Imo might have used her newly found love of water to swim to a nearby island and spread the technique there. His new-agey type theory has since been debunked and discredited.

Imo was a genius of her kind. She used to run down to the shore when the primatologists came with their food. Which might explain why she didn’t flee from poachers, who came to the island, captured and presumably killed her. Poachers often grab the snow monkeys – which can end up as food in China, where they are said to be an aphrodisiac, and for laboratory studies in countries like Holland.

Imo, which first washed the sand from sweet potatoes, and realised wheat floated while sand sunk, was killed by a member of the primate species homo sapiens.

Language would likely be a barrier to us knowing.

You could be as intelligent a chimp as you like, but if you couldn’t communicate it in human language, none of us would ever know.

Stephen Hawking is a pretty good human example of this – think about it; we only knew of his immense intelligence a) because his debilitating condition occurred when he was already an academic, b) through a combination of luck and technology he was able to carry on communicating his theories.

Now imagine a chimp of vast intelligence, or a dolphin, or whatever member of the animal kingdom; even if they’d worked out the meaning of the universe, how would we humans ever know? They might be able to communicate this to other chimps/dolphins, of course, but they’d likely be considered weird outsiders who should be concentrating on more practical matters like gathering more food or keeping the kids safe from killer whales rather than dreaming about that kind of nonsense all day.

Language also shapes conceptual thinking, and abstract thought, etc., but again the question is, even if they were geniuses in these regards, how would we ever know?

A chimp might have the raw processing power of a 7 year old. But it won’t have the brain structure for it.

In GPU terms a 3 year old has 100 compute units, 50 are rasterization, and the other 50 are ray tracing.

Super chimp has 200 compute units, but all of then are rasterization. If it tries to run Ray tracing it won’t really work.

Basically even though a 4 year old might be more stupid than a chimp humans are hardware optimized to do certain tasks like language and writing, while even a superior chimp can’t grasp those things.

I’m pretty sure the chimp is much more intelligent than that; has anyone met a 3 year old? Lol