Why "monkey see, monkey do" isn't for apes

In Carl Zimmer's New York Times article, he recounts how he signed his daughter up to match wits with a chimp. The point was further experimentation on the imitative abilities of apes compared to humans, following after the work of Andrew Whiten and colleagues (which I discussed here).

In Zimmer's story, the apparatus was a transparent box with a Rube Goldberg-like means of opening. The trick is that most of the steps are unnecessary, and the chimpanzees figure this out right away.

But kids don't.

The researchers turned to humans. They showed the transparent box to 16 children from a Scottish nursery school. After putting a sticker in the box, they showed the children how to retrieve it. They included the unnecessary bolt pulling and box tapping.
The scientists placed the sticker back in the box and left the room, telling the children that they could do whatever they thought necessary to retrieve it.
The children could see just as easily as the chimps that it was pointless to slide open the bolt or tap on top of the box. Yet 80 percent did so anyway. "It seemed so spectacular to me," Mr. Lyons said. "It suggested something remarkable was going on."

This phenomenon will be familiar to any parents whose kids bring home undesirable traits from their schoolmates. Smart children are better at copying the stupid behaviors of their peers --- which often induces a descent to the lowest common denominator.

It's a good thing, because school as we know it would be impossible if most children weren't such careful imitators.

Interesting how we end up classifying behavioral variation. Kids who have less of an imitative ability are more "independent", or more "difficult" depending on the circumstance.

It does make you wonder about the reasons for the evolution of such a talent. Is it because it made children better at accommodating to cultures? Or because it made it more convenient for parents to care for them? Or because it endeared them to their parents (or their peers)?

In any event, I'm very sure my daughters are great imitators. Which means they would lose to the chimps, too.