The secret of our success

Thursday 1 March 2012

Researchers have worked out the unique secret to human success.

The secret formula, according to new research led by scientists at the University of St Andrews, is largely due to the human ability to work together.

The new study outlines the critical social and cognitive capabilities possessed by humans, but not other animals, that explain our success as a species.

The research, published in the journal Science today (Friday 2 March), suggests that working as a team and sharing rewards is rare in nature but a key characteristic of humans.

The work was carried out by St Andrews researcher Dr Lewis Dean and a team of biologists and psychologists from Texas, Strasbourg and the University of Durham.

Dr Dean set out to establish what sets humans apart from non-human primates in the ability to build on existing knowledge.

He explained, “Humans can fashion ever more efficient, complex and diverse solutions to life’s challenges, building on the knowledge and technology of previous generations.

“However, other animals, despite being able to learn from one another, never seem to build on that knowledge.

“Our study proves that it is our social skills and, in particular, the human ability to cooperate that explains our successes and achievements in a fast-moving technological age.”

The report describes how children were able to use social skills to solve a series of problems, while chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys were not.

The researchers set the same series of puzzles for groups of capuchin monkeys, chimpanzees, and nursery school children – each puzzle built upon the previous one, to retrieve rewards of increasing desirability – better and better foods for the animals and more and more desirable stickers for the children.

The children, but not the chimpanzees or capuchins, were able to reach higher-level solutions, largely because they helped each other.

While the chimpanzees and monkeys tried to solve the task alone, the children worked as teams, teaching others how to retrieve the rewards, giving advice, copying each other, and sharing their coveted rewards.

The researchers found that the more a child was taught, received spontaneous gifts of retrieved stickers from other children, or imitated others, the better they did in the task.

The five year study was conducted by Dr Dean under the supervision of biologist Professor Kevin Laland (St Andrews) and anthropologist Dr Rachel Kendal (Durham University).

Professor Laland commented, “Humans have evolved to be suited to a culturally constructed world. In contrast, other animals, even chimpanzees, probably don’t have the right kind of minds to devise solutions to problems that ratchet up in complexity.”

Dr Kendal added, “Our findings demonstrate that humans possess ways of thinking and interacting socially that leaves us uniquely well qualified to build on our successes.”

The international team also included leading experts on chimpanzee and capuchin behaviour, Professor Steven Schapiro (University of Texas) and Professor Bernard Thierry (University of Strasbourg).


Note to Editors

The researchers are available for interview:

Dr Lewis Dean: 07837 809 946 or [email protected]

Professor Kevin Laland: 01334 463568, 07540 669581 or [email protected]

Notes to Picture Editors

Images from the study are available from the Press Office – contacts below.

Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews.
Contact Gayle Cook on 01334 467227/ 0771 414 0559 or email [email protected]
Ref: (ref 28/02/12)
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