Gene Shorts! E05

Are You Smarter Than a Chimp?


In 2007, researchers pitted humans against chimpanzees in a memory test competition. Who was the victor of this mental jungle gym? Phoebe Melvin and Dr. Kaylee Byers delve into Yale University research that reveals what DNA humans share with our primate relatives but, more intriguingly, what sets us apart.

Co-Hosted by:

Phoebe Melvin, Producer at Genome BC


TV Host: Today, a story that might cause some of you to question whether or not we human beings really are the smartest creatures here on Planet Earth.

Dr.Kaylee Byers: Hey, it’s Kaylee.

Phoebe Melvin: And I’m Phoebe.

Read Transcript

Dr.Kaylee Byers: And welcome to Gene Shorts. And Phoebe’s got some news for us today coming down the ape vine.

Phoebe Melvin: Yeah. Let me begin by asking you, Dr. Byers, do you believe you are smarter than a chimpanzee?

News Clip: Japanese researchers created an intelligence test that pitted humans against chimps.

Dr.Kaylee Byers: You know, Phoebe, even though I have a PhD, I P- H don’t.

News Clip: First test, can chimpanzees count from one to nine in the right order?

Phoebe Melvin: Well, the audio that you’re hearing is actually from an ABC News story from 2007, and researchers from Kyoto University in Japan pitted humans versus chimpanzees in what they call a memory test.

News Clip: … each numeral was and still get the order they were in right.

Dr.Kaylee Byers: Thanks, science. It’s a memory test.

News Clip: Yes, for another tasty treat.

Dr.Kaylee Byers: Humans versus chimpanzees is not something I think I would ever want to watch, except in this context. So what does it look like?

Phoebe Melvin: Well, basically humans and our primate relatives sat in front of sort of like a touch screen computer, and on that screen would appear a bunch of boxes with numbers in them from one to nine.

News Clip: Now, if you just flash the nine numerals for a moment then cover them, can a chimpanzee remember where each numeral was and still get the order they were in right?

Phoebe Melvin: And it’s only there for an instant and then they disappear. Once the boxes with numbers in them disappear, the humans and the chimps had to click on the same boxes but they’re blank, and they have to do it from memory in the order that it was originally appearing in.

News Clip: Can a chimp, A, remember where each was and, B, in the right order, even though somewhere missing? Yes.

Phoebe Melvin: And when the chimps got an answer correct, they would get a tasty treat.

News Clip: … in return for a peanut or other tasty reward.

Phoebe Melvin: I’m not sure about the humans though.

Dr.Kaylee Byers: Oh, I was going to say I would definitely do this if I got a tasty treat. But good for the chimps.

Phoebe Melvin: Yeah, good on them. So who do you think would win in a memory test between a human or chimpanzee?

Dr.Kaylee Byers: Normally, I would’ve said people. But I have a feeling chimps are pretty food- motivated, so it could be a draw.

News Clip: Actually, chimpanzees did much better than humans in this flash-and-remember test-

Phoebe Melvin: Indeed, the chimps were the ones who seized the day.

News Clip: … leaving the Japanese human researchers scratching their heads.

Phoebe Melvin: There was one especially dextile chimp called Ayumu. They were put up against five college students and on the hardest and fastest versions of the tests, he got 80% of the tests correct, and the students only solved 40%.

Dr.Kaylee Byers: Team Ayumu all the way on this one. I’m going to guess it’s because the college students weren’t getting tasty treats in the form of a pizza.

Phoebe Melvin: Yeah, I mean, maybe they did afterwards. I don’t know. But it’s like Ayumu is the chess supercomputer of the memory test and these poor humans trying to compete against Ayumu just didn’t have a chance. So it sort of had me wondering after reading about this, what really separates us from our primate, cousins/ the box- selecting champions? And in other words, what makes us us and not them?

Dr.Kaylee Byers: Whoa. Existential question. I take it that’s where the research you brought us into work today is going to tell us about?

Phoebe Melvin: Absolutely. So just this year there was a new study published by researchers from Yale, MIT, and Harvard that has shown us the genes that make humans human.The genes that piqued their interest are actually correlated with neural and cognitive function. And curiously, what stood out to the researchers was not what genes they found humans to have and that primates didn’t have, but actually the inverse of that: what genes did the chimpanzees have that humans didn’t? So what genes weren’t there at all?

They were able to identify around 10, 000 fragments of DNA that were deleted from the human genome compared to our primate relatives. And those deleted genes and base pairs is what they believe made the genetic expression in human brains just a little different to the other mammals around us.

So to explain it, it’s sort of like the word isn’t. So I- S- N- apostrophe- T, imagine if it lost the last two letters and that would make it the word is, I- S. So it’s a new word and new gene expression because it’s lost some of those letters.And there’s something to take away from this. If you are ever feeling like you need to be something more, try harder, do more, create more, be more, just remember genetically, what makes us human isn’t what we are, but actually what we are not.

Dr.Kaylee Byers: Pretty interesting.

Phoebe Melvin: And that’s why… You’re not listening, are you?

Dr.Kaylee Byers: Hey, I’m taking the chimpanzee test, okay?

Phoebe Melvin: All right, all right, all right.

Dr.Kaylee Byers: I have no idea how Ayumu did it.

Phoebe Melvin: Lots of treats, I imagine?

News Clip: One possible theory: chimpanzees care more than humans about peanuts.

Dr.Kaylee Byers: Oh, yeah. I mean, my treats would be cocktails. Maybe those actually wouldn’t help.

Phoebe Melvin: That wouldn’t help with the memory.

Dr.Kaylee Byers: I know, no. Phoebe, what a treat, what a treasure it’s been to have you here with us today.

Phoebe Melvin: Oh, you are so welcome. It’s been so great sitting down with you,
Kaylee. Thank you.

Dr.Kaylee Byers: Let’s get some Team Ayumu t-shirts made.

Phoebe Melvin: Oh.

Dr.Kaylee Byers: What do you think?

Phoebe Melvin: Sign me up, I’m there.

Dr.Kaylee Byers: Thank you for joining us on this Gene Shorts episode. And just like Ayumu, remember to follow us wherever you get your podcasts. Bye for now.

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Host: Kaylee Byers
Creative Director: Jen Moss
Strategy: Roger Nairn
Producer: Sean Holden
Content Creator: Phoebe Melvin
Audio Engineer: Patrick Emile
Cover Art Designer: Amanda Di Genova

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