A new study has found that genetic factors play a significant role in determining the cognitive abilities of chimpanzees. By combining cognitive performance tests with genetic analysis, researchers from Georgia State University discovered that some, but not all, cognitive traits were heritable in chimpanzees. In other words, like in humans, cognitive abilities could be passed from parents to offspring. The study has been published in Current Biology.
The role of genetics in determining human intelligence was a matter of long-standing debate in the past. While it is known that intelligence can be modified by social and environmental factors such as education and socioeconomic status, it is also abundantly clear that it is heritable, i.e. can be passed from parent to child.
Our understanding of how genes vs environmental factors can shape cognition in non-human animals, particularly nonhuman primates, has been significantly less clear. For many years it was believed that the latter was largely responsible for cognitive traits, but few studies actually investigated the roles of genetics.
In order to fill in gaps in this poorly understood area, researchers set out to examine whether cognitive performance is heritable in chimpanzees. 99 chimps between the ages of 9- 54 were presented with 13 different tasks designed to test various cognitive abilities. They then combined this data with genetic analyses to see whether the degree of relatedness between the chimps was linked to task performance.
The researchers discovered that some, but not all, cognitive traits could be inherited in chimpanzees. This is in contrast to earlier ideas that environmental factors and experience largely determine task performance. “In our case, at least, it suggests that purely environmental explanations don’t really seem to tell the whole story,” lead author William Hopkins said in a news-release. “Genes matter as well.”
Furthermore, the observed abilities across this large range of tasks seemed to suggest that chimpanzee intelligence is reminiscent of the structure of human intelligence, Hopkins added.
While much more research needs to be carried out in this field, the study certainly provides a foundation for further, more detailed studies. The researchers would therefore like to continue this work by looking at larger samples and investigating which particular genes are involved in determining cognitive abilities in chimpanzees.