photo credit: owenbooth via photopin cc

I know we humans rule the planet and all, but I kind of love it when the animal wins sometimes. Reminds us that we aren’t necessarily the model for all other creatures to be measured by (which some people, unfortunately, staunchly believe).

So I was pleasantly amused to learn that when chimpanzees played adult humans in a strategy-based video game, the non-furry contestants simply couldn’t keep up.

Here’s how it went: Using touchscreens, players chose one of two squares during each turn. One player’s goal was to choose the same square as their opponent; the other player’s goal was to choose the opposite square. Chimps won apples for beating out humans, while humans earned money when they trumped the chimp.

The key to winning the game is to build a strategy based on what you think the other player will do, as predicted by past moves — and chimps emerged as the superior strategists.

In fact, chimps are so talented at this sort of memory/prediction, scientists say they played a near-ideal game — very close to “game theory equilibrium” (game theory makes predictions using mathematical equations).

It’s not that these apes were some sort of primate prodigies; just about any chimp would beat most humans at the game. This revelation has ticked off some folks, including a few scientists.

“I know this has upset people,” said Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa, one of the study leaders. “And now here are researchers who have practiced to become ‘as good as’ a chimpanzee! I really do not understand this need for us to always be superior in all domains. Or to be so separate, so unique from every other animal.”

As Scientific American explains, chimps probably evolved differently to meet their unique survival needs. Just as we humans developed functions like advanced language skills that chimps don’t have, chimps developed photographic memory to survive (“where was that banana tree I saw earlier?”), and a strategic edge to rise to the alpha of the pack.

Whatever the reasons, the bottom line is that other animals can be far more intelligent than humans give them credit for. SA puts it nicely:

Scientists have shown, time and again, that many animals have an extraordinary intellect. Unlike an average human brain that can barely recall a vivid scene from the last hour, chimps have a photographic memory and can memorize patterns they see in the blink of an eye. Sea lions and elephants can remember faces from decades ago. Animals also have a unique sense perception. Sniffer dogs can detect the first signs of colon cancer by the scents of patients, while doctors flounder in early diagnosis.

Need more proof of chimpanzees’ amazing intellect? Check out 5.5-year-old Ayumu playing this number memory game (the numbers are replaced by squares, and he must remember their order in a flash). I know I wouldn’t do this well:

Incredible, no?