​Examining the foundations of cultural intelligence through behavioral flexibility

  • TWCF Number:


  • Project Duration:

    25 July 2018 - 24 July 2021

  • Core Funding Area:

    Big Questions

  • Initiative:

    Diverse Intelligences

  • Region:

    North America

  • Amount Awarded:


Cristine H. Legare

The University of Texas at Austin

Are humans unique among animals? Cristine Legare answers that question by comparing the minds of chimpanzees and human children.

Humans’ unparalleled achievements are widely attributed to our cumulative culture. By building on others’ discoveries, behaviors, and technologies, we create complex reserves of knowledge and technology that we can bequeath to later generations. The near-absence of cumulative culture in all other species suggests we are extraordinarily distinctive in our cultural complexities. What explains such species-specific social and technological complexity?

One source of insight is our closest living relative: the chimpanzee. There are two ways to approach such a study:
1. The first is to understand what limits chimpanzee culture. How have they come so far only to stop on what may be the brink of cumulative culture?
2. The second is to consider that a lack of cumulative culture may not be an expression of a limited intelligence. Instead, it might speak to a different form of intelligence, highly adaptive in its own way.

This presents an intriguing premise. Such an intelligence may also, to some extent, be present in developing human children. The question of cultural comparison between humans and chimpanzees is not new. But rather than leading to a great breadth of explanations, current research has converged on narrow and often limited analyses. This project comprises a series of studies investigating behavioral flexibility and innovation in chimpanzees and human children. The team will explore the question of comparative intelligence from the perspective of developmental psychology, as well as neuroscientific and economics research on decision-making. They will investigate the strengths and limitations of the cognitive abilities underlying behavioral flexibility in both species, breaking radical new ground along the way.

These studies will not only examine the evolutionary and developmental paths to intelligence in humans but also illuminate the remarkable ways our sister species has flourished, with a focus on their capacity for culture.


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