Human Evolution: Video Shows Orangutans Innovating Tools in Real Time

Tool making is one thing, but innovating is another 

Innovation, a definitively human trait, is on brilliant display in a SpaceX launch or the unveiling of a new iPhone feature. But humans aren’t special. There are plenty of examples of innovation in nature too. A recent trial on orangutans offers a glimpse into how humans became so resourceful.

One of the most basic definitions of innovation — coming up with a specific, new way to solve a problem — is on display with orangutans.

Researchers wanted to see if orangutans — a close relative to humans — would spontaneously “invent” a tool to retrieve food from two puzzling apparatuses, even if they had never seen an example of one before. Their work was compiled into this research paper published November 8 in Scientific Reports.

Different iterations of the tool used during the "unbending task." 

Scientific Reports 

In the experiment (shown in the video), five orangutans had to devise a hooked tool to grab a basket of food at the bottom of a tube and then unbend an already-hooked wire to create a straight tool to push a pellet out of a tube. The hook is pretty straightforward, and the orangutan in the video does it with ease.

But then the orangutan is faced with the “unbending” challenge, as seen about 20 seconds into the video. The wire itself doesn’t quite fit, and the subject has to go back to the drawing board, repeatedly innovating to make the tool work.

Josep Call, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a study co-author, specializes in the evolutionary origins of the mind.

“Finding this capacity in one of our closest relatives is astonishing. In human evolution hook tools appear relatively late,” Call said.

He explains that these hooked tools only appeared as recently as 16,000 to 60,000 years ago, perhaps at least partially because creating these tools, especially from scratch, is a complicated skill. Creating a new way to solve a problem appears to be something that people struggle with even today, says lead study author Isabel Laumer, Ph.D., a cognitive biologist at the University of Wein in Austria.

“Human children are already profound tool-users and tool-makers from an early age on,” Laumer tells Inverse. Despite this tendency, humans aren’t born with a full complement of skills, she notes. “Hook tool innovation seems to be difficult for children.”

The study’s authors cite a 2014 experiment in the journal Cognition, in which children were given puzzles with multiple solutions. Only 12.4 percent of children in the experiment came up with a new way to solve the puzzle. By comparison, 87.6 percent of children never even attempted to innovate and simply adhered to previous ways of solving the problem — even when those methods were inefficient. Children seem to improve at this type of problem-solving as they get older.

In short, innovating is hard for humans, but the orangutans still demonstrated that they, too, were able to innovate. They did it over and over again — workshopping their tools, making new iterations when the previous version didn’t work, creating the perfect one for the job. So though innovation proves difficult to learn for both humans and orangutans, it’s still something that our species share: a persistent desire to do better. And it’s this shared ability that the researchers suspect both humans and apes inherited from a common ancestor.

“It´s not unlikely that our last common ancestor with primates already possessed the ability to innovate new tools,” Laumer adds.

In our non-human primate relatives, we see a glimpse of the earliest origins of innovation in action, illuminating one of the ways our early ancestors may have cultivated this difficult skill. And we also get a hint at why we share this skill with them in the first place.

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