[Viewpoint]Lesson from chimps

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[Viewpoint]Lesson from chimps

There is an old saying that education is this century’s grand project. Learning is important because the next generation will be responsible for the future of the nation.

However, excessive passion for education sometimes leads to various problems such as extracurricular education costs, overheated competition for college admission and young students leaving the country to study abroad. Isn’t there a solution? I would like to introduce a teaching method used by chimpanzee mothers with their offspring.

Chimpanzees educate their young for five to 15 years. This is the longest in the animal kingdom, with the exception of humans. A chimp’s chances of survival depends on the quality of education he receives from his mother during this period, and the ones who receive a better education will enjoy higher status in the community.

A female chimpanzee is sexually mature 10 to 13 years after birth. She will give birth to an average of one offspring every six years. The first five years after birth are a period of full dependency on the mother. It is the most crucial period for the survival of the young chimpanzee.

So how does a chimpanzee mother educate her young? She never forces him to learn something. She accompanies the offspring if she thinks he needs to learn and lets the baby observe by her side.

Let’s look at the teaching method of a chimpanzee community in Africa that can crack hard nuts with a rock. The keys to this skill are the choice of rocks to use as a base and a hammer and the timing in hitting the nut with the rock.

However, the mother never teaches which rock is suitable to be the base and which is a good hammer. Instead, she always takes her offspring with her and lets the young chimp eat the delicious nuts she has cracked.

As this becomes routine, the young chimp imitates the behavior of the mother in order to eat nuts by himself. But it is not easy to choose the right rocks and find the right timing. The skill might seem very simple, but it takes two to three years for the young chimpanzee to master the technique from the first try.

After all, the tasty treat encourages him to endure boring and difficult training, and the demonstration of the veteran mother refines the skill.

It is interesting that orphan chimpanzees take even longer to master the technique, and their expertise and application tend to fall behind the chimps who learned from their mothers. Their ranks are low in society, and when they mature and become adult chimps, they find it hard to overcome this.

A similar case can be found in chimpanzees trained in a lab. The team of Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa at Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute was doing cognitive research and discovered baby chimpanzee Ayumu displaying outstanding cognitive ability. The chimp could recognize Chinese characters. The team studied the reason for such excellence and found that when Ayumu was very young, his mother, Ai, participated in a similar cognitive test.

Ayumu watched his mother doing the test as a baby and had access to Chinese characters early on. Also, he was aware of the fact that the more Chinese characters he knows, the more good food he will eat.

Ayumu grew familiar with Chinese character without realizing and earned the nickname “Chimp Genius” as he learned characters faster than his peers.

As we can see from the education of chimpanzees, the most important aspects of education are motivation and good teachers. When the baby chimpanzee has the will to learn, the mother chimpanzee can make the most of her efforts and teach her offspring how to survive.

The chimp model is good for Korean parents seeking to guide their children on the right path in education.


*The writer is the director of the National Primate Research Center of the Korea Research Institute of Bioscience and Biotechnology. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Jang Gyu-tae
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