"Folk Physics for Apes: The chimpanzee's notion of how the world works".

Daniel Povinelli

Professor, Institute of Cognitive Science, University of Louisiana at Lafayette


In this talk, I report the results of a five-year project that my colleagues and I undertook to explore how chimpanzees understand the simple physics that underlies their construction and use of simple tools. For over a century, it has been known that chimpanzees naturally make and use simple tools in the wild, and that in captivity these activities can be elaborated even further. Our project was designed to assess what chimpanzees know about why tools produce the effects that they do. In short, to explore the nature of their commonsense physics? The results of this experimental work suggest that in contrast to young children, chimpanzees do not appear to reason about unobservable physical causes such as gravity, force, shape, strength, or physical connection. They do, however, reason about the observable effects of these phenomena. Thus, the main difference between human and ape folk physics appears to be that humans appeal to unobservable phenomenon to help explain the observable events in the world, whereas chimpanzees do not. Collectively, our work suggests the even broader conclusion that chimpanzees and other apes may simply not possess the ability to form ideas about phenomena that are so abstract that they are, in principle, unobservable.