At one point or another, most parents have remarked that their young one is like a little monkey - scrambling around on all fours, climbing on the coffee table, hooting and banging blocks together. Indeed, kids do bear a striking resemblance to our furry ancestors. The similarities go well beyond their general ape-like behavior, though. Scientists are seeing more and more that primates and babies both enter into the world with similar wiring, sporting impressive knowledge of things like basic physics and math. The fact that our infants share so much with the tree-dwellers is helping researchers make the case that nature has pre-packaged us with much of what we need to hit the ground running.
Research with non-human primates has taught us a lot about what makes children tick. We nuzzle skin-to skin with our newborns in the delivery room and tuck them into baby slings thanks in large part to Harry Harlow's famous monkey experiments of the 1950s. In Harlow's research, rhesus monkeys were separated from their moms and given two inanimate mommies - one made of wire and one terrycloth. The majority of infant monkeys clung to the soft terrycloth moms. When they were scared, they bee-lined for the soft mom even when the wire mother was the one with the bottle. Harlow's monkey findings inspired psychologists to look more closely at the role of contact in the parent-child bond, laying the groundwork for attachment theory.
But studying other primates also shines light on our hard-wired capabilities. If we share certain skills and behaviors with monkeys, the reasoning goes, it is pretty likely that those traits are innate - passed down over millions of years from our common ancestors. One of the most clear and certainly the most endearing example of this is the newborn grabbing reflex. Babies automatically wrap their tiny fingers around anything that goes in their hand (usually mom or dad's finger). Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology at Yale, says this behavior is a vestige of our evolutionary ancestors, probably left over from when we had fur and a baby would need to hold on to mom while she moved around.
Santos and her team of primate scientists often pair up with infant researchers to answer questions that go beyond behavior and look at how our cognitive machinery has evolved. One of the main lines of research is testing "core knowledge" - the idea that babies are born with sophisticated mental abilities. Developed by the influential psychologist Elizabeth Spelke, core knowledge has been a revelation in infant development. Before this, infants were assumed to basically be blank slates, born with their senses and crude motor skills, but no real knowledge of how the world works. For example, most moms are told that their baby will not develop "object permanence" until the end of her first year, meaning that when she can't see an object, she forgets about it completely. We now know this is kind of an old-school notion. Jean Piaget proposed this concept in the 1950's based on studies he did with his own children. When he hid a toy, his infant daughter would not search for it, leading him to conclude that young babies have no ability to mentally represent objects if they are out of sight.
Modern scientists realized that Piaget's findings were more a reflection of babies' fledgling motor skills than their mental power. The core knowledge folks bypass motor skills and use eye movements to determine what babies know. When eye movements are used, they see that the tiniest babies have a lot more going on upstairs than previously thought. Spelke believes that even newborns know that objects exist when they're out of sight. As young as 2.5 months, babies know a lot about how the physical world works; for example, that inanimate objects don't move unless something comes in contact with them, and that objects move in continuous paths and stop only when something is in their way - both important Physics 101 lessons.
In her lab at Yale, Santos puts Rhesus monkeys and Lemurs through similar tests and the primates grasp the same concepts as babies - more support for the idea that this knowledge is innate. Evolution has basically given us a head start, explains Santos, so babies don't resort to sheer trial and error to figure the world out. She notes that even though this knowledge is very basic, it drastically alters the way that babies see the world.
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