Hello, Monkey FaceA study from the University of Sheffield finds that babies start out able to recognise individuals from all species, and only later learn to specialise in humans.
Even more interestingly, it seems they can retain their knowledge of other species with practice:
Researchers at the University of Sheffield have shown that babies can be taught to distinguish between different monkey faces in the same way that they distinguish individual human faces. The team had previously demonstrated that babies begin life with a general ability to distinguish faces, regardless of species, but that this ability becomes more specialised around the age of 9 months. However, this new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that children can retain the ability to distinguish between other species’ faces if they are exposed to them on a regular basis.
Dr Olivier Pascalis, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield explains, “Face recognition is remarkable in that it is a cognitive development that actually involves a loss of ability. Basically, until around 6 months old babies can recognise individuals from any species but, by the age of nine months they have ‘tuned in’ to human faces, giving them an ability to spot smaller differences between human faces, but eroding the ability to recognise animals from other species.
“Our experiment aimed to discover whether this ‘tuning in’ effect was due to babies being exposed to human faces more often than to other species, or whether it is something that happens over time, regardless of environment.
“The babies in our experiment were shown pictures of monkeys for one to two minutes every day between the ages of six and nine months. The control group weren’t shown the pictures.
“At nine months of age, the babies returned and completed a face recognition task. The infants were first familiarised with a monkey face and then presented with a pair of pictures: the familiar face and a new face .We looked at the amount of time the baby spends on looking at each picture, based on the finding that a child will spend more time looking at something new if they can recognise it.
“The experiment showed that the babies who had been regularly shown the monkey faces had retained the ability to distinguish individuals, whereas the control group had lost this skill.”
Presumably the babies involved were British. It would be interesting to know if the '"tuning in" effect' occurs to different extents in different cultures. In cultures with stronger ties to nature, do children retain more of their recognition of other species? Perhaps this would help explain why hunter-gatherers, for example, have what seems to Westerners like an almost supernatural understanding of animals.