Monkey See, Monkey Do

Cognition, learning, and evolution in human and non-human primates

Primate Social Cognition, Human Evolution, and Niche Construction
Evolution of a student

The old image of a human evolving from an ape by gradually getting more upright is a common way to portray the concept of evolution, even though the imagery portrays a slightly incorrect concept: humans did not evolve “from apes,” modern day humans and modern day non-human primates evolved from a common ancestor. While this distinction may seem semantic, it’s important to note because the study of modern non-human primates is not quite exactly the same as peering back into our own evolutionary history. It can, however, still offer incredible insights into the overall evolution of our species, especially when it comes to cognition and learning, and offers clues as to how our species’ brain evolved the way it did. That is, studying cognition across the Primate order can provide a framework for understanding cognitive functioning and evolution.

One of the key commonalities all primates share is a dependence on close social relationships for support with security, food resources, and child rearing (MacKinnon and Fuentes 2012). Living in stable social groups allowed early primates to be able to deal with threats more efficiently. This lead to changes in the environment, such as, among other things, predators deciding to go after other pray. As threats lessened as a result of the adaptation of social groups, primates were then able to spend more time and energy in building social relationships, exploring territory, and experimenting with different foraging strategies (MacKinnon and Fuentes 2012). All of this lead to primates both requiring and having the opportunity to increase cognitive functioning. In this way, primates shaped their environment and were in turn shaped by the changing environment. This concept is called niche construction—primates created a niche for themselves in their environment that shaped both the environment and their evolution. This concept illuminates some of the intricacies involved in understanding evolution: the model of organisms merely adapting to their environments for the purpose of survival doesn’t quite capture the complexity involved.

Human niche construction and evolution, specifically, depended upon an increasingly sophisticated way of interacting with the environment. With the use of more tools, better survivability rates for infants, and increasingly complex methods of communication, early humans were able to efficiently increase their territory and cooperate within and among groups. The success of these adaptations meant more resources, and the conditions were fertile for the evolution of human cognition.

This chapter gives a good, easy to understand overview of the evolution of primate cognition, and makes a good case for the purpose of studying primate cognition in neuroanthropology. Of course, as an overview it ends up lacking in some specificity of the concepts covered, but the following articles address some of the more important areas more in-depth.

Understanding Primate Brain Evolution

The increasingly social nature of primates, as well as the increasing complexity of interactions with the environment, lead to an increase in the types of interactions and concepts that needed to be exchanged. To put it another way, the complexity of interactions increased. This is the basic idea behind the social brain hypothesis, which says that brain size, specifically the neocortex, is correlated with not just group size but the complexity of relationships within a social group (Dunbar and Shultz 2007). Some examples of complex social interactions necessary for survival in large groups that primates exhibit that require higher cognitive functioning include tactical deception, social play, and the use of subtle social strategies (Dunbar and Shultz 2007). The increase in neocortex size does not come without some tradeoffs, however: diet, infant care, and development have all shifted to account for the change in brain size necessitated by and necessary for increasingly complex social interactions.

This article is a thorough examination of the variables at stake in understanding the evolution of primate cognition. However, the statistical analyses and language used make it unapproachable for a casual reader. The previous piece covers the subject material in a more approachable way, though certainly doesn’t go into the depth of what’s involved in the social brain hypothesis.

Play, Social Learning, and Teaching

Complex social interactions like the ones required for primate survival, and that lead to the evolved human brain, needed to have been passed down from generation to generation in order to be evolutionary. One primary way learning of this kind takes place is through social play. Play is, in terms of survival, both costly and risky, which means that it likely has significant adaptive value (Konner 2010). As it turns out, the smartest animals are the ones that play the most, and it’s likely these two things co-evolved (Konner 2010). Interestingly, while the size of the neocortex is associated with intelligence and social complexity, the capacity for play appears to be housed in the limbic system, an older and more primitive part of the brain; however, animals with larger brains do play more and the animals with the largest brains play the most (Konner 2010), perhaps reflecting the increased complexity of the learning that needs to occur. For more information on the regions of the brain, see Kalat (2012).

While the process is not fully understood, social learning, unlike basic learning processes, likely takes place due imitative learning, assisted by the mirror-neuron system (MNS; Konner 2010). The MNS activates not only when one observes an action, but also right before an action is taken, which suggests that there is a link to the ability to perceive the intentions of others (Konner 2010).

This chapter comes from a book on childhood and development, so this chapter on social play doesn’t quite go into the specific depth that we might be interested in as neuroanthropologists, especially the neurobiology of social learning. While the mirror-neuron system is interesting and an exciting step toward understanding, its treatment is rather shallow and other systems aren’t included in the explanation.

Primate Cognition

While the above articles explain in varying degrees of accessibility the arguments for the evolutionary path of human cognition, they don’t go into much detail about the cognitive capabilities of our primate ancestors. Understanding the extent of primate cognition could help to understand the capabilities that primates had, prehistorically, that could contribute to and be shaped by their social complexity. According to Beran et al. (2016), controlled attention, episodic and prospective memory, metacognition, and delay of gratification have all been observed in chimpanzees. Non-human primates don’t match the cognitive abilities of humans in these areas, but their presence sheds light on the potential cognitive capabilities of our primate ancestors. Of course, it needs to be kept in mind that their study was done in a controlled laboratory setting with a modern chimpanzee, so the results would be different than a wild primate ancestor.

The scope of research included in this paper is impressive. Each component of cognition is tested well, with good results. While it is a psychology-oriented paper, more discussion of the implications for the understanding of primate evolution would have been welcome. Additionally, there isn’t any discussion of how these cognitive capabilities would be expressed in natural settings.

Questions for consideration:

What is niche construction, and how does it relate to our understanding of evolution? Can you think of any other examples of it?

What is the social brain hypothesis, and how does it relate to the evolution of the brain? What lines of evidence do we have that support this hypothesis?

How do modern advancements in technology alter the way we think about “play” as it relates to social learning?

What do you think about the understanding of gender in play relationships described in Konner’s article?


Beran, Michael J., Charles R. Menzel, Audrey E. Parrish, et al.
2016   Primate Cognition: Attention, Episodic Memory, Prospective Memory, Self-Control, and Metacognition as Examples of Cognitive Control in Nonhuman Primates. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science 7(5): 294–316.

Dunbar, R.I.M, and S. Shultz
2007   Understanding Primate Brain Evolution. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 362(1480): 649–658.

Kalat, James W.
2012   Biological Psychology. Cengage Learning.

Konner, Melvin
2010   The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind. Harvard University Press.

Lende, Daniel H., and Greg Downey, eds.
2012   The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.


9 thoughts on “Monkey See, Monkey Do”

  1. It would be nice to talk about the social brain theory in class. I think the social brain hypothesis has become kind of obsolete, but others might still find merit in it. There are several well-known social insects such as bees and wasps that exhibit obvious social behaviors and complex interactions (such as social rank). These animals obviously have significantly smaller brains. You could then argue that the hypothesis holds true for mammals, however, there are species of small rodents, such as meerkats, that have incredible social capacities within their species.

    There was some hypothesis about brain size related to overall body size that seems to fit the trend of intelligence more. I’m not sure if the social brain theory mentions this. It’s also interesting to examine this from the perspective of the food chain. Predators, specifically carnivores, seem to have a certain advantage.

    1. Yes, the social brain theory mentions the brain to body ratio. Initially we did think that brain size correlated with intelligence but now that’s not what we think. A couple of examples of anomalies are elephants and dolphins. They have significantly larger brains than humans but as far as we know, they are not as intelligent as we are. Now we know that not only does brain size make a difference with respect to intelligence but the complexity of social groups also matters. Complexity of social group correlates with increased intelligence.

  2. I would like to discuss the path analysis and the variable relationships from the Dunbar and Schultz during class today. I’m not very comfortable with the different regions of the brain and what responsibilities the regions have, so this article was more difficult for me to digest and understand completely. I would also like to discuss the relationship between the neocortex volume, prefrontal lobe size, and social interactions. I found it interesting that as the brain evolved, the prefrontal lobe increased in size.

  3. Although observational learning is distinct from teaching, since teaching requires specific efforts that facilitate the transfer of information, how can we be certain that nonhuman primates do not teach their children? We’ve learned about social facilitation, emulation, mimicry, and the mirror-neuron system as evidence for social learning, yet, how come we don’t believe that nonhuman primates teach their young? I believe that if these actions are evident in nonhuman primates then there may be some degree of teaching happening although as human observers, we may not perceive any degree of linguistic exchange or demonstration.

  4. I was excited to see that this week’s readings involved the idea of niche construction. This concept is one of the central elements of what some have deemed the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES; for a great review see Laland et al., 2014), and focuses on the idea that niche construction is not a product of evolution, but rather an evolutionary process itself (Laland & O’Brien, 2011). While evolutionary researchers have not denied that organisms interact with their environment, proponents of the EES argue that not enough focus has been paid to the co-evolutionary process involved with organisms and their environments. A way to illustrate the concept of niche construction is to imagine walking on a trampoline. With each step you take, the area around you is altered. Similarly, organisms are constantly affecting and altering the environment around them which can in some cases create new selection pressures.

    For instance, when agricultural practices developed in certain areas of Africa, the environmental change of new areas of standing water led to dramatic increases in populations of mosquitos that carry malaria. Therefore, while the agricultural practices provided more nutrient resources, it also created a new selection pressure where malaria could be transmitted through the vector of the infected mosquitos. This resulted in a now classic example of heterozygote superiority where those with recessive forms of the allele are not susceptible to malaria, however, they develop sickle-cell disease; those with a dominant form of the allele don’t develop sickle-cell disease, but they are also not resistant to malaria; and those with a heterozygous form are both resistant to malaria and also are less likely to develop sickle-cell disease. This example illustrates how selection for various genotypes can occur as a result of self-created selection pressures.

    However, there do not only have to be genetic solutions to problems that arise from the interaction of organisms with their environments. Cultural niche construction refers to the ways in which cultural factors and social transmission play into the evolutionary process. For example, in the case of the mosquitos, some areas have cultural factors such as health care practices or housing that can alleviate the selective pressure of malaria infection. In this case, it is not a genetic change that is altering selection pressure or a trait that is being genetically passed down to the next generation. Rather, cultural factors are impacting selection and, importantly, these cultural factors can be passed onto the next generation—a demonstration of the expanding view regarding how niches can be inherited. I look forward to our class discussion to see how others might see this concept impacting future evolutionary research.

  5. I think it would be extremely interesting to look more at developmental changes in relation to changes in brain size. The Dunbar and Shultz article mentions that humans have the most exponential growth in brain size early in life, and obviously discusses how that could have evolved from more complex social needs. I’d like to see it in relation to Bandura’s social learning theory (“monkey see, monkey do”) and how there may be differences across mammals in when they are able to understand these social interactions and their brain size relative to others when they make these connections. It could also be beneficial to look at the same relationships within the framework of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. For example, he says that from ages 0-2, children are in the sensorimotor stage; learning and experiencing the world through their senses and actions because they can’t yet communicate as adults. In looking at other primates we could compare how quickly brains develop in accordance with these stages, and even use that to compare with other mammals or social animals (i.e., bees) and look for correlations in brain size (neocortex). This is obviously a much narrower scope than the evolutionary approach the readings for the week discussed, but it could reveal key differences to be investigated further.

  6. The social brain hypothesis intrigues me. I feel as if sometimes an animal’s intelligence/ ability to “learn” is measured not by actual ability or neurological network. Rather, we measure it by the animal’s ability to follow human instruction. I think it would be interesting to explore various methodologies we use when measuring primate intelligence, such as observation vs. biomarkers vs. task completion vs. developed areas of the brain vs. social advantage.
    Is more method more valid than others? And if so, why?

    In addition, I find the concept of “niche construction” very interesting. I like that it takes into account the organism affecting the environment as well as the environment affecting the organism. Sometimes, evolutionary theory seems biased towards just the environment affecting the organism. I wonder how the two affect one another on a smaller scale, as well. Does the environment change among various subspecies, or even different groups of the same species in the same area? Or do different groups simply exist in different environments because they adapted to said environment?

  7. I think the idea of the social brain theory is very interesting, and I would really like to discuss in more in class. I think it would be interesting to look at a study that looks at the brains of similar primates from different social environments. Exactly how significant of a different is needed to alter the brain size/structure. For example, how does parental neglect or abandonment impact social learning and brain development? Also, what would happen if one species were abandoned and raised by or with another similar species? This would obviously present different environmental influences. Would that individual’s brain begin to develop differently with the adoption of the other’s behaviors and customs, or would it resemble others of its own species? That may be off track and unrealistic, I don’t know. But I think it would be very interesting to consider the impacts of very extreme cases.

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