The Primate Mind: Built to Connect with Other Minds

Overview

“Monkey see, monkey do” may sound simple, but how an individual perceives and processes the behavior of another is one of the most complex and fascinating questions related to the social life of humans and other primates. In The Primate Mind, experts from around the world take a bottom-up approach to primate social behavior by investigating how the primate mind connects with other minds and exploring the shared neurological basis for imitation, joint action, cooperative ...

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Overview

“Monkey see, monkey do” may sound simple, but how an individual perceives and processes the behavior of another is one of the most complex and fascinating questions related to the social life of humans and other primates. In The Primate Mind, experts from around the world take a bottom-up approach to primate social behavior by investigating how the primate mind connects with other minds and exploring the shared neurological basis for imitation, joint action, cooperative behavior, and empathy.

In the past, there has been a tendency to ask all-or-nothing questions, such as whether primates possess a theory of mind, have self-awareness, or have culture. A bottom-up approach asks, rather, what are the underlying cognitive processes of such capacities, some of which may be rather basic and widespread. Prominent neuroscientists, psychologists, ethologists, and primatologists use methods ranging from developmental psychology to neurophysiology and neuroimaging to explore these evolutionary foundations.

A good example is mirror neurons, first discovered in monkeys but also assumed to be present in humans, that enable a fusing between one’s own motor system and the perceived actions of others. This allows individuals to read body language and respond to the emotions of others, interpret their actions and intentions, synchronize and coordinate activities, anticipate the behavior of others, and learn from them. The remarkable social sophistication of primates rests on these basic processes, which are extensively discussed in the pages of this volume.

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Editorial Reviews

Nature

Presents an authoritative, surprising and enriching picture of our monkey and ape cousins...The Primate Mind suggests that it may not be the capacity to imitate, but the motivation to do so that sets us apart from other animals. Like all good suggestions, this opens the door to more questions about the mechanisms and evolution of such motivation—and, ultimately, about how our own social minds evolved from the deeply interconnected minds of our primate cousins.
— Christian Keysers

Barnes & Noble Review

[The Primate Mind] showcases cutting-edge thinking about primate psychology and neurology...Even for non-specialists, The Primate Mind offers the excitement of seeing science begin to offer concrete answers to such fundamental and ancient human questions.
— Adam Kirsch

Choice

The research represented in this book clearly pushes the boundaries of what is known about how primates think, feel, and view the world and others around them. Overall, the book provides a wealth of fascinating and intriguing insights into primate minds.
— S. C. Baker

Nature - Christian Keysers
Presents an authoritative, surprising and enriching picture of our monkey and ape cousins...The Primate Mind suggests that it may not be the capacity to imitate, but the motivation to do so that sets us apart from other animals. Like all good suggestions, this opens the door to more questions about the mechanisms and evolution of such motivation--and, ultimately, about how our own social minds evolved from the deeply interconnected minds of our primate cousins.
Barnes & Noble Review - Adam Kirsch
[The Primate Mind] showcases cutting-edge thinking about primate psychology and neurology...Even for non-specialists, The Primate Mind offers the excitement of seeing science begin to offer concrete answers to such fundamental and ancient human questions.
Choice - S. C. Baker
The research represented in this book clearly pushes the boundaries of what is known about how primates think, feel, and view the world and others around them. Overall, the book provides a wealth of fascinating and intriguing insights into primate minds.
The Barnes & Noble Review

When we look at ourselves next to our closest evolutionary cousins — the chimpanzees, with whom we humans share some 99 percent of our DNA — what strikes us most are the enormous differences. Above all, we tend to celebrate the superiority of our minds, which are capable of discovering the Pythagorean theorem, building a spaceship, and painting the Mona Lisa; our minds are what take us out of the animal world and into the world of culture and history. But the contributors to The Primate Mind, a collection that showcases cutting-edge thinking about primate psychology and neurology, urge us to put aside the differences for a moment, and think instead about the similarities. As primates, our brains share deep structures with those of chimps and baboons; if you go even further back on the evolutionary tree, we have things in common with dogs and birds. Do these animals, too, have minds in any meaningful sense? And if so, how would we know it?

These are the questions addressed by most of the contributions to The Primate Mind, which range from fairly accessible, wide-ranging essays to technical descriptions of experiments. They share what Frans de Waal and Pier Francesco Ferrari, the volume's editors, call "a bottom-up approach to the primate mind." Rather than focus on what separates humans from "lower" species of primates, or try to make primates do human tasks — such as gorillas painting pictures or learning language — these scientists ask what basic mental structures all primates share.

The answer turns out to be surprising: all primates, and many more primitive animals, are capable of empathy, cooperation, learning, and deduction. Take an experiment described by Ludwig Huber, in his paper "What, Whom, and How: Selectivity in Social Learning." Six species — marmosets, ravens, jackdaws, dogs, keas, and human children — were shown members of the same species searching for hidden food. It turns out that keas and marmosets are almost as good as humans at observing the search and figuring out how to replicate it. And there is reason to think that such animals are not simply copying the actions they see but actually thinking in goal-oriented terms. This is suggested by another experiment involving dogs: dogs who watched a dog use his paw to push a lever for food preferred to use their own mouths to push a similar lever, suggesting that they were not following blindly but understood the logic of the process.

The central concern of The Primate Mind, however, is empathy. Can we say that chimps truly enter into one another's point of view, the way humans do? Here the exciting development has to do with the discovery of "mirror neurons" in the primate brain. These neurons are activated when an individual watches another individual perform an action or display an emotion, thus replicating the experience in its own brain. "Mirror neurons," writes Marco Iacoboni, "gracefully solve the problem of other minds, which is fundamentally a problem of having access to the mind of other people." Even for non-specialists, The Primate Mind offers the excitement of seeing science begin to offer concrete answers to such fundamental and ancient human questions.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for Nextbook.org.

Reviewer: Adam Kirsch

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674058040
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 1/2/2012
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 1,397,795
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Frans B. M. de Waal is C. H. Candler Professor of Primate Behavior in the Psychology Department and Director of Living Links, part of the Yerkes Primate Center, Emory University.

Pier Francesco Ferrari is Assistant Professor in Biology at the School of Medicine at the Università di Parma, Italy.

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