BIRKBECK COLLEGE, School of PsychologyCourse P1.1 (PSYC030U)
December 16th 2004

Table of links
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Lecture on: Biological Bases of Cognition

Aims: This lecture aims to review the evidence for cognitive processes in non-human primates, especially chimpanzees, and to evaluate the results of attempts to train chimpanzees to communicate with human-like language systems.

Objectives: By the end of the lectures the students should:

  • know the general outlines of the taxonomy of primates and the time course of life span development in the non-human primates species mentioned in the handout

  • be able to answer correctly a majority of the questions on the self-assessment test included in the handout

  • be aware of the sections of the course text (Gleitman, 1999) or alternative texts, where complex cognition in animals and the training experiments on chimpanzees are discussed.

The references are adapted from TOPIC 7 in the Seminar List —

Essay Question:

    Consider the evidence for cognitive processes in chimpanzees. What aspects of human cognition are unique?

Basic Texts (Alternatives)

Gleitman, H (1995) Psychology. 4th Edition. Norton, London. “Complex cognition in animals” pp 142-6; “Language in nonhumans”, pp. 370-375; “Social cognition in primates”, pp 405-407.

Gleitman, H (1999) Psychology. 5th Edition. Norton, London. “Complex cognition in animals” pp. 158-62; “Language in nonhumans”, pp. 393-4; “Social cognition”, pp 429-34.

Gleitman, H., et al. (2004) Psychology. 6th Edition. Norton, London. "Complex cognition in animals" pp. 156-60; "Language in nonhumans", pp. 354-7; "Reciprocal altruism", pp 438-439

Walker, S.F. (1987) Animal Learning: An Introduction. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London. “Memory and cognition in animal learning”, pp 302-57.


Other background sources

Jolly, A. (1972) The Evolution of Primate Behaviour. Macmillan: London.

Passingham, R. (1982) The Human Primate. W.H. Freeman: Oxford. “Intelligence”, pp. 114-141; “Language”, pp. 190-243.

Povinelli, D.J. (1993) Reconstructing the evolution of mind. American Psychologist, 48, 493-509.

Terrace, H.S. (1980) Nim. London: Eyre Methuen (handout page about this)

Walker, S.F. (1985) Animal Thought. Routledge & Kegan Paul: London. “Knowing and meaning in monkeys and apes”, pp 339-381.


More specialized sources

Boysen, ST and Himes, GT (1999) Current issues and emerging theories in animal cognition. Annual Review of Psychology, Vol.50, Pp.683-705.

Call, J. (2001). Chimpanzee social cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5(9), 388-393.

Povinelli, D. J., Bering, J. M., & Giambrone, S. (2000). Toward a science of other minds: Escaping the argument by analogy. Cognitive Science, 24(3), 509-541.

Tomasello, M. (2000). Primate cognition: Introduction to the issue. Cognitive Science, 24(3), 351-361

Notes on topics to be covered

Biologically the human species belongs to the order Primates. Although there is fossil evidence for several different ‘hominid’ (human like) species having occurred during the last 4½ Million years, our closest living relatives are the Great Apes (chimpanzees, orang-utans and gorillas: according to some estimates, the present human species shares 98.4% of its DNA with current chimpanzees)

Because of this biological similarity, it is often assumed that cognitive processes in the great apes) will be noticeably human-like, and distinguishable, quantitatively or quantitatively, from those of non-primate species.

  • An extreme case of the notion of primate cognitive superiority was the expectation that, with a sufficiently favourable training environment, infant apes might develop linguistic competence (e.g. Premack, 1976). Studies which attempted to train apes in language-like skills are reviewed in Walker (1985). There is now a general consensus that some or other of the cognitive processes necessary for linguistic communication is innately and exclusively human.

  • This consensus is supported by the fact that there is “little credible evidence” that chimpanzees are capable of language-like communication. (Gleitman et al., 2004, p. 357; Gleitman, 1999, p. 401; Gleitman, 1995; p.375)

  • A possible framework for comparisons of non-linguistic cognitive capacities across species is supplied by Piagetian tests designed to assess developmental changes in human cognition (e.g. Redshaw, 1978; Call, 2001)

  • It has been suggested that non-human primates such as chimpanzees, though lacking language, may have distinctive cognitive capacities for memory, imitation, self-recognition (in mirrors or videos) and the social understanding of other individuals (Menzel, 1973; Gallup et al., 1985; Menzel et al, 1985; Povinelli, 1993; Boysen & Himes, 1999)

  • Some authors disagree that primates have any special cognitive advantages over other species. In particular Macphail (1987, 1996) supports a 'null-hypothesis' of equal intelligence across all vertebrate species from fish to mammals (see also Heyes, 1998). Others such as Reiss and Marino, 2001) would suggest that there are species differences in cognitive ability, but that certain non-primate species (dolphins, or other large-brained mammals) demonstrate primate levels of performance on complex tasks.

  • The short answer to the answer to the question posed is that many aspects of human cognition are unique, and that the capacity for language is among the most important and appears to be notably absent in our closest living relatives.
  • It also seems to be the case that the human capacity for imitation is qualitatively different from the social learning found in apes (Inoue-Nakamura & Matsuzawa, 1997; Tomasello abd Rajoczy, 2003).
  • Other aspects of human cognition, such as short term memory for the locations of desired food items, the social recognition of other known individuals, and the recognition of objects independently of stimulus modality ('cross-modal' object recognition) are clearly not unique to our species, since they can be demonstrated in chimpanzees and in some cases in other primates and non-primate species as well (Iversen & Matsuzawa, 2003, Farroni et al. 2003; Myowa-Yamakoshi et al., 2003).
Lecturer’s References (Not for further reading)

Barton, RA (1998) Visual specialization and brain evolution in primates. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B- Biological Sciences, Vol.265, No.1409, Pp.1933-1937.

Boysen, ST and Himes, GT (1999) Current issues and emerging theories in animal cognition. Annual Review of Psychology, Vol.50, Pp.683-705.

Byrne, R. (1995) The Thinking Ape : the evolutionary origins of intelligence. Oxford : Oxford University Press

Call, J. (2001). Object Permanence in Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), and Children (Homo sapiens). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 115(2), 159-171.

Call, J., Hare, B., Carpenter, M., & Tomasello, M. (2004). 'Unwilling' versus 'unable': chimpanzees' understanding of human intentional action. Developmental Science, 7(4), 488-498.

Farroni, T., Mansfield, E. M., Lai, C., & Johnson, M. H. (2003). Infants perceiving and acting on the eyes: Tests of an evolutionary hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 85(3), 199-212.

Gallup, GG, Povinelli, DJ, Suarez, SD, Anderson, JR, Lethmate, J, Menzel, EW (1995) Further reflections on self-recognition in primates. Animal Behaviour, Vol.50, No.Pt6, Pp.1525-1532

Gardner, B.T. and Gardner, R.A. (1985) Signs of intelligence in cross-fostered chimpanzees. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B, 308, 159-176.

Goodall, J. (1991) Through a Window: Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe. London: Penguin.

Heyes, C.M. (1998) Theory of mind in nonhuman primates. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 21, 108-148. (

Inoue-Nakamura, N, & Matsuzawa, T (1997) Development of stone tool use by wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Journal of Comparative Psychology, Vol.111, No.2, Pp.159-173. abstract

Iversen, I. H., & Matsuzawa, T. (2003). Development of interception of moving targets by chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) in an automated task. Animal Cognition, 6(3), 169-183.

Kellogg, W.A. and Kellogg, L.A. (1933) The Ape and the Child. New York: McGraw-Hill (67 IAV Kel)

Kohler, W. (1925) The Mentality of Apes. Kegan Paul, Trench & Trubner: London. (2nd Edn 1927 67 IAV Koe)

Macphail, E.M. (1987) The comparative psychology of intelligence. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 10, 645-695.

Menzel, E.W. (1973) Chimpanzee spatial memory organization. Science, 182, 943-5.

Menzel, E.W., Jr., Savage-Rumbaugh, E.S. and Lawson, J. (1985) Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) spatial problem solving with the use of mirrors and televised equivalents of mirrors. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 99, 211-217.

Myowa-Yamakoshi, M., Tomonaga, M., Tanaka, M., & Matsuzawa, T. (2003). Preference for human direct gaze in infant chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Cognition, 89(2), B53-B64.

Povinelli, D.J., Rulf, A.B., Landau, K.R., and Bierschwale, D.T. (1993) Self-recognition in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes): distribution, ontogeny and patterns of emergence. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 107, 347-372.

Premack, D. (1971) Language in chimpanzee. Science, 172, 808- 22.

Premack, D. (1983) The codes of man and beasts. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 6. 125-37.

Premack, D. (1986) Gavagai! or the Future History of the Animal Language Controversy. MIT Press: London.

Premack, D. and Woodruff, G. (1978) Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 4, 515-526.

Redshaw, M. (1978) Cognitive development in human and gorilla infants. Journal of Human Evolution, 7, 133-41. abstract

Reiss, D., and Marino L. (2001) Mirror self-recognition in the bottlenose dolphin: A case of cognitive convergence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 98, no 10(May 1). 5937-5942

Russon, AE, Galdikas, BMF (1993) Imitation in free-ranging rehabilitant orangutans (Pongo-pygmaeus). Journal of Comparative Psychology, Vol.107, No.2, Pp.147-161

Semendeferi, K, Armstrong, E, Schleicher, A., Zilles, K., & Van Hoesen, G. W. (2001). Prefrontal cortex in humans and apes: A comparative study of area 10. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 114(3), 224-241.

Semendeferi, K, Damasio, H, Frank, R (1997) The evolution of the frontal lobes: a volumetric analysis based on three-dimensional reconstructions of magnetic resonance scans of human and ape brains. Journal of Human Evolution, Vol.32, No.4, Pp.375-388.

Semendeferi, K., Lu, A., Schenker, N., & Damasio, H. (2002). Humans and great apes share a large frontal cortex. Nature Neuroscience, 5(3), 272-276. abstract

Terrace, H.S. (1980) Nim. London: Eyre Methuen

Terrace, H.S., Pettito, L.A., Sanders, R.J. and Bever, T.G. (1979) Can an ape create a sentence? Science, 206, 891-902.

Tomasello, M. Kruger, A.C. and Ratner, H.H. (1993) Cultural learning. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 16, 495-552.

Tomasello, M., & Rakoczy, H. (2003). What makes human cognition unique? From individual to shared to collective intentionality. Mind & Language, 18(2), 121-147.

Tomasello, M., Call, J., & Hare, B. (2003). Chimpanzees understand psychological states - the question is which ones and to what extent. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 7(4), 153-156.

Whiten, A., Goodall, J., McGrew, W. C., Nishida, T., Reynolds, V., Sugiyama, Y., Tutin, C. E. G., Wrangham, R. W., & Boesch, C. (1999). Cultures in chimpanzees. Nature, 399(6737), 682-685

Woodruff, G. and Premack, D. (1979) Intentional communication in the chimpanzee: The development of deception. Cognition, 7, 333-62.