School of Psychology, Birkbeck College

Course PSYC044U (Adaptive Learning And Comparative Cognition.) WEEK 11
May 3rd 2007

gifThis is just the first 6 pages of the longer paper handout. Web versions of the other pages in the paper handout are accessible from the side index. If you need to print out the handout, then all the pages are in this 'pdf' file, but this is quite large and may be difficult to download over a telephone modem.


Comparative Cognition 2 – Spatial and Social Knowledge and Reasoning

Essay (no 8 on the March 15th list)

‘Apes cannot be taught language, but there is evidence that they have special abilities in the areas of social learning, imitation, and self-recognition.’ Discuss.

1. Copies of selected Overheads are attached.

2. There are notes in the Easter Handout for Summer Term Lectures

3. Updated versions of these notes are given below.

“A third hypothesis proposes that there are, in fact, neither quantitative nor qualitative differences among the intellects of non-human vertebrates.” (Macphail, 1985; p.37)

Theoretical positions which assume differences in cognitive mechanisms available to different vertebrate species are summarised below.

Abstraction. Learning may be tied to specific physical stimuli to a greater or lesser extent. This is one way of characterising the position of Mackintosh (1988 and et al 1985). Premack (1983) took the position that “only primates have abstract codes” and his 1986 view could be interpreted as an extension of this. Thompson and Oden (2000) and Vonk and Macdonald (2004) have re-iterated the position that abstract knowledge of 'relations between relations' is a speciality of great apes, but Fagot et al. (2001) found a method of demonstrating 'abstract conceptualization' in baboons, dolphins (Mercado et al, 2000) show evidence of generalising "same-different" relationships, and something behaviourally rather similar appears to be obtainable in bees (Giufra et al., 2001). However it is still often argued that primates have a greater abstract knowledge about physical objects than other mammals, and this makes sense in the context of the tool-using which takes place both in the wild and in the laboratory (Cunningham et al., 2006; Penn & Povinelli, 2007; Phillips & Santos, 2007; and see pp. 15 and 16).

[middle of page 1 of handout]

Piagetian stages. Piagetian theories of mental development can be applied to species differences – although in most cases it is development only during the human sensory-motor period which is relevant. The theoretical content (Piaget, 1971) is less important than the use of Piagetian tests of cognitive attainment, mostly connected with the attainment of different levels of object permanence. Great apes appear to be closer to human infants in the development of this than other primate or mammalian species (Redshaw, 1978, Deblois and Nowak, 1994, Deblois et al., 1999; Wise et al., 1974; Call, 2001b; Shumaker et al., 2001; Mendes and Huber, 2004; Beran et al., 2005; Gomez, 2005; Suda and Call, 2006; Matzuzawa, 2007)

Social skills. Although there are many other highly social vertebrates primate intelligence in particular has been related to the learning of social skills and strategies (e.g. Humphrey, 1976; Cheney and Seyfarth, 1992). This hypothesis is interesting but especially difficult to test (Kudo and Dunbar, 2001; Reader and Laland, 2002; Parr and de Waal, 1999; Parr and Hopkins, 2000; de Waal and Davis, 2003; Deaner et al., 2005; Wich and de Vries, 2006; Pika and Mitani, 2006). Sub-categories of social skills include "theory of mind", self-recognition, and imitation.           

[middle of page 1 of handout]

“Theory of Mind” hypotheses.

  • These variants of “social skills” idea suppose that only some species have a functional concept of “self” (Gallup, 1970) or that only particular species (usually only the great apes) are able to make inferences or assumptions about the goals and intentions of conspecifics or human experimenters (Premack and Woodruff, 1978; Hare et al, 2001; Tomasello, Call and Hare, 2003).

  • This has attracted extra interest because of the hypothesis that human autism is characterised by a lack of this capacity (e.g. Leslie, 1987).

  • The social cognitive features of “shared-reference” (or “shared-attention”) and “proto-declarative” communicative acts have been proposed as important pre-conditions both for the development of a “theory of mind” and for the development of human language (Baron-Cohen, 1992; Savage-Rumbaugh et al, 1983; Elman, 2005; see also Flombaum & Santos, 2005; Keysers & Perrett, 2005; Tomasello et al., 2005; Moll & Tomasello, 2007; Whiten, 2005)

Self-recognition, and interpretation of the behaviour of others. Naturalistic observation of groups of chimpanzees (De Waal, 1982/9; Goodall, 1991) and vervet monkeys (Cheney and Seyfarth, 1992) suggests that individual animals come to possess a rich representation of their own social relationships to others in the group, and of the intentions and perspectives of other individuals. Laboratory tests indicate that chimpanzees, but no other non-human species tested until recently except orang-utans, recognise their own images in mirrors and video displays (Gallup, 1970; Menzel et al, 1985; Povinelli, 1989, Povinelli et al, 1993). It is suggested (e.g. Povinelli et al, 1990) that this ability may be related to a capacity for understanding how objects and events appear from anothers' perspective, the "mind-reading" (Whiten and Byrne, 1988) of another animal's (or a human experimenter's) intentions and the ability for deception or pretence about one's own intentions (Woodruff and Premack, 1979). However, these forms of social cognition may be interpreted as special purpose, species-specific adaptations for social organization, rather than aspects of general-purpose learning. (Cheney and Seyfarth, 1992). Some authors (e.g. Heyes, 1994, 1996, 1998) argue that there is no satisfactory evidence that primates have any special abilities in the area of social learning and imitation, or self-recognition, whereas primatologists typically believe the the cognitive capacities of the monkeys and apes can be regarded as the precursors of human cognition ( Whiten et al, 1999; Tomasello, 2000). This is not necessarily inconsistent with evidence that other highly social and large brained animals, in particular dolphins and other toothed whales, and elephants, may have convergent cognitive abilities, including self-recognition in mirrors (Reiss and Marino, 2001, Plotnik et al., 2006).

Imitation. Especially given the argument that 'language-trained' apes such as Washoe and Nim Chimsky imitated their trainers, there is a suprising degree of difficulty in establishing to what extent apparent imitation in primates should count as true imitation as opposed to 'emulation' or social facilitation (see p. 17 for more detail on this). "Emulation" refers to behaviour that is influenced by observing goal achievement rather than the details of the actions preceding the goal. Imitation of action details is sometimes observed in chimpanzees (Whiten, 1998) and capuchins (Custance et al., 1999; see also Cunningham et al., 2006), but in general human infants are much more attentive to action details than non-human primates (Tennie et al., 2006). Observational learning of some kinds may occur in dogs (Topal et. al., 2007) and therefore this should not be regarded as a capacity that is unique to primates.


  • Even after extensive training, there appears to remain an immense gap between the linguistic abilities of trained apes and human infants.

  • However, chimpanzees, and other great apes, are more similar to humans than other species in some non-linguistic cognitive abilities, such as those involved in object properties (and other Piagetian tests), social skills, including self-recognition, imitation, and “understanding others as animate, goal-directed, and intentional agents” (Tomasello et al., 2005 — see also Call, 2001a, 2001b; Gomez, 2005; Povinelli et al., 1997; Whiten et al., 1999; Tomasello Call & Hare, 2003; Moll & Tomasello, 2007).

[page 3 of wk 11 handout]
Main sources

Roberts, W.A (1998) Principles of Animal Cognition. Boston: McGraw-Hill. Chapter 12 “Primate Cognition”.(1 copy on short loan at BK; 4 loan copies)

Further Reading

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

www. version of this paper (log on first for for access outside the College.)

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

www.pdf journal version of this paper (v.long. log on first for for access outside the College.) www.Preprint of just the paper

Pearce J.M. (1997) Animal Learning and Cognition 2nd Edition. Hove: Psychology Press. Chapters 9.10 & 11, pp. 225-287

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

More Additional References (Not normally for further reading)

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