Article first published online: 2 NOV 2012
Copyright © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
American Journal of Physical Anthropology
Volume 150, Issue 1, page 165, January 2013
How to Cite
Broadfield, D. C. (2013), Book review. Am. J. Phys. Anthropol., 150: 165. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.22171
- Issue published online: 19 DEC 2012
- Article first published online: 2 NOV 2012
The Primate Mind: Built to Connect With Other Minds. Edited by . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2012. 416 pp. ISBN: 978-0-674-05804-0. $49.50 (hardcover).
Douglas C. Broadfield*, * Department of Anthropology, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL.
When a chimpanzee repeats or mimics a task presented to it by a researcher, does the chimpanzee have the ability to understand why it must perform the task, or is it merely following a set of implied commands that will provide it with a tasty treat? Whose mind is it that we are trying to understand when we perform these tasks? Such are the difficulties of crawling into the primate mind. Understanding primate cognition has confounded researchers for nearly a hundred years, since Robert M. Yerkes' first attempts to rectify the humanness of the chimpanzee mind.
In The Primate Mind, the editors present an intriguing group of essays by leaders in the field of primate cognition. Although certain sections present more of a challenge to understanding primate cognition than others, the central premise of the book is to notify the reader of the pitfalls and pinnacles achieved in the field in the past decade. As with any book, whether edited or written entirely by a single individual, the primary design flaw is that one must choose from a selection of resources rather than present the scope of the field. Despite this The Primate Mind presents a view of primate cognition and function that is nothing less than thought provoking.
The Primate Mind is presented in three sections with each focusing on a particular element related to human behavior—culture, cooperation, and communication. The first section contains six chapters covering topics from mirror neurons to social learning. Chapters 1 and 2 deal with the study of mirror neurons. The thought of mirror neurons in the brain seems logical. As demonstrated by the well-recognized image on the cover of the book, an actor sticking its tongue out at an observer—in this case a macaque infant—elicits the same response in the observer. The activity of mirror neurons has been used to suggest everything from Theory of Mind to autism. As one of the leaders in the field studying mirror neurons, Marco Iacobani sums up much of his research, suggesting that the evolution of mirror neurons occurred in part so that humans could understand the emotions of others. This premise leaves the reader with many more questions than answers. For example, if mirror neurons are co-opted by humans to understand emotions, is it at all surprising to find mirror neurons in most other mammals?
The second half of this first section examines evolutionary aspects of social learning. Here begins the difficulty of studying the nonhuman mind. When does a behavior demonstrate higher-order cognition and when does it not? Although some animals demonstrate an ability to solve problems through mimicking the successes of others, other species, such as chimpanzees, demonstrate an ability to incorporate knowledge gained from observing a successful individual into a novel response. Through this we gain an understanding of the abilities of the nonhuman mind, possibly learning that humans are less unique than we assume.
The second part of this volume examines issues that can best be understood as related to Theory of Mind. While examining a variety of issues, the chapters here focus on the ability of subjects to understand the thoughts of others. This has always been much more controversial than whether or not a subject can solve a task in a manner similar to another individual. One of the more coherent ideas presented here is from de Waal, which should be unsurprising given his ability to write for general consumption. In explaining and defining empathy, de Waal goes to great pains to explain empathy within the nonhuman world. While explaining empathy as a Russian doll with several layers comprising human empathy, de Waal explains that while empathy appears to extend far back in evolutionary history, humans have benefited, or suffered, by defining empathy as a complex set of conditions rather than the simple presence of one emotional state or another.
Alternatively, other researchers see a clear pathway between nonhuman primates and human cognitive abilities. Santos' work, described in Chapter 9, indicates that primates exhibit abilities akin to humans, particularly when you move the goalposts. Much of this is derived from the difficulty in that we have invested too much faith in the concept of Theory of Mind. As a philosophical concept, Theory of Mind is what the user wishes to make of it and is therefore impossible to test or disprove, creating a conundrum for those interested in the subject. For example, when a subject observes a researcher place a food item in a box and then the researcher look away, is it any surprise that the subject then tries to steal the food compared to when the researcher does not divert their gaze?
The last section of the book is more focused on chimpanzee research. Each of the chapters provides the current state of the field in a particular subject important to comprehending chimpanzee cognition. One chapter in particular, which provides insight on a uniquely human trait, is Chapter 13 on Broca's area in chimpanzees. As the speech motor area of humans, to assign Broca's area to chimpanzees is controversial. There is no other area of the brain that defines humanness like Broca's area. With relatively neat boundaries, Broca's area can be seen on any brain with the prerequisite inferior frontal gyrus structure. Chimpanzees without a doubt display elements of Broca's area, yet they cannot speak. However, as the authors point out, that Broca's is present in chimpanzees explains in part their sociocommunicative abilities as well as the ability of humans to co-opt the area for other communicative functions.
The Primate Mind is an intriguing piece of work. Attempting to interpret the primate mind is a thankless task, because despite any amount of data conclusions always require a certain leap of faith. Although researchers in the area may disagree with some of the hypotheses put forth in this volume, The Primate Mind accomplishes its goal of informing the reader of the knowledge, debates, and complexities of the field.