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Primate social cognition: uniquely primate, uniquely social, or just unique?

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posted on 2023-06-09, 14:55 authored by Richard W Byrne, Lucy BatesLucy Bates
Primates undoubtedly have impressive abilities in perceiving, recognising, understanding and interpreting other individuals, their ranks and relationships; they learn rapidly in social situations, employ both deceptive and cooperative tactics to manipulate companions, and distinguish others’ knowledge from ignorance. Some evidence suggests that great apes recognize the cognitive basis of manipulative tactics and have a deeper appreciation of intention and cooperation than monkeys; and only great apes among primates show any understanding of the concept of self. None of these abilities is unique to primates, however. We distinguish (1) a package of quantitative advantages in social sophistication, evident in several broad mammalian taxa, in which neocortical enlargement is associated with social group size; from (2) a qualitative difference in understanding found in several distantly related but large-brained species, including great apes, some corvids, and perhaps elephants, dolphins, and domestic dogs. Convergence of similar abilities in widely divergent taxa should enable their cognitive basis and evolutionary origins to be determined. Cortical enlargement seems to have been evolutionarily selected by social challenges, although it confers intellectual benefits in other domains also; most likely the mechanism is more efficient memory. The taxonomic distribution of qualitatively special social skills does not point to an evolutionary origin in social challenges, and may be more closely linked to a need to acquire novel ways of dealing with the physical world; but at present research on this question remains in its infancy. In the case of great apes, their ability to learn new manual routines by parsing action components may also account for their qualitatively different social skills, suggesting that any strict partition of physical and social cognition is likely to be misleading.


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