It's Very Dark Inside a Monkey's Head

Louise Barrett

Living in a group is a cooperative act, which requires a delicate balance between individual and group-level costs and benefits. Among primates, the social intelligence/social brain hypothesis has tended to focus attention on the means by which (Machiavellian) individuals cope with, and overcome, the costs that group-living imposes so that they may reap the associated benefits. These have been argued to involve highly cognitive strategies designed to track, monitor, cooperate with, and potentially outwit, other individuals. This, in turn, stems from a Cartesian, disembodied view of the mind and cognition, and also from the kinds of evolutionary models used to predict and explain cooperative behaviour (reciprocal altruism and the Prisoner's dilemma). This is problematic because it creates a view of primate social complexity that is congenial to our own folk psychological understanding of ourselves, rather than one that can tell us very much about the "folk psychology" by which monkeys and apes might understand each other. Here, I argue for a more embodied and distributed approach to primate cognitive evolution, which resists the temptation to put into the head of the monkey what evolution, quite rightly, left to the world. Such an approach, when incorporated into theories of multi-level selection and niche construction, presents us with the opportunity to explore primate social complexity in ways that allow the animals to speak with their own voice, and to identify true commonalities between ourselves and other species, rather than anthropocentric chimera.

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