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The Social Function of Intellect

  • Darwin College, Cambridge


no abstract
The social function of intellect
Ford, it is said, commissioned a survey of the car scrap yards of
America to find out if there were parts of the Model T Ford which never
failed. I lis inspectors came back with reports of almost every kind of break-
down : axles, brakes, pistons - all were liable to go wrong. But they drew
attention to one notable exception, the
of the scrapped cars invariably
had years of life left in them. With ruthless logic Ford concluded that the
kingpins on the Model T were too good for their job and ordered that in future
they should be made to an inferior specification.
Nature is surely at least as careful an economist as Henry Ford. It is not
her habit to tolerate needless extravagance in the animals on her production
lines: superfluous capacity is trimmed back, new capacity added only as and
when it is needed. We do not expect therefore to .find that animals possess
which far exceed the calls that natural living makes on them. If
someone were to argue - as I shall suggest they might argue - that some
primate species (and
mankind in particular) are much cleverer than they need
we know that they are most likely to be wrong. But it is not clear why
they would be wrong. This paper explores a possible answer. It is an answer
which has meant for me a re-thinking of the function of intellect.
A re-thinking, or merely a first-thinking? I had not previously given much
thought to the biological function of intellect, and my impression is that few
others have done either. I n the literature on animal intelligence there has been
surprisingly little discussion of how intelligence contributes to biological
Comparative psychologists have established that animals of one
species perform better, for instance, on the Hebb-Williams maze than those
another, or that they are quicker to pick up learning sets or more successful
on an
problem; there have been attempts to relate performance on
particular kinds of tests to particular underlying cognitive skills; there has
(recently) been debate on how the same skill is to be assessed with
in animals of different species; but there has seldom been consideration given
In "Growing Points in Ethology," ed. P.P.G.Bateson 
and R.A.Hinde, pp. 303- 317, Cambridge University 
Press, Cambridge, 1976.
N. Humphrey
to why the animal, in its natural environment, should
such skill.
is the use of `conditional oddity discrimination
to a monkey in the field
(French, 1965)? What advantage is there to an anthropoid ape in being able
to recognise its own reflection in a mirror (Gallup, 1970) ? While it might
indeed be
odd for a biologist to make it his task to explain why horses can
learn mathematics
would not be odd for him to ask
people can.
The absence of discussion on these issues may reflect the view that there
is little to discuss. It is tempting, certainly, to adopt a broad definition of
which makes it self-evidently functional. Take, for instance,
s (1970) definition of intelligence in man,
the ability to grasp the
essentials of a situation and respond appropriately
: substitute
for `appropriately
and the problem of the biological function of intellect is
(tautologically) solved. But even those definitions which are not so manifestly
circular tend nonetheless to embody value-laden words. When intelligence is
defined as the
to do this or that, who dares question the biological
advantage of being
When reference is made to `understanding
at problem-solving
the terms themselves seem to quiver with adaptiveness.
Every animal
s world is, after all, full of things to be understood and problems
to be solved. For sure, the world is full of problems - but what exactly are
these problems, how do they differ from animal to animal and what particular
advantage accrues to the individual who can solve them? These are not trivial
Despite what has been said, we had better have a definition of intelligence,
or the discussion is at risk of going adrift. The following formula provides
at least some kind of anchor:
An animal displays intelligence when he
modifies his behaviour on the basis of valid inference from evidence
meant to imply only that the inference is logically sound; it
leaves open the question of how the animal benefits in consequence. This
definition is admittedly wide, since it embraces everything from simple
associative learning to syllogistic reasoning. Within the spectrum it seems fair
to distinguish
from `high-level
intelligence. It requires, for in-
stance, relatively low-level intelligence to infer that something is likely to
happen merely because similar things have happened in comparable circum-
stances in the past; but it requires high-level intelligence to infer that some-
thing is likely to happen because it is entailed by a
conjunction of
The former is, I suspect, a comparatively elementary skill and
widespread through the animal kingdom, but the latter is much more special,
mark of the `creative
which is characteristic especially of the
higher primates. In what follows I shall be enquiring into the function
chiefly of
Now I am about
to set up a straw man. But he is a man whose reflection
have seen in my own mirror, and I am inclined to treat him with respect.
The opinion he holds is that the main role of creative intellect lies in
here is being used broadly to mean acts of intelligent
discovery by which an animal comes up with new ways of doing things. Thus
it includes not only, say, the fabrication of new tools or the putting of existing
objects to new use but also the discovery of new behavioural strategies, new
ways of using the resources of one
s own body. But, wide as its scope may
be, the talk is strictly of
invention, and in this context `practical
has a restricted meaning. For the man in question sees the need for invention
as arising only in relation to the external physical environment; he has not
noticed - or has not thought it important - that many animals are
You will see, no doubt, that I have deliberately built my straw man with
feet of clay. But let us nonetheless see where he stands. His idea of the
intellectually challenging environment has been perfectly described by Daniel
Defoe. It is the desert island of Robinson Crusoe - before the arrival of Man
The island is a lonely, hostile environment, full of technological
challenge, a world in which Crusoe depends for his survival on his skill in
gathering food, finding shelter, conserving energy, avoiding danger. And he
must work fast, in a truly inventive way, for he has no time to spare for
learning simply by induction from experience. But was that the kind of world
in which creative intellect evolved? I believe, for reasons I shall come to, that
the real world was never like that, and yet that the real world of the higher
primates may in fact be considerably
intellectually demanding. My view
- and Defoe
s, as I understand him - is that it was the arrival of Man Friday
on the scene which really made things difficult for Crusoe. If Monday and
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday had turned up as well then Crusoe would
have had every need to keep his wits about him.
But the case for the importance of practical invention must be taken
There can be no doubt that for some species in some contexts
inventiveness does seem to have survival value. The
subsistence technology
of chimpanzees (Goodall, 1964; Teleki, 1974) and even more that of
man (Sahlins, 1974) involves many tricks of technique which appear
to be products of creative intellect. And what is true for these anthropoids
must surely be true at least in part for other species. Animals who are quick
to realise new techniques (in hunting, searching, navigating or whatever)
would seem bound to gain in terms of fitness. Why, then, should one dispute
that there have been selective pressures operating to bring about the evolution
of intelligence in relation to practical affairs? I do not of course dispute the
general principle; what I question is how much this principle
How clever does a man or monkey need to be before the returns on superior
intellect become vanishingly small? If, despite appearances, the important
practical problems of living actually demand only relatively low-level intelli-
gence for their solution, then there would be grounds for supposing that
high-level creative intelligence is wasted. Even Einstein could not get better
than 100% at 0-level. Can we really explain the evolution of the higher
intellectual faculties of primates on the basis of success or failure in their
practical exams
My answer is no, for the following reason: even in those species which have
the most advanced technologies the exams are largely tests of knowledge rather
than imaginative reasoning. The evidence from field studies of chimpanzees
all points to the fact that subsistence techniques are hardly if ever the product
of premeditated invention; they are arrived at instead either by trial-and-error
learning or by imitation of others. Indeed it is hard to imagine how many
of the techniques could in principle be arrived at otherwise. Teleki (1974)
concluded on the basis of his own attempts at
that there was no
way of predicting a
what would be the most effective kind of probe to
stick into a termite hill, or how best to twiddle it or, for that matter, where
to stick it. He had to learn inductively by trial-and-error or, better, by
mimicking the behaviour of Leakey, an old and experienced chimpanzee.
Thus the chimpanzees
would seem to be no more an invention than is
the uncapping of milk-bottles by tits. And even where a technique could in
principle be invented by deductive reasoning there are generally no grounds
for supposing that it has been. Termiting by human beings is a case in point.
In northern Zaire, people beat with sticks on the top of termite mounds to
encourage the termites to come to the surface. The technique works because
the stick-beating
makes a noise like falling rain. It is just possible that
someone once upon a time noticed the effect of falling rain, noticed the
resemblance between the sound of rain and the beating of sticks, and put two
and two together. But I doubt if that is how it happened; serendipity seems
a much more likely explanation. Moreover, whatever the origin of the tech-
nique, there is certainly no reason to invoke inventiveness on the part of
present-day practitioners, for these days it is culturally transmitted. My guess
is that most of the practical problems that face higher primates can, as in the
case of termiting, be dealt with by learned strategies without recourse to
creative intelligence.
Paradoxically, I would suggest that subsistence technology, rather than
requiring intelligence, may actually become a substitute for it. Provided the
structure of the species is such as to allow individuals to acquire
subsistence techniques by simple associative learning, then there is little need
for individual creativity. Thus the chimpanzees at Gombe, with their superior
technological culture;
may in fact have
need than the neighbouring
baboons to be individually inventive. Indeed there might seem on the face
of it to be a negative correlation between the intellectual capacity of a species
and the need for intellectual output. The great apes, demonstrably the most
intellectually gifted of all animals, seem on the whole to lead comparatively
undemanding lives, less demanding not only than those of lower primates but
also of many non-primate species. During two months I spent watching
gorillas in the Virunga mountains I could not help being struck by the fact
that of all the animals in the forest the gorillas seemed to lead much the
simplest existence - food abundant and easy to harvest (provided they
where to find it), few if any predators (provided they
how to avoid them)
... little to do in fact (and little done) but eat, sleep and play. And the same
is arguably true for natural man. Studies of contemporary Bushmen suggest
that the life of hunting and gathering, typical of early man, was probably a
remarkably easy one. The
affluent savage
(Sahlins, 1974) seems to have
established a
modus vivendi
in which, for a period of perhaps 10 million years,
he could afford to be not only physically but intellectually lazy.
We are faced thus with a conundrum. It has been repeatedly demonstrated
in the artificial situations of the psychological laboratory that anthropoid apes
possess impressive powers of creative reasoning, yet these feats of intelligence
seem simply not to have any parallels in the behaviour of the same animals
in their natural environment. I have yet to hear of any example from the field
of a chimpanzee (or for that matter a Bushman) using his full capacity for
inferential reasoning in the solution of a biologically relevant practical pro-
blem. Someone may retort that if an ethologist had kept watch on Einstein
through a pair of field glasses he might well have come to the conclusion that
Einstein too had a hum-drum mind. But that is just the point: Einstein, like
the chimpanzees, displayed his genius at rare times in
- he did not use it, for he did not
to use it, in the common world of
practical affairs.
Why then do the higher primates need to be as clever as they are and, in
particular, that much cleverer than other species? What - if it exists - is the
natural equivalent of the laboratory test of intelligence? The answer has, I
believe, been ripening on the tree of the preceding discussion. I have suggested
that the life of the great apes and man may not require much in the way of
practical invention, but it does depend critically on the possession of wide
factual knowledge of practical technique and the nature of the habitat. Such
knowledge can only be acquired in the context of a social community - a
community which provides both a medium for the cultural transmission of
information and a protective environment in which individual learning can
occur. I propose that the chief role of creative intellect is to hold society
In what follows I shall try to explain this proposal, to justify it, and to
examine some of its surprising implications.
To me, as a Cambridge-taught psychologist, the proposal is in fact a rather
strange one. Experimental psychologists in Britain have tended to regard social
psychology as a poor country cousin of their subject - gauche, undisciplined
and slightly absurd. Let me recount how I came to a different way of
thinking, since this personal history will lead directly in to what I want to
say. Some years ago I made a discovery which brought home to me dramati-
cally the fact that, even for an experimental psychologist,
a cage is
a bad place
in which to keep a monkey. I was studying the recovery of vision in a rhesus
monkey, Helen, from whom the visual cortex had been surgically removed
Humphrey, 1974). In the first four years I
d worked with her Helen had
regained a considerable amount of visually guided behaviour, but she still
showed no sign whatever of three-dimensional spatial vision. During all this
time she had, however, been kept within the confines of a small laboratory
When, at length, five years after the operation, she was released from
her cage and taken for walks in the open field at Madingley her sight suddenly
burgeoned and within a few weeks she had recovered almost perfect spatial
The limits on her recovery had been imposed directly by the limited
environment in which she had been living. Since that time, in working with
laboratory monkeys I have been mindful of the possible damage that may have
been done to them by their impoverished living conditions. I have looked
anxiously through the wire mesh of the cages at Madingley, not only at my
own monkeys but at Robert Hinde
Now, Hinde
monkeys are rather
better-off than mine. They live in social groups of eight or nine animals in
relatively large cages. But these cages are almost empty of objects, there is
nothing to manipulate, nothing to explore; once a day the concrete floor is
hosed down, food pellets are thrown in and that is about it. So I looked -
and seeing this barren environment, thought of the stultifying effect it must
have on the monkey
s intellect. And then one day I looked again and saw a
half-weaned infant pestering its mother, two adolescents engaged in a mock
battle, an old male grooming a female whilst another female tried to sidle up
to him, and I suddenly saw the scene with new eyes: forget about the absence
these monkeys had
each other
to manipulate and to explore. There
could be no risk of their dying an intellectual death when the social environ-
ment provided such obvious opportunity for participating in a running
dialectical debate. Compared to the solitary existence of my own monkeys,
the set-up in Hinde
s social groups came close to resembling a simian School
of Athens.
Several of the other contributors to thisbook consider the dialectics of social
interaction, and do so with much more authority than I can. None of them,
I think, would claim that scientific study of the subject is yet far advanced.
Much of the best published literature is in fact genuinely 'literature' - Aesop
and Dickens make, in their own way, as important contributions as Laing,
Goff man or Argyle. But one generalisation can I think be made with certainty:
the life of social animals is highly problematical. In a complex society, such
as those we know exist in higher primates, there are benefits to be gained for
each individual member both from preserving the overall structure of the
group and at the same time from exploiting and out-manoeuvring others
within it (see later). Thus social primates are required by the very nature of
the system they create and maintain to be calculating beings; they must be
able to calculate the consequences of their own behaviour, to calculate the
likely behaviour of others, to calculate the balance of advantage and loss -
and all this in a context where the evidence on which their calculations are
based is ephemeral, ambiguous and liable to change, not least as a consequence
of their own actions. In such a situation,
social skill
goes hand in hand with
intellect, and here at last the intellectual faculties required are of the highest
order. The game of social plot and counter-plot cannot be played merely on
the basis of accumulated knowledge, any more than can a game of chess.
Like chess, a social interaction is typically a transaction between social
partners. One animal may, for instance, wish by his own behaviour to change
the behaviour of another; but since the second animal is himself reactive and
intelligent the interaction soon becomes a two-way argument where each
must be ready to change his tactics - and maybe his goals - as the
game proceeds. Thus, over and above the cognitive skills which are required
merely to perceive the current state of play (and they may be considerable),
the social gamesman like the chess player must be capable of a special sort
of forward planning. Given that each move in the game may call forth several
alternative responses from the other player this forward planning will take
the form of a decision tree, having its root in the current situation and
growing branches corresponding to the moves considered in looking ahead
from there at different possibilities. It asks for a level of intelligence which
is, I submit, unparalleled in any other sphere of living. There may be, of
course, strong and weak players* - yet, as master or novice, we and most other
members of complex primate societies have been in this game since we were
* 'Weak players grow short bushy trees, looking a short way ahead at a mass of poorly
differentiated possibilities; strong players prune the tree much more efficiently and...
construct long thin trees, looking much deeper into a few critical variations. This pruning
is the heart of the problem. . . Which branches are critical, and which are redundant and can
safely be cut off ?' - from an article in the
New Scientist
p. 119, 1975) on the first
World Computer Chess Championship. It may be that the acquisition of social skill involves
the learning of standard 'gambits' and 'defences'-relatively stereotyped patterns of interaction
which allow transactions to proceed quickly and smoothly from one critical decision point
to another.
But what makes a society
in the first place? There have probably
been selective pressures of two rather different kinds, one from without, the
other from within society. I suggested above that one of the chief functions
of society is to act as it were as a 'polytechnic school
for the teaching of
subsistence technology. The social system serves the purpose in two ways:
by allowing a period of prolonged dependence during which young
animals, spared the need to fend for themselves, are free to experiment and
explore; and (ii) by bringing the young into contact with older, more experi-
enced members of the community from whom they can learn by imitation
(and perhaps, in some cases, from more formal lessons
Now, to the extent
that this kind of education has adaptive consequences, there will be selective
pressures both to prolong the period of untrammelled infantile dependency
(to increase the
school leaving age
and to retain older animals within the
community (to increase the number of experienced
But the
resulting mix of old and young, caretakers and dependents, sisters, cousins,
aunts and grandparents not only calls for considerable social responsibility
but also has potentially disruptive social consequences. The presence of
dependents (young, injured or infirm) clearly calls at all times for a measure
of tolerance and unselfish sharing. But in so far as biologically important
resources may be scarce (as subsistence materials must sometimes be, and
sexual partners will be commonly) there is a limit to which tolerance can go.
Squabbles are bound to occur about access to these scarce resources and
different individuals will have different interests in participating in, promoting
or putting a stop to such squabbles. In the last resort every individual should
give priority to the survival of his own genes, and following the theoretical
analysis outlined by Hamilton and Trivers (see Bertram and Clutton-Brock
& Harvey, this volume) we may predict considerable conflicts of interest
among the members of any community which spans more than a single
generation; the greater the number of generations present the more complex
the picture becomes. Thus the stage is set within the
collegiate community
for considerable political strife.
To do well for oneself whilst remaining
within the terms of the social contract on which the fitness of the whole
community ultimately depends calls for remarkable reasonableness (in both
literal and colloquial senses of the word). It is no accident therefore that men,
who of all primates show the longest period of dependence (nearly 30 years
in the case of Bushmen!), the most complex kinship structures, and the widest
overlap of generations within society, should be more intelligent than chim-
panzees, and chimpanzees for the same reasons more intelligent than
Once a society has reached a certain level of complexity, then new internal
pressures must arise which act to increase its complexity still further. For,
in a society of the kind outlined, an animal
s intellectual
members of his own breeding community. If intellectual prowess is correlated
with social success, and if social success means high biological fitness, then
any heritable trait which increases the ability of an individual to outwit his
fellows will soon spread through the gene pool. And in these circumstances
there can be no going back: an evolutionary
has been set up, acting
like a self-winding watch to increase the general intellectual standing of the
species. In principle the process might be expected to continue until either
the physiological mainspring of intelligence is full-wound or else intelligence
itself becomes a burden. The latter seems most likely to be the limiting factor;
there must surely come a point where the time required to resolve a social
becomes insupportable.
The question of the time given up to unproductive social activity is an
mportant one. The members of my model collegiate community - even if they
have not evolved a run-away intellect - are bound to spend a considerable part
of their lives in caretaking and social politics. It follows that they must
inevitably have less time to spare for basic subsistence activities. If the social
system is to be of any net biological benefit the improvement in subsistence
techniques which it makes possible must more than compensate for the lost
To put the matter baldly: if an animal spends all morning in non-
productive socialising, he must be at least twice as efficient a producer in the
We might therefore expect that the evolution of a social system
capable of supporting advanced technology should only happen under condi-
tions where improvements in technique can substantially increase the return
on labour. This may not always be the case. To take an extreme example,
the open sea is probably an environment where technical knowledge can bring
little benefit and thus complex societies - and high intelligence - are contra-
indicated (dolphins and whales provide, maybe, a remarkable and unexplained
exception). Even at Gombe the net advantage of having a complex social
system may in fact be marginal; the chimpanzees at Gombe share several of
the local food resources with baboons, and it would be instructive to know
how far the advantage that chimpanzees have over baboons in terms of
technical skill is eroded by the relatively large amount of time they give up
to social intercourse. It may be that what the chimpanzees gain on the swings
of technical proficiency they lose on the roundabouts of extravagant socialis-
ing.* As it is, in a year of poor harvest the chimpanzees in fact become much
MacFarland (see his discussion of 'optimisation' in this volume) might like to draw an isocline
linking points of 'equal net productivity' in a space defined by the two axes, 'technical skill'
time given over to social activity'. It is, of course, intrinsic to my argument that these
axes are not independent, since I am suggesting that social activity is a prerequisite of
technical skill.
However, the same is probably true of his own illustrative example (p. 62),
since a university lecturer
s teaching ability is almost certainly not independent of his research
less sociable (Wrangham, 1975); my guess is that they simply cannot spare
the time (cf. Gibb, 1956; Baldwin & Baldwin, 1972). The ancestors of man,
however, when they moved into the savanna, discovered an environment
where technical knowledge began to pay new and continuing dividends. It
was in that environment that the pressures to give children an even better
schooling created a social system of unprecedented complexity - and with it
unprecedented challenge to intelligence.
The outcome has been the gifting of members of the human species with
remarkable powers of social foresight and understanding. This social intelli-
gence, developed initially to cope with local problems of inter-personal
relationships, has in time found expression in the institutional creations of
savage mind
- the highly rational structures of kinship, totemism, myth
and religion with characterise primitive societies (Levi-Strauss, 1962). And
it is, I believe, essentially the same intelligence which has created the systems
of philosophical and scientific thought which have flowered in advanced
civilisations in the last four thousand years. Yet civilisation has been too short
lived to have had any important evolutionary consequences; the `environment
of adaptiveness
(Bowlby, 1969) of human intelligence remains the
s intellect is thus suited primarily to thinking about people and their
institutions, how does it fare with
problems? To end this paper I
want to raise the question of ` constraints
on human reasoning, such as might
result if there is a predisposition among men to try to fit non-social material
into a social mould (cf. Hinde & Stevenson-Hinde, 1973).
When a man sets out to solve a social problem he may reasonably have
certain expectations about what he is getting in to. First, he should know that
the situation confronting him is unlikely to remain stable. Any social transac-
tion is by its nature a developing process and the development is bound to
have a degree of indeterminacy to it. Neither of the social agents involved
in the transaction can be certain of the future behaviour of the other; as in
s game of croquet with the Queen of Hearts, both balls and hoops are
always on the move. Someone embarking on such a transaction must therefore
be prepared for the problem itself to alter as a consequence of his attempt
to solve it - in the very act of interpreting the social world he changes it. Like
Alice he may well be tempted to complain
ve no idea how confusing
it is, all the things being alive
; that is not the way the game is played at
Hurlingham - and that is not the way that non-social material typically
behaves. But, secondly, he should know that the development
have a
certain logic to it. In Alice
s croquet game there was real confusion, everyone
played at once without waiting for turns and there were no rules; but in a
social transaction there are, if not strict rules, at least definite constraints on
what is allowed and definite conventions about how a particular action by one
of the transactors should be answered by the other. My earlier analogy with
the chess game was perhaps a more appropriate one; in social behaviour there
is a kind of turn-taking, there are limits on what actions are allowable, and
at least in some circumstances there are conventional, often highly elaborated,
sequences of exchange.
Even the chess analogy, however, misses a crucial feature of social interac-
tion. For while the good chess player is essentially selfish, playing only to
win, the selfishness of social animals is typically tempered by what, for want
of a better term, I would call
By sympathy I mean a tendency on
the part of one social partner to identify himself with the other and so to make
the other
s goals to some extent his own. The role of sympathy in the biology
of social relationships has yet to be thought through in detail, but it is
probable that sympathy and the
morality' which stems from it (Waddington,
1960) is a biologically adaptive feature of the social behaviour of both men
and other animals - and consequently a major constraint on
social thinking
wherever it is applied. Thus our man setting out to apply his intelligence to
solve a social problem may expect to be involved in a fluid, transactional
exchange with a sympathetic human partner. To the extent that the thinking
appropriate to such a situation represents the customary mode of human
thought, men may be expected to behave inappropriately in contexts where
a transaction cannot in principle take place: if they treat inanimate entities
they are sure to make mistakes.
There are many examples of fallacious reasoning which would fit such an
interpretation. The most obvious cases are those where men do in fact openly
resort to animistic thinking about natural phenomena. Thus primitive - and
not so primitive - peoples commonly attempt to
with nature, through
prayer, through sacrifice or through ritual persuasion. In doing so they are
explicitly adopting a social model, expecting nature to participate in a trans-
action. But nature will not transact with men; she goes her own way regardless
- while her would-be interlocutors feel grateful or feel slighted as the case
Transactional thinking may not always be so openly acknowledged,
but it often lies just below the surface in other cases of
Thus the gambler at the roulette table, who continues to bet on the red square
precisely because he has already lost on red repeatedly, is behaving as though
he expects the behaviour of the roulette wheel to respond eventually to his
persistent overtures; he does not - as he would be wise to do - conclude that
the odds are unalterably set against him. Likewise, the man in Wason
experiments on abstract reasoning, who, when he is given the task of discover-
ing a mathematical rule typically tries to substitute
his own
rule for the
predetermined one (Wason & Johnson-Laird, 1972), is acting as though he
expects the problem itself to change in response to his trial solutions. The
comment of one of Wason
s subjects is revealing: `Rules are relative. If you
were the subject, and I were the experimenter, then I would be right
. In
general, I would suggest, a transactional approach leads men to refuse to
accept the intransigence of facts - whether the facts are physical events,
mathematical axioms or scientific laws; there will always be the temptation
to assume that the facts will respond like living beings to social pressures.
Men expect to argue
problems rather than being limited to arguing
There are times, however, when such a `mistaken
approach to natural
phenomena can be unexpectedly creative. While it may be the case that no
amount of social pleading will change the weather or, for that matter,
transmute base metals into gold, there are things in nature with which a kind
of social intercourse is possible. It is not strictly true that nature will not
with men. If we mean by a transaction essentially a developing
relationship founded on mutual give and take, then several of the relationships
which men enter into with the non-human things around them may be
considered to have transactional qualities. The cultivation of plants provides
a clear and interesting example: the care which a gardener gives to his plants
(watering, fertilising, hoeing, pruning etc.) is attuned to the plants
properties, which properties are in turn a function of the gardener
s behaviour.
True, plants will not respond to ordinary social pressures (though men
talk to them), but the way
in which they give to and receive from a gardener
bears, I suggest, a close structural similarity to a simple social relationship.
Trevarthen (1974) can speak of `conversations
between a mother and a
two-month old baby, so too might we speak of a conversation between a
gardener and his roses or a farmer and his corn. And the same can be argued
for men
s interactions with certain wholly inanimate materials. The relation-
ship of a potter to his clay, a smelter to his ore or a cook to his soup are all
relationships of fluid mutual exchange, again proto-social in character.
It is not just that transactional thinking is typical of man, transactions are
something which people actively seek out and will force on nature wherever
they are able. In the Doll Museum in Edinburgh there is a case full of bones
clothed in scraps of rag - moving reminders of the desire of human children
to conjure up social relationships with even the most unpromising material.
Through a long history, men have, I believe, explored the transactional
possibilities of countless of the things in their environment and sometimes,
Pygmalion-like, the things have come alive. Thus many of mankind
prized technological discoveries, from agriculture to chemistry, may have had
their origin not in the deliberate application of practical intelligence but in
the fortunate misapplication of social intelligence.
Once Nature had set up
minds the way she has, certain
consequences followed
- and we are in several ways the beneficiaries' (Humphrey, 1973b).
The rise of classical scientific method has in large measure depended on
human thinkers disciplining themselves to abjure transactional, socio-magical
styles of reasoning. But scientific method has come to the fore only in the
last few hundred years of mankind
s history, and in our own times there are
everywhere signs of a return to more magical systems of interpretation. In
dealing with the non-social world the former method is undoubtedly the more
mmediately appropriate; but the latter is perhaps more natural to man.
Transactional thinking may indeed be irrepressible: within the most disci-
plined Jekyll is concealed a transactional Hyde. Charles Dodgson the mathe-
matician shared his pen amicably enough with Lewis Carroll the inventor of
Wonderland but the split is often neither so comfortable nor so complete.
Newton is revealed in his private papers as a Rosicrucian mystic, and his
intellectual descendants continue to this day to apply strange double-standards
to their thinking - witness the way in which certain British physicists took
up the cause of Uri Geller, the man who, by wishing it, could bend a metal
spoon (e.g. Taylor, 1975). In the long view of science, there is, I suspect,
good reason to approve this kind of inconsistency. For while ` normal science
s sense of the words) has little if any room for social thinking,
revolutionary science
may more often than we realise derive its inspiration
from a vision of a socially transacting universe. Particle physics has already
followed Alice down the rabbit hole into a world peopled by
elementary particles endowed with
strangeness' and
example, the following report:
The particles searched for at SPEAR were
of the psis made from one
quark and one
antiquark. This contrasts with the
of the psis...
New Scientist,
67, p.
my italics).Who knows where such `sociophysics' may
eventually lead?
The ideology of classical science has had a huge but in many ways narrowing
influence on ideas about the nature of
behaviour. But no matter
what the high priests, from Bacon to Popper, have had to say about how people
ought to think, they have never come near to describing how people
In so far as an idealised view of scientific method has been the dominant
influence on mankind
s recent intellectual history, biologists should be the
first to follow Henry Ford in dismissing recent history as
history, however, is a different matter. The formative years for human
were the years when man lived as a social savage on the plains of
Africa. Even now, as Browne wrote in
Religio medici,
All Africa and her
prodigies are within us
My attention has been drawn to a paper by Jolly
on 'Lemur social
behaviour and primate intelligence
which anticipates at several points the
argument developed here. I have not attempted to re-write my own paper in
a way that would do justice to Jolly
s ideas; I hope that people who are
intrigued by the relation between social behaviour and intelligence will refer
directly to her original and interesting discussion.
In relation to both Jolly
s paper and my own the question arises how can
the hypotheses be tested. My central thesis clearly demands that there should
be a positive correlation across species between
social complexity
individual intelligence
Does such a correlation hold? It is not hard to find
confirmatory examples; nor is it hard to find excuses for rejecting examples
which are seemingly contrary - e.g. wolves (high social complexity without
the requisite intelligence?) or orang-utans (high intelligence without the
requisite social complexity?). But the trouble is that too much of the evidence
is of an anecdotal kind : we simply do not have agreed definitions or agreed
ways of measuring either of the relevant parameters. What, I think, is
urgently needed is a laboratory test of `social skill
- a test which ought, if
am right, to double as a test of `high-level intelligence
The essential
feature of such a test would be that it places the subject in a transactional
situation where he can achieve a desired goal only by adapting his strategy
to conditions which are continually changing as a consequence partly but not
wholly of his own behaviour. The
social partner
in the test need not be
animate (though my guess is that the subject would regard it in an ` animistic
way); possibly it could be a kind of `social robot
, a mechanical device which
is programmed on-line from a computer to behave in a pseudo-social way.
I argue that the higher intellectual faculties of primates have evolved as an
adaptation to the complexities of social living. For better or worse, styles of
thinking which are primarily suited to social problem-solving colour the
behaviour of man and other primates even towards the inanimate world.
Baldwin, J. D. & Baldwin, J.
The ecology and behavior of squirrel monkeys
(Saimiri oersteds) in a natural forest in Western Panama.
Folia primatologica,
Bowlby, J.
and Loss,
Vol. 1.
Hogarth: London.
French, G.
M. (1965).
Associative problems. In
Behavior of Non-Human Primates,
ed. A. M. Schrier, H. F. Harlow & F. Stollnitz. Academic Press: London.
Gallup, G. G.
Chimpanzees: Self-recognition.
Gibb, J. (1956).
Food, feeding habits and territory of the rock pipit Anthus spinoletta.
Goodall, J.
using and aimed throwing in a community of free-living
Nature, London,
201, 1264-1266.
Heim, A. W.
The Appraisal of Intelligence.
Methuen: London.
Hinde, R. A. & Stevenson-Hinde, J.
Constraints on Learning: Limitations and
Academic Press: London & New York.
N. K.
Predispositions to learn. In
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Limitations and Predispositions,
ed. R
A. Hinde & J. Stevenson-Hinde. Academic
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Humphrey, N. K. (1973b).
The illusion of beauty. Perception, 2,
Humphrey, N. K.
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Supplementary resource (1)

... Of course, it is also possible that the reverse is true -namely that the evolutionary need to be socially smarter leads to general cognitive advances in other domains (e.g. Humphrey, 1976). Under these accounts social cognition and non-social cognition evolved hand-in-hand (albeit with one factor driving the other) but, crucially, they did not necessarily lead to highly specialized routines in the brain for dealing with social problems. ...
... 3. Culture, without adaptation 'for' culture Multiple, diverse lines of research suggest that many of the most distinctive aspects of human cognition seem to be adaptations to the particular challenge of living in highly interdependent social ecologies. These include, for instance, moral dispositions; an awareness of potential opportunities to exploit others; a strong sensitivity to changes in one's reputation; emotions that help regulate our interactions; distinctive forms of communication, argumentation and deliberation; and several others ( [53][54][55][56][57][58][59][60][61][62]; inter alia). At the same time, this emphasis on social minds cannot fully explain what is distinctive about humans without an accompanying account of how and why human societies are nevertheless so permeated by culture. ...
According to several interlinked and influential lines of argument, human minds have been shaped by natural selection so as to include biological adaptations with the evolved, naturally selected function to facilitate the transmission of cultural knowledge. This 'cultural minds' hypothesis has proved highly influential, and if it is correct it is a major step forward in understanding how and why humans have survived and prospered in a hugely diverse range of ecologies. It can be contrasted with a 'social minds' hypothesis, according to which cultural transmission occurs as an outcome, but not the biologically evolved function, of social cognition the domain of which is relatively small-group interaction. Here, I critique the cultural minds hypothesis and I argue that the data favour the social minds perspective. Cultural phenomena can clearly emerge and persist over time without cognitive adaptations for cultural transmission. Overtly intentional communication plays an especially pivotal role.
The Colobines are a group of Afroeurasian monkeys that exhibit extraordinary behavioural and ecological diversity. With long tails and diverse colourations, they are medium-sized primates, mostly arboreal, that are found in many different habitats, from rain forests and mountain forests to mangroves and savannah. Over the last two decades, our understanding of this group of primates has increased dramatically. This volume presents a comprehensive overview of the current research on colobine populations, including the range of biological, ecological, behavioural and societal traits they exhibit. It highlights areas where our knowledge is still lacking, and outlines the current conservation status of colobine populations, exploring the threats to their survival. Bringing together international experts, this volume will aid future conservation efforts and encourage further empirical studies. It will be of interest to researchers and graduate students in primatology, biological anthropology and conservation science. Additional online resources can be found at
The comparative psychology of human and nonhuman primates’ cognition, communication, language and morality is a prime area of study for understanding not only the roots of these abilities in our cousins, but also their place in human evolution. The groundbreaking work in this area was undertaken by Yerkes (1916) and Koehler (1925). Both scientists studied the mental life of apes. Using ingenious apparatus and procedures, such as the multiple-choice experiment, Yerkes investigated what Piaget was later to call object permanence. He also invented the stacking experiment (a suspended banana can only be reached if two or more boxes are stacked one on top of another), which was subsequently popularized by Koehler’s famous studies of problem-solving abilities in chimpanzees.
Human social cognition is the human capacity to process social stimuli, to intentionally convey socially relevant information to others, and to make use of socially transmitted information. Several human social cognitive capacities are special and set humans apart from non-human animals. Thanks to these capacities, humans are unique in their ability to create, maintain, and alter large social groups within which they coordinate, cooperate, and also compete. Moreover, there are few (if any) other biological species in which groups or crowds of individuals spend as much collective effort in attacking other groups or in defending their own group from the attacks of others (Boyer, 2018; Tooby & Cosmides, 2010). Humans also appear to be unique in their capacity for stable cultural transmission over many generations and for the pervasiveness of their moral cognitive concerns.
Evolution of Learning and Memory Mechanisms is an exploration of laboratory and field research on the many ways that evolution has influenced learning and memory processes, such as associative learning, social learning, and spatial, working, and episodic memory systems. This volume features research by both outstanding early-career scientists as well as familiar luminaries in the field. Learning and memory in a broad range of animals are explored, including numerous species of invertebrates (insects, worms, sea hares), as well as fish, amphibians, birds, rodents, bears, and human and nonhuman primates. Contributors discuss how the behavioral, cognitive, and neural mechanisms underlying learning and memory have been influenced by evolutionary pressures. They also draw connections between learning and memory and the specific selective factors that shaped their evolution. Evolution of Learning and Memory Mechanisms should be a valuable resource for those working in the areas of experimental and comparative psychology, comparative cognition, brain–behavior evolution, and animal behavior.
During the past decade there has been an explosion of scientific interest in the bonobo (Pan paniscus). This research has revealed exactly how unique bonobos are in their minds, brains and behavior. This book makes clear the central role that bonobos play as we test hypotheses relating to the processes by which evolution shapes ape cognition (including our own species). The book's introduction describes the recent interest into bonobo cognition while briefly reviewing the history of research with bonobos. To place this new work in its evolutionary contexts, researchers from the two most active bonobo field sites start the book by reporting on recent discoveries regarding the social behavior of bonobos. The following three sections explore social cognition and behavior of bonobos from viewpoints of development, communication, and cooperation. Then the fifth section considers the cognitive abilities deployed by bonobos as they forage for and process food. The sixth section focuses on large scale comparison of bonobos to both chimpanzees and humans in their cognitive abilities and brain anatomy. Finally, the last two sections include chapters exploring the past and future of the bonobos, providing novel perspectives on how to promote the survival of this highly endangered species. These chapters are contributed by experts representing diverse disciplines and take together study bonobos living in a range of settings. They present overwhelming evidence for bonobo uniqueness and the new understanding this creates will contribute to a bright future for bonobos living in captivity and the wild.
Evolutionary psychiatry attempts to explain and examine the development and prevalence of psychiatric disorders through the lens of evolutionary and adaptationist theories. In this edited volume, leading international evolutionary scholars present a variety of Darwinian perspectives that will encourage readers to consider 'why' as well as 'how' mental disorders arise. Using insights from comparative animal evolution, ethology, anthropology, culture, philosophy and other humanities, evolutionary thinking helps us to re-evaluate psychiatric epidemiology, genetics, biochemistry and psychology. It seeks explanations for persistent heritable traits shaped by selection and other evolutionary processes, and reviews traits and disorders using phylogenetic history and insights from the neurosciences as well as the effects of the modern environment. By bridging the gap between social and biological approaches to psychiatry, and encouraging bringing the evolutionary perspective into mainstream psychiatry, this book will help to inspire new avenues of research into the causation and treatment of mental disorders.
Full-text available
After prolonged exposure to their reflected images in mirrors, chimpanzees marked with red dye showed evidence of being able to recognize their own reflections. Monkeys did not appear to have this capacity.
This chapter describes the status of research with nonhuman primates on several problem-solving tasks. An associative problem exists whenever an animal must choose among alternative responses or directions of response to produce some distinctive subsequent event or outcome. Typically only one alternative yields an outcome that an animal would work to acquire or avoid. As a basis for successful choice, an animal must utilize its experience in the same or similar situations. The chapter describes the various kinds of discrimination problems. In the commonly used method of simultaneous discrimination, the subject must choose between two or more possible loci of reward. In most studies involving simultaneous discrimination, a given set of discriminanda reappears on each trial until some criterion of performance has been reached or until some limited number of trials has been completed.
The findings are presented from a 10-week field study on Saimiri oerstedi during mating season in southwestern Panama. The main study troop consisted of 23 monkeys. It used a home range of 0.175 km2 (43.5 ac) which was not a defended territory. Food was apparently scarce and the monkeys spent 95 % of each hour of their 14-hour day engaged in travel and foraging. Adult females, infants, juveniles and sub-adult males traveled as a cohesive, integrated unit. The troop’s 2 adult males usually traveled at the edge of the troop. A young adult male traveled further at the periphery of the troop. All overt social interactions were infrequent.
Beyond reviewing basic data on Primate technological behavior, the aim of this report is to document the nature of chimpanzee technical skills by examining some of the mental as well as physical expertise which chimpanzees bring to bear on subsistence activities. This task is approached along several avenues: first, an outline is drawn of current knowledge about chimpanzee subsistence technology throughout Africa; second, a sketch is made of technological variability in several chimpanzee populations; third, the results of a personal investigation into the skills needed by chimpanzees to probe for insects are provided; and fourth, a comparison is made of the baboon, chimpanzee and human techniques used to exploit termites as a food resource. Instead of focusing on the unique features of human subsistence technology, the report attempts to show that many technical skills are and probably were firmly rooted in Primate prehistory, well before the advent of the earliest hominids. An integrated model of technological achievements among extant Primates, based on a sample of African cercopithecid, pongid and hominid populations representing stages in a phylogentic sequence, is offered as a foundation for reconstructing the gradual evolution of primate subsistence technology. This approach is intended to provoke contemplation and discussion among those investigators of human behavior and society who favor the thesis that the criterion of technology, together with the cultural transmission of technical skills, separates the human from the nonhuman Primates.
. 1This paper describes the food and ecology of a few Rock Pipits, mainly in Cornwall in winter.2Rock Pipits prefer exposed to sheltered coasts. Their average density in favourable habitats was ca. 8 pairs per mile of coast.3Rock Pipits fed chiefly on the shore in winter and just inland in summer.4Rock Pipits fed more intently in mid-winter than in spring and autumn; and, at any one season, most intently when food was scarce. Also, they fed more intently in the afternoon than in the morning in mid-winter (correlated with the long winter nights), and vice versa in spring and autumn. Whenever food was scarce they fed hard all day.5There were four common littoral foods in winter:the periwinkle Littorina neritoides, chironomid midge larvae, dipteran larvae (Coelopa spp.), and isopods (Idotea spp.). Amphipod hoppers (Talitridae) were sometimes an important food in late summer. The availability of these foods and the predation of the Rock Pipit upon them are described; rates of feeding and defaecation were measured.6The total food consumption of one Rock Pipit was estimated for a number of days in December, 1950 and 1951. The dry weight of food eaten daily averaged ca. 26 gms. when periwinkles, and ca. 12-5 gms. when chironomid larvae were the main food. The dry weights of organic material consumed daily were ca. 6 gms. (calorific value 30 Calories) in December 1950 and ca. 4 gms. in December 1951. When periwinkles were the main food the bird digested only 40% of the organic intake; hence its energy intake was ca. 12 Cals. daily. These results are compared with similar data for three other bird species.7No other bird species seriously competed with the Rock Pipit for food.8Intra- and inter-specific fighting (chiefly for food), and the Rock Pipit's response to predators are described.9Rock Pipits are intensely territorial; they defend individual territories in winter. The possible functions of territory are discussed:winter territories are primarily concerned with food.10Conclusions: (i) since winter territories were just, but only just, big enough to provide sufficient food, their size was probably determined by their food resources; (ii) since Rock Pipits were sometimes apparently short of food and competed for it in winter, food shortage could limit their density.