In an interview with Discover magazine, Laurie Santos shares similarities and differences between humans and our non-human primate relatives. In her research, she has found that we all share the same mental building blocks—simple physical and social capacities that allow us to function and make sense of the world. From that starting point, we are able to learn from our environments. This is borne out by her research with some of the most primitive primates: lemurs. Lemurs don't use tools in the wild, but when researchers placed them in a tool-rich environment, the creatures quickly adapted and learned to utilize what was around them.
Since we share the same innate mental structure, it's no surprise, then, that non-human primates commit many of the same economic mistakes that we do. For example, they suffer from the same cognitive biases as humans—thinks like loss aversion and the endowment effect. This implies that, at one time, these biases conferred an evolutionary advantage, albeit an advantage that is now lost in complicated economic transactions.
But don't think that it's just Santos and her team learning from the monkeys. She reports that soon the monkeys began to study the researchers themselves:
Do you think that, in a very rudimentary way, these monkeys were able to read your mind?
To the extent that they’re reading behavioral cues that are correlated with mental states—things they can’t see—yes, they are mind readers.
But do they know that you have a mind in the first place? Do they understand that we have thoughts?
One of the most basic mental states that we think about in others involves perceptions—what you can see or hear—and that builds up to what you know or don’t know. The ability to discern these states in others was probably enormously powerful back in the evolutionary day, when we grew up as social primates who lived and died on the basis of how well we were able to predict others’ social actions: Are you going to be a friend to me? Are you going to back me up later?
Santos' work continues to show that humans and our closest relatives have more in common than we might like to admit—our perceptions, our awareness, our behaviors, our drives, and our biases. As it turns out, being monkey is not all that different from being human.
Read the full interview here.
photo by Sharyn Morrow