Laurie Santos
Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science, Yale University

Monkeys, Babies, and “Awesome” Science

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The Yale psychologist explains why she studies human infants and adult monkeys that are so smart they’re named after James Bond characters.

Laurie Santos

Dr. Laurie Santos is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Yale University. Her research provides an interface between evolutionary biology, developmental psychology, and cognitive neuroscience, exploring the evolutionary origins of the human mind by comparing the cognitive abilities of human and non-human primates. Her experiments focus on non-human primates (in captivity and in the field), incorporating methodologies from cognitive development, animal learning psychology, and cognitive neuroscience.


Question: What primates do you work with, and what’s your methodology in working with them?

Laurie Santos: Yeah.  So I study primates because I’m interested in humans.  I want to know what makes humans tick but if you’re really interested in that question, it’s kind of actually kind of bad to study humans because they have too much stuff.  You have too much education and culture and all that stuff, so we study primates to kind of strip away all that other stuff and actually look at humans in their more ancestral state, try to get our evolutionary origins.  We study a group of Capuchin monkeys on Yale Campus that we have in kind of a big zoo enclosure and that kind of lets us get up close and personal with this group of monkeys.  Capuchins are really a cool group of monkeys to work with because their new world monkeys so they’re really distantly related to us but they are really similar to us in lots of ways.  So they’re very good at using tools, really complex social relationships, they’re just a great model for studying humans.

We also work with a group of primates down at a field site in Kyo Santiago, Puerto Rico.  It’s this great tropical island right off the coast of Puerto Rico and its home to about a thousand free-ranging monkeys so this is a wonderful facility because the monkeys range free.  You know they’re really in a naturalistic setting but we kind of go down there and really study them out there in this awesome setting.

Question: What special challenges arise in working with capuchin monkeys?

Laurie Santos:  Yeah, so capuchin monkeys are great and sometimes difficult to work with in part because they’re so smart.  The monkeys we have at Yale we’ve named after characters in James Bond movies, and those names are especially apt because they are quite smart, but that means that a lot of times they’re outsmarting me and my students, you know, breaking out ****, stealing things that they’re not supposed to have so it’s fun, but they’re really smart but it’s also kind of challenging that they’re clever, sometimes more clever than we are. 

Question: Why does your research compare adult apes and human babies?

Laurie Santos:  Yeah, the reason a lot of primate researchers actually compare their primate subjects, not with adult humans, but with infant humans, is for the following reason, and that’s just that one reason to study primates is there a great model for humans minus all kinds of human-specific experiences, you know, so they don’t have teaching, they don’t have kind of language and that sort of communication system.  They also don’t have all the kind of technology stuff that we have, iPhones and that sort of thing, and they never will.  Human beings are an interesting contrast to that because they lack at least experience with a lot of that stuff.  They’re too little to have those experiences, but they have a brain and a mind that’s set up to eventually get them, so most six-month-old human infants don’t know how iPhones work, you know, they haven’t had much in the way of you know the typical Western education system, but their probably going to get it or at least they have the capacity to get it.

So comparing infants and primates actually lets you say, okay, here we have a mind that eventually going to get this stuff it hasn’t had yet, and here’s a mind that might never get it, what are some of the similarities we see and what are some of the differences?

Question: At what point does a human baby’s mental capacity outpace that of the smartest ape?

Laurie Santos:  Well, if you’re looking for where, when humans can developmentally beat out you know the best non-human animal; I think you know it’s a very human-centric kind of question right, we’re thinking about you could ask for each particular ability, you could say oh when for our Theory of mind do we kind of out-pace apes and so on but for general abilities, I mean I’ll never be able to swing from the canopy rain forest the way that a Capuchin monkey does.  You know, and if you go beyond primates, I’ll  never be able to echolocate like a bat, so to a biologist even that question might seem like, well, for the stuff we do, great, but you know there’s a lot of things we can’t do that you know other species can so, so it’s a tough kind of comparison of, you know, when do we kind of overtake them in the graph.

Recorded on January 26, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen