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: Are there any features of human cognition or behavior that have zero primate equivalent?
Laurie Santos: Yeah one of the things that, the question of what’s uniquely human is actually a big one and you, depending on who you ask you might get really different answers. If I had to put my money on something that was actually uniquely human, it seems in some funny way to be our motivation to actually interact with others, in a funny way. And what I mean by this is that generally if you look at any humans anywhere, if they’re hanging out with other humans they’re often doing something where they’re showing something to another individual. So you see something cool and you say, “Oh hey, look at this cool thing.” And to psychologists this is a process of reference, right, so sharing, referring to information out there in a world and it seems like other primates even though you think this is kind of a simple ability, they seem to lack at least the motivation to do this. This leads to the fact that they don’t have the kind of communication that we have with things like language with nouns that can kind of point to things out there in the world. They also don’t seem to share their own desires and intentions with others, which leads to a lack of kind of cooperation in a lot of domains, so if I had to put my money on what was uniquely human I’d go with the kind of motivation to share information with others.
Recorded on January 26, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen
Other primates don’t seem to share their own desires and intentions with others, which leads to a lack of cooperation in a lot of domains.