General idea

I'm trying to see what characteristics of human thinking are present on animals and protohumans. In other words, how our thought depends on previous forms of intelligence (because of evolution and particularly that of brain structure, I suppose).

Background and problem

Some days ago someone said on the streets:

Measuring means comparing.

And it became clear to me that comparison is fundamental for the way we relate to the world, for the way we think and see he world. Why A is bigger\taller\better that B?

Another way we relate through the world is by analogy. Analogy and for extension metaphor are on the beginnings of language; comparison between one thing or another seems also ancestral. So there are two ways of thinking that might be identified with animals thinking.

The question

Are those ways of thinking present in earlier human beings or monkeys?

I don't expect a complete answer but some help for me to start. Links\recommendations of videos, essays, papers orr short books are very welcome. (I don't believe in long texts, I apologise for this)


1 Answer 1


Animal brains, especially mammals', are quite similar to humans. So far, attempts to define what makes human cognition "different" in some way have been for the most part a failure - the goal posts continue to be pushed. What seems to remain is a suggestion that human brains are especially socially-focused, and that humans have a uniquely developed ability to understand, plan, and simulate how others may be thinking (for example: Adolphs, R. (2003). Cognitive neuroscience: Cognitive neuroscience of human social behaviour. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 4(3), 165.).

However, we don't even need to look to apes, primates, or even mammals, to see cognitive abilities of the types that you mention.

For example, at least some birds are capable of quite a lot. As far as easily digestible material, there is a NOVA program on animal minds. I have only seen the bird episode, so I cannot speak to the others.


Although for the made-for-TV format a lot of the details are omitted for the sake of brevity, the program attempts to test the hypothesis that birds are capable of some advanced behaviors that are not attributable to simple memorization or repeated tasks. These include the ability to solve novel puzzles, and to learn hierarchical relationships of the form: X>Y and Y>Z therefore X>Z.

Some others from a variety of species:

Monkeys learning the value of tokens:

Addessi, E., Crescimbene, L., & Visalberghi, E. (2007). Do capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella) use tokens as symbols?. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 274(1625), 2579-2585.

Basic arithmetic in chimpanzees:

Rumbaugh, D. M., Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S., and Hegel, M. T. (1987). Summation in the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes). J. Exp. Psychol. Anim. Behav. Process. 13, 107–115.

A paper and further discussion on generalization of a learned rule in birds:

Kamil, A. C. & Jones, J. J. 1997. The seed-storing corvid Clark’s nutcrackers learns geometric relationships among landmarks. Nature, 390, 276–279.

Biegler, R., McGregor, A. & Healy, S. D. 1999. How do animals ‘do’ geometry? Animal Behaviour, 57, F4–F8

Kamil, Alan and Jones, Juli E., "How do they, indeed? A reply to Biegler et al." (1999). Avian Cognition Papers. 12. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/biosciaviancog/12

Macaques recognizing themselves in the mirror

Rajala, A. Z., Reininger, K. R., Lancaster, K. M., & Populin, L. C. (2010). Rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) do recognize themselves in the mirror: implications for the evolution of self-recognition. PloS one, 5(9), e12865.

Monkeys reject unequal pay

Brosnan, S. F., & De Waal, F. B. (2003). Monkeys reject unequal pay. Nature, 425(6955), 297.

And I could go on and on - these are just a few examples, not necessarily the best or most current ones. What you will see that all these works share is that it is very difficult to probe animal behavior, because it is often difficult to rule out alternative strategies as we impose our own cognitive biases on animal behavior.

That said, it seems very unlikely that most of the higher-order cognitive skills humans possess are in any way unique to humans. Some specifics like the exact structure of human language are probably fairly specialized, but other social animals also have forms of language, it may just not be as complex or developed as human language.

I'll close with what I find to be a couple cartoons that are highly insightful in this area of research:




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    $\begingroup$ Oh definitely wait a bit for other answers, there are lots of ways someone could take this. Part of why I was initially a bit skeptical it could be answered, but we'll see what the stack comes up with. Lots out there to digest though :) $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jun 22, 2018 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ Other references that may be of your interest are: Primate Cognition, Animal Cognition: Concepts from Apes to Bees, and Human and animal cognition. (In the last link, you can go to the full text from the available link [CellPress Open Access] there.) $\endgroup$
    – user287279
    Commented Jun 23, 2018 at 3:10

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