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Final Report Summary - MACACOGNITUM (Evolution of cognition and primate social style)

In his book “The Descent of Man”, Darwin suggested that differences between human and animal intelligence is a matter of degree, not of kind (Darwin 1871). Since then, it has been empirically proven that humans share some common cognitive attributes with other primates, but also exhibit complex cognitive skills not demonstrated by other primates. A crucial question in comparative cognitive research is whether these species differences in cognitive abilities correlate with differences in ecological and social factors. The current social intelligence hypothesis suggests that an increase in social complexity drove the evolution of cognitive flexibility in primates. Comparisons between species that live in social systems of differing social complexity offer the strongest test of the social intelligence hypothesis but these comparisons are lacking.

The project ´Macacognitum´ tested the social intelligence hypothesis using a unique approach by comparing the cognitive skills of close-related monkey species of different social tolerance grades. The objectives of the project were 1- to conduct an extensive cross-species comparison using a highly standardized recent comprehensive test battery for comparative psychology, 2- to use a ‘top-down’ approach as used in evolutionary biology and test different monkey species from the same genus which differ only in their social style, 3- to add new data on the cognitive skills of understudied monkey species, 4- to examine the differential influence of social style on cognitive performance in both physical and social domains by using high-quality statistical procedures, 5- to interpret the results and help understand the evolutionary history of cognitive traits in a monkey monophyletic group.

We tested a total of 39 macaques from 3 different European sanctuaries and research centres on a battery of 16 cognitive tasks, an inhibitory control task and a temperament study. We found that both tolerant and non-tolerant species performed at comparable level in the physical cognition tasks, but tolerant macaques outperformed the less tolerant species on some of the social cognition tasks and in the inhibitory control task. These findings confirmed that social tolerance is associated with more sophisticated cognitive skills in the social domain. Interestingly, these enhanced skills (production of communicative cues and inhibitory control) are relevant for the coordination and communication between individuals, crucial for social coordination. Social tolerance and the presence of strong social bonds between non-kin individuals seem therefore to be one specific aspect of group living that may particularly facilitate cooperation. With this project, we therefore gain important insight into the evolutionary roots of human cooperation and cognition.

The dissemination of the research results through the outreach activities reached two main objectives: first to share the newly obtained knowledge with the academic research community. This was done through paper presentations at leading international conferences and publications of the research findings in peer-reviewed high impact journals. Second, we reached out to audiences beyond the academic community: zoo visitors during an Open Day at the research facilities and talks given to school students.

The fellowship did not only benefit the researcher individually, but also advanced academic excellence in the ERA more generally. Given that the project sets out to study understudied primate species within unique infrastructures serving the general educational interest, the research findings of the project made a crucial contribution to our knowledge on the evolution of nonhuman and human minds and its dissemination to a European public audience. The fellowship increased the attractiveness of the ERA for researchers. The systematic dissemination of the research results in high impact international journals moreover contributes to European excellence. Finally, the fellowship resulted in long-term synergies and contributed to the competitiveness of European universities on an increasingly global market for higher education. British universities, with high shares of foreign academics as well as foreign students from within and beyond the EU, are most advanced in this area of exporting education while attracting promising and high level scholars. The Centre for Comparative and Evolutionary Psychology within the University of Portsmouth is increasingly present on this growing market. By enhancing her research and teaching, the applicant benefited greatly from becoming acquainted with current best practice during this project that she will be able to transfer to her future position in the ERA. Both objectives and linked strategies therefore enhanced the visibility and emphasized the wider societal and policy relevance of the research activities.

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