The evolution of primate visual self-recognition: evidence of absence in lesser apes

Thomas Suddendorf, Emma Collier-Baker

Abstract

Mirror self-recognition typically emerges in human children in the second year of life and has been documented in great apes. In contrast to monkeys, humans and great apes can use mirrors to inspect unusual marks on their body that cannot be seen directly. Here we show that lesser apes (family Hylobatidae) fail to use the mirror to find surreptitiously placed marks on their head, in spite of being strongly motivated to retrieve directly visible marks from the mirror surface itself and from their own limbs. These findings suggest that the capacity for visual self-recognition evolved in a common ancestor of all great apes after the split from the line that led to modern lesser apes approximately 18 Myr ago. They also highlight the potential of a comparative approach for identifying the neurological and genetic underpinnings of self-recognition and other higher cognitive faculties.

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Footnotes

    • Received November 28, 2008.
    • Accepted January 13, 2009.
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