Great Ape Cognition and the Evolutionary Roots of Human Imagination


in Imaginative Minds

Published by British Academy

Published in print December 2007 | ISBN: 9780197264195
Published online February 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780191734540 | DOI:

Series: Proceedings of the British Academy

Great Ape Cognition and the Evolutionary Roots of Human Imagination

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The imaginative powers of humans obviously exceed those of other species; however these characteristics and knowledge did not spring from nowhere. Instead they evolved on the shoulders of the distinctive psychology of man’s pre-human ancestors. This chapter defines the key characteristics of the ancestral foundations of man and describes the evidence in great ape behaviour for two aspects of imagination. The first level of imagination is inventiveness. Inventiveness is the capacity to generate novel and diverse behavioural responses to any given environmental circumstance. In the experimental studies presented in this chapter wherein chimpanzees are tasked to solve particular problems, it was found that great apes such as gorillas, orang-utans, and chimpanzees display imaginative skills compared to other primates. The second aspect of imagination refers to the capacity to operate mentally in a ‘pretend’ world. This second level of imagination is higher than inventiveness as it requires holding mind distinctions between the hypothetical and real world. Although the experimental studies generated intriguing results, these results are limited, and while the pretence in apes should be observable, it is dominated by the manifestation of a more general capacity for secondary representation.

Keywords: ancestral foundations; great ape behaviour; inventiveness; pretend world; mind distinctions; hypothetical world; real world; pretence

Chapter.  11346 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Cognitive Psychology

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