How Monkeys See the World:
Inside the Mind of Another Species

Dorothy L. Cheney + Robert M. Seyfarth

The University of Chicago Press 1990
A book review by Danny Yee © 1992
How Monkeys See the World tries to answer one of those questions that has always intrigued people — how much do animals understand about the world? It concentrates on vervet monkeys (the authors' own fieldwork was done on groups of vervet monkeys in Amboseli national park, Kenya), but it also draws on studies of other primate species — in the wild, in captivity, and in laboratory experiments — and comparisons are made throughout with non-primate species.

Since the questions being asked — Are monkeys self-conscious? Do they have emotions? — are not only difficult to answer but use terms which are themselves contentious, methodological issues are critical. Cheney and Seyfarth eschew an explicitly behaviourist approach, but are very careful when interpreting anecdotal evidence of monkey behaviour. They are also conservative in their claims for monkey intentionality, with the result that what they do claim seems convincing.

How Monkeys See the World begins with a study of vervet monkeys — their ecology, social hierarchy, behaviour, and vocalisations. This is then used to look more generally at such behaviours as deception and attribution, and the ways these can provide insights into monkeys' mental processes. The conclusion the authors draw is that monkeys have at least first order intentionality — they have emotions, mental states, and so forth — and a very good understanding of monkey behaviour. Vervet vocalisations do have meaning and form a rudimentary "language". However there is no clear evidence that monkeys know that other monkeys have mental states, or that they have self-awareness. The evidence for this kind of second-order intentionality is most convincing (but still equivocal) for chimpanzees, and there seem to be qualitative differences between monkeys and apes.

Also, intelligence in primates is domain specific — restricted to certain areas of application and not generally accessible. Social problems are often more adeptly solved than non-social ones, and it seems likely that a major selective force acting in the evolution of human intelligence was the need to understand and organise social interactions. The ideas presented have interesting consequences for the origins of human language.

How Monkeys See the World is a book anyone interested in cognitive psychology, human evolution, linguistics or ethology — or even just monkeys! — will want to read. A minor complaint is that all references to evolution seem to assume a fairly naive adaptionist viewpoint (but then maybe I've just been reading too much Stephen Jay Gould).

November 1992

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%T How Monkeys See the World
%S Inside the Mind of Another Species
%A Cheney, Dorothy L.
%A Seyfarth, Robert M.
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1990
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0226102467
%P x,377pp