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Monogr Soc Res Child Dev. 1996;61(3):i-vi, 1-152; discussion 153-91.

What young chimpanzees know about seeing.

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Laboratory of Comparative Behavioral Biology, University of Southwestern Louisiana-New Iberia Research Center 70560, USA.


Previous experimental research has suggested that chimpanzees may understand some of the epistemological aspects of visual perception, such as how the perceptual act of seeing can have internal mental consequences for an individual's state of knowledge. Other research suggests that chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates may understand visual perception at a simpler level; that is, they may at least understand seeing as a mental event that subjectively anchors organisms to the external world. However, these results are ambiguous and are open to several interpretations. In this Monograph, we report the results of 15 studies that we conducted with chimpanzees and preschool children to explore their knowledge about visual perception. The central goal of these studies was to determine whether young chimpanzees appreciate that visual perception subjectively links organisms to the external world. In order to achieve this goal, our research incorporated three methodological objectives. First, we sought to overcome limitations of previous comparative theory of mind research by using a fairly large sample of well-trained chimpanzees (six to seven animals in all studies) who were all within 8 months of age of each other. In contrast, previous research has typically relied on the results of one to four animals ranging widely in age. Second, we designed our studies in order to allow for a very sensitive diagnosis of whether the animals possessed immediate dispositions to act in a fashion predicted by a theory of mind view of their psychology or whether their successful performances could be better explained by learning theory. Finally, using fairly well-established transitions in preschool children's understanding of visual perception, we sought to establish the validity of our nonverbal methods by testing predictions about how children of various ages ought to perform. Collectively, our findings provide little evidence that young chimpanzees understand seeing as a mental event. Although our results establish that young chimpanzees both (a) develop algorithms for tracking the visual gaze of other organisms and (b) quickly learn rules about the configurations of faces and eyes, on the one hand, and subsequent events, on the other, they provide no clear evidence that these algorithms and rules are grounded in a matrix of intentionality. Particularly striking, our results demonstrate that, even though young chimpanzee subjects spontaneously attend to and follow the visual gaze of others, they simultaneously appear oblivious to the attentional significance of that gaze. Thus, young chimpanzees possess and learn rules about visual perception, but these rules do not necessarily incorporate the notion that seeing is "about" something. The general pattern of our results is consistent with three different possibilities. First, the potential existence of a general developmental delay in psychological development in chimpanzees (or, more likely, an acceleration in humans) leaves open the possibility that older chimpanzees may display evidence of a mentalistic appreciation of seeing. Second, chimpanzees may possess a different (but nonetheless mentalistic) theory of attention in which organisms are subjectively connected to the world not through any particular sensory modality such as vision but rather through other (as-of-yet unspecified) behavioral indicators. Finally, a subjective understanding of visual perception (and perhaps behavior in general) may be a uniquely evolved feature of the human lineage.

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