The ability to reason mathematically is a hallmark of modern human intelligence and would seem to be a domain that distinguishes humans from all other animals. Contrary to that intuition, however, our research suggests that mathematical reasoning has a long evolutionary history. Although humans are unique in their ability to use language and symbols, basic features of adult mathematical cognition including the ability to quantify and mentally manipulate quantities in arithmetic operations (such as addition and subtraction) are shared by our non-human primate "relatives." Such findings suggest that the core principles of modern mathematics began to evolve before humans phylogenetically diverged from other animals.
Our current research goal is to study the cognitive parallels between human adults, children, and non-human primates. We aim to investigate functional and anatomical homologues of basic cognitive processes in adult humans, very young children (e.g. 4-year-olds), and non-human primates. The goal of this research is to identify the cognitive and brain mechanisms that are common across species and stages of human development as well as the cognitive and brain functions that are unique to humans. The answers to our research questions will help reveal when and how our sophisticated adult intellectual capacities come to exist.
We are also working with Seneca Park Zoo to connect our assessments of non-human primate behavior to other primates across the globe. By comparing their baboon troop's performance on cognitive tasks (such as object permanence, inhibitory control, and tool use) and ecological variables (such as group size, diet, and social structure) to that of dozens of other species worldwide, we can measure the genetic and environmental influences on non-human primate cognition. You can watch the video below to see olive baboon Ursala complete an inhibitory control task with one of our researchers. If you want to check out more information about Seneca Park Zoo, you can go to their website at http://senecaparkzoo.org/.
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