Intelligence of Primates

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Intelligence is considered as a mental ability that enhances reasoning, planning, fixing problems, realising complex concepts as properly as enhancing quick mastering and learning from experiences. A major thing of intelligence is the ability to assist in coping with real-life situations. In primates, the level of intelligence is measured through the level of creativity as well as innovation that they exhibit. There are many hypotheses that have been put ahead to explain about the development of Genius in primates. An example of a common speculation include the presence of a large intelligence in primates which is characterised by the expansion of the areas found in the fore brain such as the prefrontal cortex. This hypotheses proposes that the large brain is responsible for the high level of creativity, innovation and problem solving in primates.

In general, the hypotheses that explain the development of primate intelligence are classified in to two major categories; the ecological intelligence hypothesis and the social intelligence hypothesis. The ecological intelligence hypothesis is divided in to two hypotheses which are resource patching and extractive foraging. Both of these hypotheses suggest that the evolution of primate intelligence was as a result of interaction of the primates with the environment. The social intelligence hypotheses supports the ideas that primate intelligence evolved as a result of primates living in large groups. According to the hypothesis, living in large groups promoted the development of complex social interactions that were necessary for their survival. This essay will provide an explanation of each of the hypotheses, analysing their strengths as well as limitations. In addition, the essay will explain the results obtained after testing each of the hypotheses in relation to the neocortex ratio and the function of intelligence.

Ecological intelligence hypotheses

This hypothesis proposes that the increase in the cognitive abilities of primates is dependent on their foraging strategies as well as the ecological pressures that they experience. According to this hypothesis, ecology, which is the environment in which the primates are found, greatly contributes to their cognitive behaviour. The ecological cognitive hypothesis identifies different aspects in the ecology that contribute to primate intelligence as discussed below.

Extractive foraging

This refers to the ability of primates to be able to locate and remove or extract embedded materials. Examples of embedded materials include underground roots and insects as well as hard shelled fruits and nuts. Embedded materials are difficult to locate hence the need for primates to have cognitive intelligence. In addition, removing embedded materials is also time consuming which makes the primates to learn to be patient when removing them. Extractive foraging has shown to be crucial in helping to supplement the primates’ meal. This is especially common during the dry season since the underground resources help in supplementing the nutrients intake in primates. The ability of primates to be able to identify the resources to consume in order to have a balanced dietary intake requires a high level of cognitive intelligence. Studies revealed that most primates do not need tools to excavate embedded resources but rather require the cognitive intelligence. Only few primates such as cebus monkeys and chimpanzees have shown to use tools for extraction of embedded resources. A major limitation of this hypothesis is that some animals have complex skills for extraction of materials and do not portray any significant level of intelligence. An example of such animals are the sea otters. These animals have the ability to float on their back while having a stone on their chest (Henke et al 76).

Resource Patchiness

Related to extractive foraging is resource patchiness. According to this hypothesis, creativity is seen to be present among primates whose resources are scarce and therefore need to move around in different areas to get their food. The ability to move to different areas to get their resource helps these primates to have a better memory since they need to remember where the specific resource if found. On the other hand, the primates have a greater skill to learn about their surrounding since it helps them to survive in the environment especially during the dry season. Moreover, the primates whose resources are in patches have a great ability to plan for the future and are more effective in looking for food. Resource patchiness has shown to contribute to the development of intelligence in primates. One of the major limitations while this hypothesis is that some animals and birds have resources that are in different patches and have not yet developed any significant intelligence. Some of these birds include the fruit eating birds. This questions this hypothesis on the development of primate intelligence in primates (Morgan 82).

The ecological intelligence is considered as an important determinant of the intelligence in primates since it helps in development of cognition. In addition, primates have shown to have division of labour when it comes to feeding. This is evident by the presence of different roles for the males and females. For example, the females may have the responsibility of feeding the juveniles’ while the males may hunt the food. Such division of roles shows a great level of intelligence in primates. The ecological intelligence hypothesis has however being criticized as not being responsible for the development of intelligence in primates. This is due to the reason that the traits found in primates when interacting with their environment are also found in non-primates. In addition, the level of sophistication of the feeding strategies in primates have also shown to be present in non-primates. This has led to the nullification of the role played by the environment in the development of intelligence in primates (Fleagle 38).

Social intelligence hypotheses

According to this hypotheses, living in groups among primates has shown to enhance the intelligence in primates as well as their behavioural complexity in various ways. First, living in groups helps primates to be able to have complex social interactions within the large groups. When there were complex social interactions, the primates had many relationships that they had to manage as well as track all the time. This helped in boosting their level of cognition while living in the groups. On the other hand, in addition, living their groups helped in solving the problem of individual predation. Living in groups made it difficult for the predators to attack the primates. As a result, many primates shifted from carrying our nocturnal activities and started carrying out their activities during the day (Kimbel and Lawrence 54).

In addition, living in groups also proved to help the primates in controlling the dominance relationships that were present in the groups. This helped in managing the available resources and ensuring that the dominant primates did not take advantage of the less dominant by consuming their addition, the dominant primates learnt how to avoid injuring the less dominant ones. Moreover, in spite of living in groups, the primates were able to identify members who belonged to the same family. Identification of family members was crucial in determining the reproductive behaviours in the primates (Morgan 84).

The social intelligence hypotheses faces several disadvantages that makes it questionable. Some of these disadvantages include the fact that some of the primates do not live groups. Primates such as orang-utans have shown to live in solitary. This therefore means that their level of intelligence was greater than that proposed by the social intelligence hypothesis. In addition, primates such as gorillas also live in small groups and have a high level of intelligence. The gorillas have shown to break hard stalks and eat the parts that are edible at the centre. This level of intelligence is really high and is not supported by this hypotheses. Some of these limitations of the social intelligence theory make it difficult of fully agree to this hypothesis (Morgan 68).

Neocortex ratio

Each of the hypothesis discussed above did show to have some limitations hence leading to the study of the neocortex in primates as compared to non- primates. The neocortex is regarded to be the outermost part of the fore brain. It is the neocortex had helps in determining problem solving in an animal and as well as other behaviours that are associated with intelligence. Studies have shown that the neocortex of primates is considerably large that that found in non- primates. The general expectation is that the larger the neocortex of an animal, the greater the intelligence of that animal. An investigation of the relationship between the neocortex ratio and each of the hypothesis discussed above brought about different findings (Henke et al 64).

According to the resource extraction hypothesis, the smart primates had the highest ability to extract materials that were embedded. It is expected that animals with the greatest skills in extraction have the greatest intelligence and therefore their neocortex is bigger. This is however not the case in all primates. As a result, it there is no correlation between greater extraction skills and greater neocortex. In addition, according to the resource patchiness, it is expected that animals whose resources are found in many different sections have a selection for a big neocortex. This was however not the case. In addition, frungivores were expected to have the have a large neocortex when compared to other animals. This is due to the fact that fruits are found in different areas during different seasons and times hence the expectation that frungivores have a smart intelligence. In spite of the limitation that frungivores lack a smart intelligence, the resource patchiness theory was supported by another version of relating the neocortex ratio and the home range of animals. Animals with large home ranges did show to have large neocortex ratios which was the expectation. This therefore helped in supporting the idea that resource patchiness could have contributed to the development of primate intelligence (Fleagle 42).

According to the social intelligence theory, it is expected that animals with the more complex social interactions have the selection of a more expanded neocortex. This is because when animals live in large groups then there is a higher probability of having more relationships as well as interactions with different addition, when primates live in large groups, there is a higher probability of solving a lot of social problems such as dominance over each other and inadequate resources. This hypothesis was found to true since animals that lived in large social groups proved to have a large neocortex ratio. This therefore showed that the social interactions of individuals greatly determined their level of intelligence (Morgan 100).

From the social intelligence hypotheses, it is right to conclude the fact that intelligence developed in primates to identify the patchy resources in their environment and exploit them. This helped in ensuring that primates are able to maximise the use of the resources around them. In addition, development of intelligence in primates is greatly contributed to by their existence in large home ranges as well as large groups. Living in large home ranges required the primates to identify the different resources in the range hence the need for a large neocortex hence a smart intelligence (Kimbel and Lawrence 220).

Function of intelligence

To further identify whether the social intelligence and ecological theories are true, there was need to find out how the function of intelligence relates to each of the hypotheses. If the ecological intelligence hypothesis is true, it is expected that primates have a great understanding and knowhow of their environment. In addition, it is expected that primates have diverse ways of exploiting the resources that are within their range. This hypothesis did show to be true among the primates. This is because any of them showed a high level of intelligence by exhibiting many different behaviours such as having a wide know–how of the various resources within their environment. In addition, primates did show to keep track of the ripening seasons of different fruits and determined when to move to a new food patch. This therefore showed the positive correlation between the development of primate intelligence and their environment. Moreover, primates were able to form cognitive maps that showed the various food locations within their range and as well as the food types available. This was evident by their ability to move in a coordinated manner to a given food patch at a specific time (Henke et al 68).

According to the social intelligence hypotheses, it is expected that primates should have a high ability to be able to handle complex social interactions if the hypotheses is true. This is the case for most primates and as a result many primates have a smart intelligence. An example of a complex interaction is the ability of primates to identify their relatives which in turn determines their reproductive relationships. Primates are not able to automatically know which primates are related to each other, they instead learn from their interactions over time. This is a complex skill that requires a high level of intelligence. This therefore supports this hypothesis that primates living in large groups have a higher level of cognitive intelligence (Fleagle 46).


In conclusion, it is evident that there two major hypotheses that explain about the evolution of primate intelligence. The two hypotheses are the ecological intelligence hypotheses and the social intelligence hypothesis. The ecological hypothesis theory identifies how resource patchiness and extractive foraging are correlated with the evolution of intelligence. Moreover, the social intelligence theory identifies the relationship between the living of primates in groups and the development of intelligence. Each of these two hypothesis were tested by analysing their relationship with the neocortex ration of the brain in primates as well as the function of intelligence. A test of how the neocortex brain of the primates relates to the evolution of primate intelligence showed different results. According to the extractive foraging hypotheses, primates with advanced extractive skills did not show to have a have a large neocortex. In contrast, it was evident that primates which live in large home ranges showed to have a large intelligence since their resources were diverse. An analysis of the relationship between the social intelligence theory and neocortex proved to be positive. This is because primates living in large groups proved to have a smart intelligence. To further prove the relationship between the two hypotheses and the evolution of primate intelligence, the hypotheses were tested to check their relationship with the function of intelligence. Both hypothesis did show to have a positive correlation with the development of intelligence in primates. In summary, there is no specific hypothesis that explains the evolution of primate intelligence since both hypotheses have shown to be true and also have limitations. The evolution of primate intelligence was therefore as a result of the ecology as well as their social interactions.

Works cited

Fleagle, John G. Primate adaptation and evolution. Amsterdam Boston: Elsevier/Academic Press, 2013. Print.

Henke, Winfried, Ian Tattersall, and Thorolf Hardt. Handbook of paleoanthropology. New York: Springer, 2007. Print.

Kimbel, William H., and Lawrence Martin. Species, species concepts, and primate evolution. New York: Plenum Press, 1993. Print.

Morgan, Elaine. The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. London: Souvenir Press, 2011. Print.

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