Human Evolution

, Volume 2, Issue 6, pp 493–509

Monkeys, apes, mirrors and minds: The evolution of self-awareness in primates

  • D. J. Povinelli

DOI: 10.1007/BF02437424

Cite this article as:
Povinelli, D.J. Hum. Evol. (1987) 2: 493. doi:10.1007/BF02437424


Almost two decades of research on the self-recognition capacity of non-human primates has produced evidence of intriguing phylogenetic differences. Not a single species of monkey has demonstrated the ability to recognize its own reflection in a mirror, despite some claims to the contrary. To date, only humans, orangutans and chimpanzees have passed objective tests of mirror-recognition. This paper reviews the methodology and evidence for self-recognition in primates along with the assumption that this ability is an indicator of self-awareness. The failure of the gorilla to master the task is discussed in some detail, along with an evaluation of anecdotal evidence of self-recognition by at least one gorilla. Also, the evolutionary backdrop of the primates is considered with reference to this unique behavior. Evidence supporting alternate, non-cognitive interpretations of self-recognition is assessed.

Key words

self-recognitionself-awarenessmirrorschimpanzeesorangutansgorillasmonkeysevolutionary discontinuityhominoid phylogeny

Copyright information

© Editrice II Sedicesimo 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • D. J. Povinelli
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyYale UniversityNew Haven