Human Evolution

, Volume 2, Issue 6, pp 493-509

First online:

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

  • D. J. PovinelliAffiliated withDepartment of Anthropology, Yale University

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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-recognition self-awareness mirrors chimpanzees orangutans gorillas monkeys evolutionary discontinuity hominoid phylogeny