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Machiavellian mindset

It has been proposed that what makes us, as humans, so unique is the complexity of our social world. This is our big evolutionary breakthrough.  This doesn’t mean we evolved opposable thumbs purely for bbming faster, but rather that we evolved the cognitive ability to manipulate information relating to direct and indirect social relationships.

About 2million years ago, our brain size massively increased. The frontal lobes (involved in problem solving) tripled in size, and this was thought to be linked to our increasingly complicated social arrangements. Those individuals that could function around dominance based strategies were more likely to produce more offspring.  As humans, we use information to adjust how we approach individuals, and it’s what makes us, in a way, a devious and Machivillian species. This ability to understand others and interpret their minds in terms of beliefs and desires is often called mentalizing. Woodgruff explained it as understanding the mental states of others, and making predictions about their behaviours.  An interesting experiment by Dunbar in 2011 found that gray matter volume in the medial orbitofrontal cortex and the ventral portion of medial frontal gyrus varied parametrically with both mentalizing and social network size, demonstrating a shared neural basis between the two.

For years it was questioned whether this was a uniquely human trait. Whether it was present in other primates was unknown.  After all, chimps, our closest evolutionarily cousins, have large frontal lobes too.

Darwin once wrote that ‘‘He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.’  A recent book by Cheney & Seyfarth ‘Baboon Metaphysics’  found that baboons form a complicated mix of short-term bonds for mating and longer-term friendships based on careful calculations of status and individual need.  The book suggests that chimps make assumptions about others, their purpose and intentions.  Furthermore very recently, researchers found that when wild chimps spotted a threat. they were more likely to make their “alert call” in the presence of another chimp that had not seen the threat. This suggests that these chimps understand the mind-set of others.

Researchers have also found that chimps will alter what they “say” when different chimps are listening.  Chimps make different noises when they are subordinate to another ape and with the alpha male in earshot, females often refuse to greet other chimps. This shows a great level of social awareness.

This ability to recognise their own position within a social group and also understand third party relationships is vital. Since there is a correlation between male dominance rank and the number of females whom he can mate with, mentalizing can also allow lower ranking males that are more intelligent to undermine the dominance of high ranking males and get more females to mate with them. Furthermore since higher order grouping levels need to be maintained (for example for territorial defence) individuals also needed to know about other group members and their social relationships.

Therefore the ability to be devious and socially manipulative isn’t distinctly human. Our primate Chimp cousins aren’t as dissimilar to us as we may have imagined – they too metalize in order to achieve social goals. Perhaps great minds really do think alike.

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