Evolution of the Mind

“We need to do a little more work to disentangle the hypotheses,” Krupenye said. “But to have consistent results that challenge a whole body of work is exciting.”

If great apes do have this theory of mind ability, it most likely evolved in a common ancestor with humans.

Much of Krupenye’s research is about positioning certain traits along the evolutionary timeline. In another study, Krupenye was part of a team of researchers that examined whether lemurs are contagious yawners.

Why does it matter if, when one lemur yawns, another follows suit?

“Contagious yawning is of interest to behavioral scientists because some people think it is a very primitive form of emotion contagion, which is the basis for empathy,” Krupenye explained.

Chimps and bonobos yawn contagiously—chimps have even been shown to yawn more in response to group mates than outlying individuals, which lends credence to the empathy hypothesis.

So the evidence exists in great apes, but lemurs are part of the group of primates most distantly related to humans. Krupenye’s team found that they do not exhibit contagious yawning, meaning the trait likely evolved sometime after the evolutionary split between the lemur’s ancestor and the ancestor of human and great apes.

Eventually, Krupenye hopes to become a professor at a top research university for animal cognition. For now, he expects to be at the Max Planck Institute for at least another year, conducting follow up experiments to his landmark false belief study.

It’s right where he wants to be: at the intersection of biology, psychology and anthropology, making discoveries that shed new light on the evolution of human intelligence.

“It’s clear that there are some very important differences between animals and humans—no animals are building skyscrapers or inventing Skype,” Krupenye said.

“But people tend to underestimate the cognitive abilities of other animals. The more we look, the more we are going to see ourselves and see human-like traits. Some of those hard lines are proving to be a lot fuzzier than we once thought.”

November 18, 2016