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Neurobiology of primate intellectual evolution through intentional niche construction

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By Atsushi Iriki, RIKEN.

We trained Japanese macaque monkeys to use tools, an advanced cognitive function monkeys do not exhibit in the wild, and then examined their brains for signs of modification. Following tool-use training, we observed neurophysiological, molecular genetic and morphological changes within the monkey brain. Despite being ‘artificially’ induced, these novel behaviours and neural connectivity patterns reveal overlap with those of humans. Thus, they may provide us with a novel experimental platform for studying the mechanisms of human intelligence, revealing the evolutionary path that created these mechanisms from the ‘raw material’ of the non-human primate brain and deepening our understanding of what cognitive abilities are and of those that are not uniquely human. On these bases, we propose a theory of ‘intentional niche construction’ as an extension of natural selection in order to reveal the evolutionary mechanisms that forged the uniquely intelligent human brain.

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