Primate Cognition


Typical and potential ranges of primate cognition

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … current repertoire of possibility
  • Knowing is … adequate functioning
  • Learner is … a primate (non-human)
  • Learning is … expanding the repertoire of possibility
  • Teaching is … strategies to occasion expansions of repertoire of possibilities (e.g., training, modeling, challenging)




Primate Cognition, as its name suggests, is a branch of Animal Cognition that focuses on how non-human primates think and act. Particular emphases in the field are higher-order thinking skills and consciousness – topics engaged most often for their utility in understanding human cognition. Other prominent topics include tool manufacture and use, cooperative hunting strategies, social organizations, manipulative behaviors, problem solving, and capacities to use symbol-based systems. Associated discourses include:


As with Animal Cognition, Primate Cognition is often characterized as naïve anthropomorphism (i.e., interpreting animal behaviors in terms of human emotions and thoughts). The underlying issue appears to be an inability to set aside a human–animal dualism, despite the now-commonplace assumption that humans are primates.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Louis Leakey; Jane Goodall; Dian Fossey; Birutè Galdikas; Michael Tomasello; Josp Call

Status as a Theory of Learning

Primate Cognition is a theory of learning – and one that is proving a useful device for compelling commentators to reveal their deep-seated (usually dualism-based) assumptions and beliefs about learning and learners.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Primate Cognition is not a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Primate Cognition is a scientific theory – in part because proponents (unlike many detractors) are explicit about assumptions, metaphors, and definitions surrounding learning and cognition. As well, the evidence base for Primate Cognition is substantial, spanning on decades of laboratory-based experiments and naturalistic observations.


  • Rational Soul

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Primate Cognition” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

⇦ Back to Map
⇦ Back to List