The evolution of primate general and cultural intelligence

S. Reader, Y. Hager, Kevin Neville Laland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

251 Citations (Scopus)


There are consistent individual differences in human intelligence, attributable to a single ‘general intelligence’ factor, g. The evolutionary basis of g and its links to social learning and culture remain controversial. Conflicting hypotheses regard primate cognition as divided into specialized, independently evolving modules versus a single general process. To assess how processes underlying culture relate to one another and other cognitive capacities, we compiled ecologically relevant cognitive measures from multiple domains, namely reported incidences of behavioural innovation, social learning, tool use, extractive foraging and tactical deception, in 62 primate species. All exhibited strong positive associations in principal component and factor analyses, after statistically controlling for multiple potential confounds. This highly correlated composite of cognitive traits suggests social, technical and ecological abilities have coevolved in primates, indicative of an across-species general intelligence that includes elements of cultural intelligence. Our composite species-level measure of general intelligence, ‘primate gS’, covaried with both brain volume and captive learning performance measures. Our findings question the independence of cognitive traits and do not support ‘massive modularity’ in primate cognition, nor an exclusively social model of primate intelligence. High general intelligence has independently evolved at least four times, with convergent evolution in capuchins, baboons, macaques and great apes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1017-1027
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. B, Biological Sciences
Issue number1567
Early online date28 Feb 2011
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2011


  • Behavioural innovation
  • Brain evolution
  • Cognitive evolution
  • Culture
  • Social learning
  • Tool use


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