The Primate Mind: Built to Connect with Other Minds

The Primate Mind Frans BM de Waal & Pier Francesco Ferrari (Eds)

Harvard University Press, £36.95

An edited volume from a 2009 conference, The Primate Mind boasts an impressive array of big names in its field and has a timely and positive overarching theme: that it is time to stop seeing if non-human primates can perform human skills. Instead, we should focus on what common cognitive themes and skills can be found across primates – or mammals, or vertebrates. The editors state that this 'bottom up' approach is a refreshing and sensible one. Frankly, I agree.

Most Biologist readers will be familiar with the nature of edited volumes, so will not be surprised to hear that the component papers vary in their quality – some don't address the theme much, while others do.

Mirror neuron research features heavily in the first section on actions and culture, while the second section addresses empathy and the third focuses on emotion and communication. Despite the common theme of the volume and subthemes of the sections, the papers are oddly ordered in places. Sections one and two have an introduction by one or both editors, contextualising the papers that follow, but section three doesn't. For no apparent reason, it just starts with the first paper.

The varied topics of the volume mean that different specialists will have different favourites and that some students will pick out certain papers but ignore others. As a source for the latest papers in cognitive-related fields, the volume works well, although the specialist who is only interested in sticking to their own field will find it poor value for money.

However, its real value is perhaps in its multidisciplinary nature, which encourages readers to gain empathy, facilitate communication and mirror behaviours in other, adjacent fields – an outcome of which the editors would surely approve.

Jennie Robinson