Whiten, Andrew


Start date:


Although I was interested in the mind from very early on, I never regretted following my school teachers' advice to take a degree in zoology as a first step. Following this with a PhD in animal behaviour, I already had a deep appreciation of the power of evolution to explain behaviour and mind when I began postdoctoral work in developmental psychology, under the supervision of Jerry Bruner. In 1972, the year in which he published 'On the nature and uses of immaturity' (a paper whose implications I sometimes think I have spent my whole scientific career exploring), Bruner was himself adopting an evolutionary perspective. Both Bruner and I, in turn, sat at the feet of Niko Tinbergen, in the period when he shared the 1973 Nobel prize with Lorenz and von Frisch for establishing the field of ethology. Influenced also by figures like John Bowlby, I became both an evolutionary and developmental psychologist (and am now rather bemused by the present widespread perception that 'evolutionary psychology' is the recent creation of an influential US caucus). Moving from Oxford to St Andrews to take up my first lectureship (in 1975), I embarked on a program of comparative research, aiming to understand the intertwined evolution and development of mind and behaviour from an adaptive perspective, which has continued to the present day. This work soon diversified, including, for example, studies of parent-infant interactions that ranged from seagulls to baboons to people. In the late 1980s a particular focus developed that has pervaded my work since, and also become a major theme of contemporary psychological research. It can be summed up most simply in the expression 'social mind'. Are there special characteristics of the social world that have profoundly shaped the architecture of mind? Is it even possible that such forces represent the crucial explanation for the evolution of special kinds and levels of intelligence in monkeys and apes? Perhaps even the unprecedented expansion and convolution of the human brain and mind? Knowing Nicholas Humphrey's brilliant speculations on such subjects ('On the social function of inte llect', 1976), I first became excited by cases of tactically-deployed deception observed during an African baboon study by Richard Byrne and myself, a finding that led us eventually to bring together hundreds of such scattered records from across the primate order. This in turn encouraged us to collate the key evidence for the evolution of complex social intelligence, a phenomenon that in 1988 we dubbed 'Machiavellian', after the famous political schemer. Such work addressed issues that were receiving increasing attention in developmental psychology also, and through the 1990s I and others have pursued intertwined evolutionary, comparative and developmental study programmes that have concerned such topics as theory of mind, joint attention and imitation. Cross-disciplinary fertilization between these endeavours has been exciting, extending also to sister subjects like philosophy and anthropology, while the implications of a special social intelligence are increasingly recognised in the spawning of 'social cognitive neuroscience' and robotics' ambition to create 'socially intelligent autonomous robots'. Author: Andrew Whiten