2013 Winner: Lindsey Smith

Monkey Mindreading: Exploring Primate Psychology

The central questions that guided our inquiry in Monkey Mindreading: Exploring Primate Psychology were: What kinds of cognitive abilities do primates have? How can scientists assess them?, and What do differences or similarities in cognition across various animals mean evolutionarily? To lay the groundwork for answering these questions, I started the semester by teaching students key concepts in evolutionary anthropology and cognitive psychology and refreshing students on the scientific method. Then we began to explore how researchers go about “mindreading,” or determining what animals are thinking and how they perceive the world. Students read about cognitive research in academic review articles from anthropology and psychology journals, in popular science articles in newspapers and magazines, and in their textbook, The Cognitive Animal. We also watched a PBS video called Ape Genius to learn more about how and why human minds differ from those of our primate relatives. To introduce students the genre of scientific writing, I assigned texts that discussed conventions such as APA citations, section headings, and using the first person. Students wrote two papers during the first part of the semester that allowed them to assess the methodological and philosophical challenges of conducting cognitive research with animals (Short Paper 1: Challenges to Mindreading) and evaluate theories for how certain cognitive abilities evolve (Short Paper 2: The Evolution of Social Cognition). At the end of the semester, I offered students the opportunity to revise one of these papers for extra credit.

After acclimating students to scientific writing, discourse, and methodology, I introduced scientific research articles that showed students how scientists share their research with each other and modeled the kind of writing I ask students to produce in their final writing project. We also began examining evidence of cognitive abilities like problem solving and mental state attribution in animals outside the primate order. The readings and discussions of these abilities were complemented by NOVA Science Now and YouTube videos of research with dolphins, dogs, and crows. These media sources were effective in transforming the often dry descriptions from the texts into something much more vibrant and accessible. As students learned more about the impressive cognitive abilities of other animals, we turned back to primates to determine whether their evolutionary connection to humans makes primates cognitively special, or whether primates are no different from many other animals. To answer this question, student wrote a longer paper (Short Paper 3: Are Primates Special?) in which they analyzed evidence, drew conclusions about primate cognition, and established clear, contestable arguments that were supported by empirical evidence and evolutionary theory.

The final writing project of the semester was a research proposal, which required students to select a cognitive ability in a particular primate species and design an observational or experimental research project to investigate that ability. I encouraged students who wanted to actually conduct their research to propose projects that could feasibly be conducted at the Duke Lemur Center and to apply for Duke Dannenberg Grants. To give students a behind-the-scenes look at primate cognition research, I also scheduled class a visit to the Duke Lemur Center. During our visit, we spoke with researchers about how they design and conduct their research and we observed an undergraduate researcher from the Brannon Laboratory at Duke run experimental trials for her study on numerical cognition in lemurs. This class trip was a rare opportunity for students to experience what cognitive research entails, and the students were elated to have up-close interactions with primates. In the final week of the semester, students gave presentations in which they shared with the class their research questions, proposed methods, and their potential contributions to the field. This two-day “conference” was a great way for students to take ownership of their projects and to present their work as scientists do in academic conferences.

Monkey Mindreading gave students a firm understanding of major questions in evolutionary anthropology and cognitive psychology, and an appreciation for how scientists go about answering those questions. The interdisciplinary nature of this Writing 101 course also allowed students with interests in anthropology, biology, philosophy, animal behavior, and psychology to connect to the course topic and appreciate how they could apply their knowledge and skills to future writing and research at Duke. The unique subject of this course, the emphasis on scientific writing and research, and the inclusion of experiential and multi-media learning tools made Monkey Mindreading a dynamic and intellectually challenging space to teach students to become critical thinkers, careful readers, proficient researchers, and confident writers.