Social Complexity and Distributed Cognition in Olive Baboons (Papio anubis): Adding System Dynamics to Analysis of Interaction Data

Abstract: Applying a systems perspective to both social complexity and cognition in primates critically addresses the Social Function of Intellect hypothesis formally proposed by Humphrey (1976). A systems approach to social complexity (Hinde, 1987) entails framing social dynamics hierarchically from individuals, through interactions, to relationships and group structure, empirically building up from interaction data. A systems perspective on cognition (Hutchins, 1995) entails identification of a cognitive unit of analysis that is inclusive of the participants and other elements that affect a regularly observed outcome. This system is then studied as a process. We sketch a methodological framework using two data sets from a field study of Olive baboons (Papio anubis) in Kenya. The first data set, on 2,913 male-female-infant (MFI) triadic interactions, was employed mainly to illustrate applying a systems approach to social complexity. The second data set, on 180 sexual consort turnover (CTO) events, illustrates the use of a systems approach to study cognition. Adding dynamics changes the understanding of trends and the detection of the sources of variance in social interaction data. The MFI analysis included a multilayered visualization that shows group effects while maintaining the richness of an individual’s contribution. The CTO analysis showed how researchers can shift from looking at outcome (performance) to process (profiles of participation), which has much more relevance to the nature and development of cognition. A single CTO event captured on video provides an example of microanalysis at high temporal resolution (0.1 s) as well as the conferred advantage in shifting from discrete to continuous descriptions of behavior. Relations between system states and dynamics of individual elements can thus be systematically examined. The combined analyses suggest a flexible toolkit for addressing complex behavioral phenomena that can easily be extended to the study of other contexts and other species.


Document Type: Research article

DOI: 10.1578/AM.32.4.2006.528

Page Numbers: 528 – 543

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