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Daneil J. Povinelli

1986 B.S. (Anthropology, minor: Zoology)  University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA

1988 M.S. (Physical Anthropology) Yale University, New Haven, CT

1991 Ph.D. (Physical Anthropology) Yale University, New Haven, CT

My primary interests are in characterizing the evolution of higher-order cognitive functions in the great ape/human clade (humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans). Primarily, our research programs include comparisons of the psychological development of human children and captive chimpanzees.

Our long-term projects have focused on three areas: (1) whether chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates reason about unobservable mental states of others (such as perceptions, desires, and beliefs). (2) whether these species reason about unobservable aspects of physical interactions (such as gravity, force, mass, physical connection, strength. etc.), and (3) the nature of the self-concept in the great apes. Each of these programs involves systematic comparisons with human children between the ages of 18 months and about 5 years. Much of our current research has attempted to test our theories which relate the evidence of an elaborated system of kinesthetic self-representation in the great apes (as expressed through their capacity for mirror self-recognition, elaborated patterns of tool-making and use, and more robust forms of imitation), to ecological aspects of the ancestor of this taxonomic group. Based upon morphological evidence, orangutans appear to be the closest approximation of the common ancestor, and thus have served as a focal point for testing certain aspects of these theories.

Graduate students in recent years have primarily worked with our population of captive chimpanzees on projects relating to their understanding of the underlying principles of how simple tools work, their ability to reason about what others can and cannot see, their ability to related their own sensory experiences when interacting with objects to abstract physical properties of those objects (such as weight), and their ability to pre-plan sequential motor actions. Long-term financial support for our laboratories provides resources for student projects.

You can read more about my research at my website.

Selected Publications (2005-present)

Povinelli, D.J. (in press). World without weight: Perspectives on an alien mind. Oxford, Oxford University Press. (345 pp.)

Frey, S. & Povinelli, D.J. (in press). Comparative investigations of manual action  representations: evidence for context sensitive action selection in chimpanzees.  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Marrus, N. Faughn, C., Shuman, J., Petersen, S., Constantino,  J., Povinelli, D., & Pruett,  J.R., Jr. (2011). Initial description of a quantitative, cross-species (chimpanzee- human) social reciprocity measure. Journal of the American Academy of Child  and Adolescent Psychiatry, 21, 321–330.

Povinelli, D.J., & Penn, D.C. (2011). Through a floppy tool darkly: Toward a  conceptual overthrow of animal alchemy. In McCormack, T., Hoerl, C., &   Butterfill, S. (Eds.), Tool Use and Causal Cognition. Oxford: Oxford University  Press.

Okamoto-Barth, S., Moore, C., Barth, J., Subiaul, F., & Povinelli, D.J. (2010).  Carryover-effect of joint attention to repeated events in chimpanzees and young  children. Developmental Science, 14, 440-452.

Povinelli, D.J., Reaux, J.E., & Frey, S.H. (2010). Chimpanzees’ tool use provides   evidence for separable representations of hand and tool even during active use  within  peripersonal space. Neuropsychologia, 48, 243-247.

Vonk, J., Brosnan, S., Silk, J., Henrich, J., Richardson, A., Lambeth, S., Schapiro, S., Povinelli, D. (2008) Chimpanzees do not take advantage of very low cost opportunities to deliver food to unrelated group members. Animal Behavior, 75, 1757-1770.

Penn, D.C., Holyoak, K.J., & Povinelli, D.J. (2008). Darwin’s mistake: explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 31, 109-130.

Penn, D.C.  & Povinelli, D.J. (2007). On the lack of evidence that chimpanzees possess anything remotely resembling a ‘theory of mind.’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B, 362, 731-744.

Subiaul, F., Okamoto-Barth, S., Barth, J., & Povinelli, D.J. (2007). Human cognitive specializations. In Todd M. Preuss & Jon H. Kaas (Eds.) Evolution of Nervous Systems: Volume V, The Evolution of Primate Nervous Systems. Pp. 509-528. Elsevier: New York.

Penn, D. & Povinelli, D.J. (2007). Causal cognition in human and nonhuman animals: A comparative, critical review. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 97-118.

Silk, J.B., Brosnan, S.F., Vonk, J., Henrich, J., Povinelli, D.J., Richardson, A.F., Lambeth, S.P., Mascaro, J., Schapiro, S.J. (2005). Chimpanzees are indifferent to the welfare of other group members. Nature, 435, 1357-1359

Feel free to contact me at:

Phone: (337) 482-0265