Routes to Language





Machiavellian Intelligence


Beyond scope of model

Likely Emergence:

Pan-Homo common ancestor

About 8 million years ago


Vigilant Sharing

Larger Social Groups

Increased Dexterity


References and other reading

Richard W. Byrne (2000). Evolution of Primate Cognition. In Cognitive Science 24:3, 543-570.

Richard W. Byrne (1995). Machiavellian Intelligence. In The Thinking Ape: evolutionary origins of intelligence. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK, ch13.

Frans B.M. de Waal (1982). Chimpanzee politics: power and sex among primates. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, MD, USA. (Current edition is 25th Anniversary Edition, 2007).

David Erdal, Andrew Whiten, Christopher Boehm & Bruce Knauft (1994). On Human Egalitarianism: An evolutionary product of Machiavellian status escalation? In Current Anthropology, vol 39, no 2, pp175-183.

Sergey Gavrilets & Aaron Vose (2006). The dynamics of Machiavellian intelligence. In PNAS, vol 103, no 45, pp16823-16828.

Bruce Hood (2012). The Machiavellian baby. In The Self Illusion: Why there is no 'you' inside your head. Constable & Robinson Ltd: London, UK, ch2.

John Orbell, Tomonori Morikawa, Jason Hartwig, James Hanley & Nicholas Allen (2004). “Machiavellian” Intelligence as a Basis for the Evolution of Cooperative Dispositions. In American Political Science Review, vol 98, no 1, pp1-15.

David Livingstone Smith (2004). Why We Lie: the evolutionary roots of deception and the unconscious mind. St Martins Griffin: New York, USA.


A term first adopted by de Waal in 1982, Machiavellian Intelligence (MI) represents the social cognition that primates, particularly Pan and Homo, seem to be so good at. It is characterised by Theory of Mind: the individual sees other individuals as intentional beings, but their intentionality is a problem to be solved to enhance personal survivability. The emphasis is on manipulating others for personal gain, rather than accommodating the needs of those others.


Byrne (1995, pp195-209) proposed that MI be treated as a hypothesis, because it covers a range of explanations for a range of behaviours. However, they all share in common “the assertion that interactions with conspecific social companions present an intellectual challenge to an individual simian primate and that primate ‘intelligence’ has adapted in response to this challenge” (p195). MI, according to this definition, has both a social and a genetic basis. Byrne (2000) sees these two strands as intertwined in the development of MI in the primate clade, with different primates using differently weighted combinations in their social interactions.


Gavrilets & Vose (2006) used the MI hypothesis to model the effect of MI on the development of intelligence and brain size. They took the view that MI is characterised by an evolving range of strategies and counter-strategies that they called memes. Their model showed the phases of memic development: a dormant phase in which new memes are rare and novel; a cognitive explosion phase in which the stock of memes was greatly increased, requiring larger brains to handle all the strategies available; and a saturation phase in which the physical limits of development prevented further increase. Their model reflects the cognitive development in humans, and suggests at last two cognitive explosion phases in the development of humans: from Australopithecus to early Homo, and from early Homo to Homo ergaster/erectus.


Orbell et al (2004) modelled the possible development of cooperative societies out of MI. They found that even small amounts of cooperation can propagate through a population if the cooperative acts are more valuable to the individuals involved than selfish acts: “cooperative transitions occur when a pair of agents with high cooperative dispositions and well-developed mindreading capacities recognize each other… [and] …both cooperate and prosper accordingly”.


MI seems an unpromising origin for language-like communication; but its role in the Pan-Homo common ancestor needs to be acknowledged, and the dilemma it poses needs to be explained.


Martin P.J. Edwardes, 2016