A neuroethological approach to human and nonhuman primate behavior and cognition predicts biological specializations for social life. Evidence reviewed here indicates that ancestral mechanisms are often duplicated, repurposed, and differentially regulated to support social behavior. Focusing on recent research from nonhuman primates, we describe how the primate brain might implement social functions by coopting and extending preexisting mechanisms that previously supported nonsocial functions. This approach reveals that highly specialized mechanisms have evolved to decipher the immediate social context, and parallel circuits have evolved to translate social perceptual signals and nonsocial perceptual signals into partially integrated social and nonsocial motivational signals, which together inform general-purpose mechanisms that command behavior. Differences in social behavior between species, as well as between individuals within a species, result in part from neuromodulatory regulation of these neural circuits, which itself appears to be under partial genetic control. Ultimately, intraspecific variation in social behavior has differential fitness consequences, providing fundamental building blocks of natural selection. Our review suggests that the neuroethological approach to primate behavior may provide unique insights into human psychopathology.
Keywords: decision; evolution; oxytocin; reward; serotonin.