When primatologists Premack and Woodruff jocularly asked "Do chimps have a theory of mind?" they wanted to know wether they are able to attribute mental states to other individuals, or not. For example, you attribute a mental state to someone that you know is going to open the "salt" box for reaching salt, whereas you know that it contains raspberries. You are capable of distinguishing what reality consists in, from what other people think about it. What began as a joke was refined by philosophers, tested by developmental, comparative psychologists, and is now widely used in psychiatry, anthropology and ethology. Theory of Mind is now thought to be very rare, if not altogether absent, in non human primates; moreover, it does not work easily nor efficiently in people with many varieties of autisms, even some that are very intelligent, sometimes well above the average level. It appears that our natural and intuitive mentalistic interpretation of others' behavior is highly specific and can be selectively impaired. Without it, Temple Gradin says one would be as lost as "an anthropologist on Mars".

Anthropologist Maurice Bloch presented Malagasy people with the basic results yielded by the study of Theory of Mind, without giving them its name. They christened this curious phenomenon by themselves, using one of the only french words they know: they called it "politique", referring to the human capacity for deception and lying. Contemporary primatologists agrees with Malagasy intuitions: they think human intelligence has machiavellian origins; it did not evolve to dominate the physical world, but to master complex social skills. Other species, likewise dependent on others' mental states for their survival (scrubjays, dogs, non-human primates, etc.), have evolved mental devices that prefigure Theory of Mind.

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