NYCEP Alumnus Profile

Francys Subiaul

Assistant Professor Speech and Hearing Science Mind, Brain & Evolution Center George Washington University


B.A. 1999, Boston University M.A. 2001, Columbia University M.Phil. 2002, Columbia University Ph.D. 2004, Columbia University




Overview of Research

My research seeks to understand human cultural uniqueness. Specifically, my colleagues and I have sought to address: What do we learn from others? And, How do we learn from others? These are questions that we often take for granted, as social learning comes so naturally to humans. Yet, most of what we know is derived from knowledge acquired from others among these are the basic skills of reading, writing and our ability to speak. In short, these skills and countless others make us who we are as individuals and as a species. Given that social learning is widespread in the animal kingdom, and traditions exist in great apes species, a fundamental question in the human sciences is what makes human social learning so seemingly different?

Over the past years, my colleagues and I have approached this problem by deconstructing imitation into component parts. First, we have sought to answer whether some types of arbitrary rules are easier to copy than others. For instance, are arbitrary spatial rules (up, down, right) easier to copy than ordinal rules (first, second, third)? Second, what is inherently easy/hard about copying certain types of information? And third, given this knowledge, when we present non-human primates with similar tasks, do we find any meaningful differences in imitation performance? On-going research with typically-developing children and children with autism, as well as with non-human great apes in the National Zoological Gardens hopes to ultimately answer whether between-species differences in what and how humans and other animals imitate explain human cultural uniqueness.


Vonk, J. & Subiaul, F. (2008). Do chimpanzees know what others can and cannot do? Reasoning about ‘Capability’. Animal Cognition. Sept. 3.

Subiaul F, Vonk J, Barth J, Okamoto-Barth S (2008). Chimpanzees Learn the Reputation of Strangers by Observation. Animal Cognition

Sherwood, C., Subiaul, F., & Zawidszki, T. (2008). A Natural History of the Human Mind. Journal of Anatomy, 212(4): 426-54.

Subiaul F (2007). The Imitation Faculty in Monkeys: Evaluating its features, distribution and evolution. Journal of Anthropological Sciences, 85: 35-62.

Subiaul F, Cantlon J, Romansky K, Klein T, Terrace HS (2007). Cognitive Imitation in 2-Year Old Human Toddlers: A comparison with rhesus monkeys. Animal Cognition. 10(4): 369-75.

Subiaul F, Lurie H, Klein T, Holmes D, Terrace HS (2007). Cognitive Imitation in Typically-Developing 3- and 4-year Old and Individuals with Autism. Cognitive Development, 22: 230-43.

Subiaul F, Okamoto-Barth S, Barth J, & Povinelli DJ (2007). Human Cognitive Specializations. In Todd M. Preuss & Jon H. Kaas (Eds.) Evolution of Nervous Systems: Volume V; The Evolution of Primate Nervous Systems. Elsevier: New York.

Subiaul F, Cantlon, JF, Holloway, Terrace HS (2004). Cognitive Imitation in Rhesus Macaques. Science, 305(5682), 407-10.