By Danielle Sloan
What makes human cognition unique from that of other animals? This question is far from new and has an extensive history here at Vassar, where Margaret Floy Washburn spent her career searching for possible answers. In her 1908 book, The Animal Mind, she expressed her belief that gaining knowledge on animal cognition is highly similar to doing so on our own, both being derived by the inference of observed behavior. She believed that our actions vary from the actions of animals by degree and not by kind.
Recently, Marc Hauser, professor of psychology, biological anthropology, and organismic and evolutionary biology in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, has theorized that there may indeed be specific differences in mental capacity between humans and non-humans (Hauser, 2005). Hauser has conducted research in various fields of cognitive science including animal behavior and communication, the evolution of language, domain-specific systems of knowledge, and morality. He says this so-called “humaniqueness” is a set of evolved mechanisms that differentiate human and animal thought. These mechanisms consist of key differences which make humans capable of creating imaginative solutions to new problems. The four unique elements of human thought are the ability to combine and recombine various types of information and knowledge to gain new understanding; to apply the same solution to one problem to a different situation; to create and understand symbolic representations of computation and sensory data; and to separate modes of thought from raw sensory and perceptual data.
According to Hauser, these key abilities have created new paths of evolution that other animals have not utilized, creating the foundation upon which cultural evolution has been constructed. He believes that animals have “laser beam” intelligence, in which there are specific solutions for specific problems. In reference to tool-use, a specific tool has a specific function. In comparison, humans have “floodlight” intelligence, which allows us to apply a certain solution to multiple problems. Other animals are capable of this kind of intelligence, but in highly limited ways when compared with humans. Hauser says the cognitive gap between humans and other “smart species” such as chimps, elephants, and dolphins is “greater than that between those animals and worms”. (more…)