Got your attention, right? That’s the title of a paper by Penn, Holyoak, and Povinelli in April’s Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Well, the full title is “Darwin’s mistake: Explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds.” Here’s the abstract:
Over the last quarter century, the dominant tendency in comparative cognitive psychology has been to emphasize the similarities between human and nonhuman minds and to downplay the differences as “one of degree and not of kind” (Darwin 1871). In the present target article, we argue that Darwin was mistaken: the profound biological continuity between human and nonhuman animals masks an equally profound discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. To wit, there is a significant discontinuity in the degree to which human and nonhuman animals are able to approximate the higher-order, systematic, relational capabilities of a physical symbol system (PSS) (Newell 1980). We show that this symbolic-relational discontinuity pervades nearly every domain of cognition and runs much deeper than even the spectacular scaffolding provided by language or culture alone can explain. We propose a representational-level specification as to where human and nonhuman animals’ abilities to approximate a PSS are similar and where they differ. We conclude by suggesting that recent symbolic-connectionist models of cognition shed new light on the mechanisms that underlie the gap between human and nonhuman minds.
In short, Penn et al. argue that relational reasoning abilities separate the mental capabilities of humans and other animals. It’s an interesting read, particularly for those of you who are interested in the evolution of human cognition. If you have a subscription (and maybe if you don’t — I never know with BBS), you can read the entire article, along with all of the peer commentaries, and the authors’ response to them, here. Some of the commentaries are pretty good, especially the one by yours truly (I kid). If you can guess which one, I’ll give you a cookie, and an immediate comment deletion (gotta preserve the anonymity, ya know?). Might be better to guess in an email, now that I think about it.
Anyway, if you don’t have a subscription, you can read the full article here for free, but unfortunately, you can’t read any of the commentary, and with BBS articles, seeing a bunch of people strain to make their own work relevant to the target article (myself included) is at least half of the fun.
Feel free to discuss the article in the comments here. Should make for some interesting conversation.