Thursday, September 06, 2007

Discontinuities between Human and Animal Cognition

Premack offers a stimulating brief essay (PDF here) pointing out that recent cognitive studies finding abilities in animals once thought unique to humans should not lead us to confuse similarity with equivalence, for the human brain has nerve cell types and connections not found in any other animals. He examines eight cognitive areas to argue that dissimilarities are large. Here is his abstract:
Microscopic study of the human brain has revealed neural structures, enhanced wiring, and forms of connectivity among nerve cells not found in any animal, challenging the view that the human brain is simply an enlarged chimpanzee brain. On the other hand, cognitive studies have found animals to have abilities once thought unique to the human. This suggests a disparity between brain and mind. The suggestion is misleading. Cognitive research has not kept pace with neural research. Neural findings are based on microscopic study of the brain and are primarily cellular. Because cognition cannot be studied microscopically, we need to refine the study of cognition by using a different approach. In examining claims of similarity between animals and humans, one must ask: What are the dissimilarities? This approach prevents confusing similarity with equivalence. We follow this approach in examining eight cognitive cases—teaching, short-term memory, causal reasoning, planning, deception, transitive inference, theory of mind, and language—and find, in all cases, that similarities between animal and human abilities are small, dissimilarities large. There is no disparity between brain and mind.
Another major article on this topic is in draft form for Brain and Behavioral Sciences: "Darwin’s mistake: explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds," by Derek C. Penn, Keith J. Holyoak and Daniel J. Povinelli.
Their 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 paper, 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 (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 of 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.


  1. I wonder if Savage-Rumbaugh's studies on bonobos' use of symbols would be a good counter argument?

  2. I guess the question would be whether the bonobos invent and use symbols in their natural environment out side of the laboratory. I think the answer is no. Also, the discontinuity folks would argue that the faculty displayed in chimps is exceedingly primitive compared with hominid symbol use, no recursion, etc.

  3. Savage-Rumbaugh would reply, "I don't know what they do with their speech in the wild, but given that they
    learn it so easily in captivity there is a good chance that they are using it in the wild,". Although this is mere speculation it is definitely something to think about. Also, the bonobos' intentional us of trail markings as a form of communication is something further to consider.