Learn This One Weird Trick … (Part One)

… that humans use, and now you can too!

There are people who think that human beings are nothing special. Sure (the argument goes) people have uniquely large brains. But all sorts of creatures have unique features. Elephants are the only animals with trunks. Tamarins and marmosets are the only primates that give birth to twins. Platypuses are the only venomous mammals. Spotted hyenas are the only mammals whose females sport pseudo-penises (through which they give birth!). And so on. If we could ask members of these species they’d claim that they’re the special ones.

But of course we can’t ask them, and in any case, this isn’t a very convincing argument. Human beings have an absolutely outsize impact on the Earth, and the advent of human beings looks like one of the major evolutionary transitions, comparable in importance to the origin of the eukaryotic cell or multicellular life. But even if we buy this, it still leaves open the question of whether there’s a key adaptation – a One Weird Trick – that accounts for the exceptional course of human evolution. Here are some candidates that being are being batted around these days:

1) The cognitive niche. The basic idea is at least as old as Aristotle, that human brings are defined by their capacity for Reason. A modern version of this is advocated by evolutionary psychologist John Tooby and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. Pinker in particular has elaborated the argument that humans are uniquely adapted to acquire and share knowledge, by virtue of a suite of cognitive, social, and linguistic adaptations. We’ve already touched on several aspects of this: Human beings seem to have taken the capacity for thinking about physical space and retooled it for thinking about the abstract cognitive space of possession – a social relationship. (Other abstract cognitive spaces include kinship, time, and change-of-state.) And humans seem to harness the machinery for processing the sounds of interacting solid objects in creating major categories of phonemes. For a more complete exposition, here’s an academic article by Pinker, and a talk on youtube.

2) Culture. Rob Boyd and Pete Richerson, who’ve done a lot of mathematical modeling of cultural evolution, are skeptical about the “cognitive niche” argument. Too much culture, they argue, is things that have been learned by trial-and-error, and are passed on from one generation to the next without people understanding why they work. They appeal, as anthropologists have for generations, to the importance of culture. We mentioned earlier their argument that the frequency of climate change in the Ice Age was nicely calibrated to favor social learning rather than individual learning or instinct. Joseph Henrich provides a recent defense of the importance of culture. Contra Pinker, he thinks humans often don’t have a good cause-and-effect understanding of the things they do, but depend heavily on imitation and the accumulated wisdom of the elders.

Coming up: Part Two. Recursion and Shared Intentionality


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