Friday, October 9, 2009

The Mind

The first step in figuring out how the human mind arose is determining what distinguishes our mental processes from those of other creatures

Not too long ago three aliens descended to Earth to evaluate the status of intelligent life. One specialized in engineering, one in chemistry and one in computation. Turning to his colleagues, the engineer reported (translation follows): “All of the creatures here are solid, some segmented, with capacities to move on the ground, through the water or air. All extremely slow. Unimpressive.” The chemist then commented: “All quite similar, derived from different sequences of four chemical ingredients.” Next the computational expert opined: “Limited computing abilities. But one, the hairless biped, is unlike the others. It exchanges information in a manner that is primitive and inefficient but remarkably different from the others. It creates many odd objects, including ones that are consumable, others that produce symbols, and yet others that destroy members of its tribe.”

“But how can this be?” the engineer mused. “Given the similarity in form and chemistry, how can their computing capacity differ?” “I am not certain,” confessed the computational alien. “But they appear to have a system for creating new expressions that is infinitely more powerful than those of all the other living kinds. I propose that we place the hairless biped in a different group from the other animals, with a separate origin, and from a different galaxy.” The other two aliens nodded, and then all three zipped home to present their report.

Perhaps our alien reporters should not be faulted for classifying humans separately from bees, birds, beavers, baboons and bonobos. After all, our species alone creates soufflés, computers, guns, makeup, plays, operas, sculptures, equations, laws and religions. Not only have bees and baboons never made a soufflé, they have never even contemplated the possibility. They simply lack the kind of brain that has both technological savoir faire and gastronomical creativity.

Charles Darwin argued in his 1871 book The Descent of Manthat the difference between human and nonhuman minds is “one of degree and not of kind.” Scholars have long upheld that view, pointing in recent years to genetic evidence showing that we share some 98 percent of our genes with chimpanzees. But if our shared genetic heritage can explain the evolutionary origin of the human mind, then why isn’t a chimpanzee writing this essay, or singing backup for the Rolling Stones or making a soufflé? Indeed, mounting evidence indicates that, in contrast to Darwin’s theory of a continuity of mind between humans and other species, a profound gap separates our intellect from the animal kind. This is not to say that our mental faculties sprang fully formed out of nowhere. Researchers have found some of the building blocks of human cognition in other species. But these building blocks make up only the cement footprint of the skyscraper that is the human mind. The evolutionary origins of our cognitive abilities thus remain rather hazy. Clarity is emerging from novel insights and experimental technologies, however.

Key Concepts
• Charles Darwin argued that a continuity of mind exists between humans and other animals, a view that subsequent scholars have supported.

• But mounting evidence indicates that, in fact, a large mental gap separates us from our fellow creatures. Recently the author identified four unique aspects of human cognition.

• The origin and evolution of these distinctive mental traits remain largely mysterious, but clues are emerging slowly.

Source of Information : Scientific American September 2009

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