Monday, November 3, 2008

Proof of Life and some thoughts on human uniqueness

In the next few days I’ll be getting a new laptop and then I’ll finally have access to the internet again. I will try posting on a weekly basis about things going on the blogosphere and about my own attempts at writing my (or rather something equivalent to) my M.A. Thesis.

Right now, I’m reading Marc Hauser’s (2001) “Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think” and Michael Tomasello’s (2003) “Constructing A Language” but I managed to buy Tomasello’s new book, The Origins of Human Communication, have followed Edmund Blair Bolles’ multi-part review with much interest, and when I’m done with the two other books I’ll start with Tomasello’s new one.

As Sandy G. of The Mouse Trap I’m especially interested in Tomasello’s idea of shared intentionality as it unfolds in a joint attentional frame in a rich social interactional setting. But what I am interested in is fleshing out the kind of perspectival cognitive representations that allows us to navigate successfully in social, linguistic, as well as spatial settings.

Apparently, Tomasello again only hints at how such a system might look like, but I share the hunch is that that it has something to do with Bühlerian “coordinate system awareness” and the ability to locate yourself and others in a dynamic shared frame of reference (see also the interesting work of Stephen Levinson)

An abstract frame of reference also seems to be a key issue for our ability of “higher order, abstract, role-governed, relational reasoning” which, according to Penn et al. 2008 (see also here and here) s the core system responsible for setting human cognition apart from the cognitive systems of other animals.

Povinelli et al.’s explanation that the cognitive discontinuity between human and nonhuman cognition arises from our ability of “relational reinterpretation”, i.e. the ability to reinterpret and encode perceptually-based experiences in an abstract and symbolic fashion, still sounds pretty good to me. But their claim rests on the assumption that nonhuman animals aren’t able to build up representations of more abstract frames of references at all, but that that their behaviour can be explained in terms of reinforcement history and perceptually-based strategies, and the evidence cited by them is clearly in favour of their view.

But in Marc Hauser’s 2001 book I’ve read about Clark’s Nutcracker, a food storing bird that can hide up to 33,000 seeds in more than six thousand locations and is able to retrieve most of them months later. Hauser reports on experiments done by Alan Kamil and Juli Jones, who trained the birds to at a point in the middle of two landmarks. After that, the experimenters varied the distance between the landmarks, and the tested Clark’s nutcrackers were successful in generalizing the location of the food to the new geometric situation and retrieved it successfully at the new midway point. Hauser concludes that “these data show that nutcrackers form a representation of the geometric relationship among landmarks – something like the middle – and use this to find stored food” (Hauser 2001: 89).

To me this looks like an instance of relational reinterpretation, reinterpreting the specific perceptually-based spatial location of two landmarks in terms of a higher-order abstract geometrical system, but I would be very interested what other people think about this experiment.


Penn, Derek C, Keith J. Holyoak. and Daniel J. Povinelli (2008): Darwin's mistake: Explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences (31:2): 109-130.

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