Marc Hauser’s presents four traits that make human cognition unique

The American Association for the Advancement of Science just wrapped up its annual meeting yesterday and the press is releasing a lot of summaries on what was presented. Of interest to anthropology are these four postulates, presented by Marc Hauser, the factors that differentiate human cognition.

Before I jump into this, I wanna review that in the past we thought episodic memory, non-linguistic mathematical ability,  the capacity to navigate using landmarks, and our ability to make and use tools were all unique human traits. But they’ve all been documented behaviors in other animals.
That being said, Marc Hauser present what he considers four unique human traits,

  1. The ability to combine and recombine different types of information and knowledge in order to gain new understanding.
  2. Apply the same “rule” or solution to one problem to a different and new situation.
  3. To create and easily understand symbolic representations of computation and sensory input.
  4. To detach modes of thought from raw sensory and perceptual input.

Hauser comments that these four unique cognitive traits,

“may have opened up other avenues of evolution that other animals have not exploited, and this evolution of the brain is the foundation upon which cultural evolution has been built.”

Unfortunately, the press release doesn’t indicate that Hauser presented his hypothesis with any data, and I believe that’s why they’re being labeled as postulates, assumptions without proof as a basis for reasoning. Given that we’ve debunked other behaviors once thought to be unique human traits, how do you feel about Hauser’s four? For example, have you ever seen other animals recombine other information to solve new problems, or understand symbolism?

6 thoughts on “Marc Hauser’s presents four traits that make human cognition unique

  1. Hi Kambiz,

    First, I’d like to point out that both 1 & 2 can be criticised on the basis of some of my friend’s work on New Caledonian Crows.

    A more important issue, I think, is that this is more of the same moving-the-goalposts that happens every single time an animal shows it can do something humans can. Instead of saying that animals don’t have language (which we were doing 30 years ago), we’re now arguing that they don’t have some sort of symbolic cognition. I really don’t think it’s helpful to do draw this arbitrary line between what-animals-do and what-people-do.

    It’s a weird sort of checklist all-or-nothing approach to cognition (this animal can recognise itself in a mirror, it can communicate with other animals, it can plan for the future…tick!). However, Hauser is an Evolutionary Psychologist of the Tooby and Cosmides school thought, and they do like to treat cognition as a modular tick-the-boxes game.

    I think Frans de Waal put it best when he said that asking whether animals can do X is like asking whether chickens can fly; they may not be able to fly like an eagle, but they can hop around trees and get stuff done. Instead of asking can they/can’t they, we should be asking questions about the extent to which they use these capabilities, how they overcome any ‘shortcomings’, and how all these capabilities interact to build a total picture of animal cognition.


  2. I beg to differ on the first point itself. Don’t we ‘teach/condition’ laboratory animals, giving them cues from outside? Stated otherwise, they do ‘learn’ and integrate, make inference from various inputs.

  3. The use of the word “postulates” tells it all. Science is based on the testing of hypotheses. This is part of the continuing, and continuously unsuccessful, effort to find some kind of quantum separation between man and other animals. For that reason alone, it gets attention in the popular science press.

    What is obvious is that the populations of man have the means to record and to process information outside of the nervous system, and to transmit this recorded information to succeeding generations. The result is a lot of weapons innovation beyond that seen in the earlier history of animal evolution. This has given man the ability to out-compete and to prey upon most other species of comparable size, so that man’s only remaining macro-predator of significance is other men. The organism man is still an animal, and man is still evolving. Man changes the environment, and the environment changes man. The same is true for other species.

    The hypothesis that man has remarkably highly-developed machinery for speech and symbolic logic is well-supported, as a difference in scale but not in kind when compared to the machinery of other animals.

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