It’s the gap, it’s the gap, it’s the gap gap gap … it’s the gap, it’s the gap, it’s the gap gap gap …*
Or how about the controversial mirror self-recognition test? Chimps, orang-utans and gorillas recognise themselves in a mirror and so pass this test. Monkeys, such as baboons, capuchins and macaques, fail. There’s also shaky evidence that dolphins, elephants and even magpies pass the test.
The so-called rich interpretation says that those who pass the test are self-aware. The lean version says that the test tells us little: “any animal that manages to avoid bumping into things, or biting itself in a fight” has the ability to distinguish self from non-self. Suddendorf lays out the arguments, but favours neither.
Regardless of interpretation, he says, the fact that humans and some primates pass, while others fail, tells us something. “The potential for mirror self-recognition evolved between 18 and 14 million years ago in the shared ancestor of hominids… We do not know what this creature looked like, but it is likely to have known what it looked like.”
Fascinating, but neither here nor there when it comes to explaining the gap. …
In The Gap, psychologist Thomas Suddendorf provides a definitive account of the mental qualities that separate humans from other animals, as well as how these differences arose. Drawing on two decades of research on apes, children, and human evolution, he surveys the abilities most often cited as uniquely human—language, intelligence, morality, culture, theory of mind, and mental time travel—and finds that two traits account for most of the ways in which our minds appear so distinct: Namely, our open-ended ability to imagine and reflect on scenarios, and our insatiable drive to link our minds together. These two traits explain how our species was able to amplify qualities that we inherited in parallel with our animal counterparts; transforming animal communication into language, memory into mental time travel, sociality into mind reading, problem solving into abstract reasoning, traditions into culture, and empathy into morality.
Is this news? Have animsl behaviourists seriously thought animals did this stuff?
Suddendorf concludes with the provocative suggestion that our unrivalled status may be our own creation—and that the gap is growing wider not so much because we are becoming smarter but because we are killing off our closest intelligent animal relatives.
He argues for a long series of not-quite-humans that we supposedly killed off.
Is it possible we also created them, in our own heads?
*Note: Sung to the tune of the William Tell overture, known locally as The Lone Ranger.
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