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Where Darwin went really wrong: an unbridgeable gap in cognitive evolution

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Darwin famously stated in the Descent of Man that “the difference in mind between man and higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” I will argue that the evidence shows quite the opposite: the difference is one of kind and not degree. I first show that nonhuman animal cognition is highly myopic, focused on narrow adaptive problems. Thus, when we look at claims of teaching, tool use, mathematics, morality, and language, all are narrowly restricted to specific contexts, showing none of the trademark signatures of human cognition. I then show why this is the case by pointing to four features of human cognition that are uniquely human: generative computations, promiscuous interfaces between modular systems, spontaneously generated internal and external symbols, and abstract representations that are often detached from sensory inputs. I focus in particular on mathematical and linguistic representations and computations as exemplary cases of differences in kind and not degree. The evolution of human cognition represents a case of massive discontinuity, pointing to radical changes in human brain structure and connectivity, changes that had to occur quite recently in our evolutionary past.

This talk is part of the King's Occasional Lectures series.

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