The Comparative Science of Human Cognition;
What’s human about the human mind?
Daniel J. Povinelli, University of Louisiana at Lafayette
One of the most fundamental questions we can ask about the human mind concerns what makes it distinct from other species. What features of the human mind have allowed our species to achieve the linguistic, cultural, and technological innovations that markedly differentiate us from other species? Answering these questions should be among the highest priorities of the behavioral and brain sciences. First, they are questions which cut across linguistics, anthropology, psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience and philosophy of mind, and second, it is a questions which in a very real sense lies behind every field of science and the arts from chemistry to theatre: how is it that only humans engage in these activities? Answering these questions necessarily requires comparing the human mind to those of other species, in particular our closest living relatives, the great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans). It is only be comparing the human mind to other species that the distinctive constellation of human cognitive specializations will become clear. It should be alarming, then, that the infrastructure for a full-scale assault on these questions does not exist, and that the resources to support research on chimpanzees and other great apes, in particular, is dwindling. It is clear that without strategic decisions at the federal level, the opportunity to use great apes to address the question of what it means to be human will be lost. Worse yet, the future history of the field will be left to well-meaning conservation and animal welfare groups that are ideally not suited to answering these questions in an unbiased manner.