Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis

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Dog with ball in mouth runs from kid playing chase game at summer lawn

Is It Empathy, Not Intellect, That Makes Humans Unique?

Could empathy create intellect, and not the other way around?

A Canadian philosopher of mind and language offers a refreshingly thoughtful approach to the uniqueness of human ways of thinking: He reflects on the difference between what is happening when his dog Mackenzie and his eighteen-month-old nephew William bring him an object to play with: For Mackenzie, there is only one game in town. We have been playing it for years, and it never gets old. Sure, I mix things up a bit from time to time. A little sleight of hand can send Mackenzie left while I toss right. Or I fake a throw then hide the ball behind my back, after which I mirror Mackenzie’s stupefied, slightly annoyed look with my own incredulous one. (‘Where did it go?’)…

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Pair of ravens in courtship. Corvus corax

Why Does Science Embrace the “Talking Animals” Myth?

Many birds are quite smart but why do some researchers imply that they think like people?

In recent years, studies have confirmed a widespread cultural intuition that some birds, particularly corvids like crows and ravens, are “smart.” They show considerable problem-solving skills. Thus, they loom large in mythology as messengers and tricksters. For example, the Norse king of the gods (pictured) had two ravens as advisors. Oddly enough, science today retains the mythology and makes a curious use of it: New discoveries about the specifics of corvid brain organization and intelligence are framed as demonstrating that humans do not really have as exceptional thinking ability as we suppose: Research unveiled on Thursday in Science finds that crows know what they know and can ponder the content of their own minds, a manifestation of higher intelligence and…

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Smiling multiracial friends talk using sign language

Did We Learn Sign Language Before We Learned to Speak?

The idea that humans first communicated by complicated gestures and only later learned to speak is popular among cognitive scientists. Kensy Cooperrider explains

The origin of language is considered one of the hardest problems in science. Like the origin of consciousness, it attracts a great many theories. Cognitive scientist Kensy Cooperrider is a stout defender of the idea that human language started as sign language—a gestural “protolanguage” —hundreds of thousands of years ago. It’s not a new idea. It goes back to Étienne Bonnot de Condillac’s Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge (1746) and remained popular in the 19th century. In the 20th century, it was championed by University of Colorado anthropologist Gordon Hewes (1917–1997), who introduced the idea of studying ape communications in the early Seventies, to gain more insight. In general, apes communicate more by gesture than by voice. An…

Close up of a Chimpanzee-family (mother and her two kids)

Researchers: Apes Are Just Like Us!

And we’re not doing the right things to make them start behaving that way…

In 2011, we were told in Smithsonian Magazine, “‘Talking’ apes are not just the stuff of science fiction; scientists have taught many apes to use some semblance of language.” Have they? If so, why has it all subsided? What happened?

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Does Social Ability Distinguish Human Intelligence from That of Apes?

Not altogether, of course, but it plays a bigger role than we sometimes assume

In Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny, professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Michael Tomasello tries to understand, from his two decades of research, what makes humans unique. He says that it is not intelligence as such but social intelligence, our “ultra social ability”: One of our most important studies was a huge study we did with over 100 human children and over 100 chimpanzees. We gave them a big battery of tests – a big IQ test if you will. It covered understanding of space, causality, quantities, as well as social learning, communication, reading the intentions of others. We found that 2-year-old children – before they can read or do anything mathematical – look just like the apes on physical…