A reader-friendly examination of the great gap that exists between human beings and the rest of the animal world and an explanation of how our minds came to be unique.
In his debut, Suddendorf (Psychology/Univ. of Queensland) first looks at what we have learned about the mental capacities of other primates, describing numerous experiments and both lean and rich interpretations of data. The author’s words for these differing interpretations are “killjoy” and “romantic,” respectively, and he takes a position midway between them. His descriptions of the many ingenious tests to assess the capabilities of various species and of human children make for fascinating reading. In language, intelligence, theory of mind, culture and morality, humans are set apart by the ability to imagine and reflect on different scenarios and by the desire to link their scenario-building minds together. Thus, while animals have communication, humans have an open-ended language; while they demonstrate problem solving, humans have abstract reasoning; while they have memory, humans have mental time travel; while they show evidence of traditions, humans have cumulative culture; and while they display empathy, humans have morality. As to how this gap came to exist, the author posits that Homo sapiens are just one branch of the various species of hominids that once existed and that our ancestors may have played a major role in eliminating their closest relatives on the family tree. “The reason the current gap between animal and human minds seems so large and so baffling, then,” writes the author, “may be because we have destroyed the missing links.” He warns that the gap will widen as humans drive the great apes into extinction, but in a surprisingly hopeful conclusion, he notes that humans are capable of choosing and creating a desirable future for ourselves and for our closest relatives.
A fine example of science made accessible for general readers, combining history, personal anecdotes, clear accounts of research and a broad picture of human evolution.