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February 17, 2015 / BTM

Can Evolution Explain the Gap in Cognitive Capacity Between Humans and Animals?

In my last post I concluded that humans appear to have unique and far superior cognitive capacities than animals. Why is this so?

Is the Bible correct when it claims that humans are unique in all creation because we have been made in the image of God?

Or is there an evolutionary explanation for our apparent superiority to animals?

Two evolutionary-based explanations have surfaced during my research on the topic.

Not better, just different

Professor Maciej Henneberg, (professor of anthropological and comparative anatomy at the University of Adelaide) stresses that the differences between humans and animals is not a difference of kind, but a difference of degree. Humans are not smarter than animals, they are just different. He is quoted in as saying:

“The fact that they [animals]  may not understand us, while we do not understand them, does not mean our ‘intelligences’ are at different levels, they are just of different kinds. […]

“Animals offer different kinds of intelligences which have been under-rated due to humans’ fixation on language and technology. These include social and kinaesthetic intelligence. Some mammals, like gibbons, can produce a large number of varied sounds – over 20 different sounds with clearly different meanings […] The fact that they do not build houses is irrelevant to the gibbons.

“Many quadrupeds leave complex olfactory marks in their environment, and some, like koalas, have special pectoral glands for scent marking. Humans, with their limited sense of smell, can’t even gauge the complexity of messages contained in olfactory markings, which may be as rich in information as the visual world.”

This type of answer is meant to illustrate that animals and humans have different but equally valid intelligences. It seeks to blur any distinction between the two, which is completely in line with evolutionary thinking.

Personally, I find anecdotal evidence of this nature very unsatisfying. It leaves me with a feeling of ‘so what’? So what if gibbons have over 20 different sounds with different meanings? So what if they had over 100? Juxtapose this with the quality and sophistication of human cognitive ability as presented in my last post. Why does one – and I suggest weak – example of gibbons lift all of the animal kingdom to the level of humans? Even if every animal had as sophisticated a level of communication as gibbons (and the vast majority don’t), does that prove that animals are the equals of humans?

I think it does only if you assume evolution. If we are all evolved from the same single-celled parent, then human communication was at the level of the gibbon’s at one time – just as we were once at the slug’s level of communication. It then follows that the gibbon’s ‘limited’ vocabulary is, in a sense, a place along the evolutionary pathway that humans once passed by, and which presumably other animals will one day pass by as well.

The case of our missing ancestors

After noting five traits that set humans apart from animals (language, foresight, mind-reading, intelligence, and culture and morality), Suddendorf states that scientists have found “some of the building blocks of human cognition in other species. But these building blocks make up only the cement foot print of the skyscraper that is the human mind. The evolutionary origins of our cognitive abilities thus remain rather hazy.” He concludes that “[w]e [only] appear so different from other animals because all our closest relatives have become extinct.”

Think of the gibbon. We passed its communication capacity a while ago, but so did some of our ancestors. Unfortunately, all of these ancestors are now dead, making us appear to be far advanced from the gibbon and any other creature currently alive.

With this statement, scientists are trying to show that human cognition is not extraordinary, but evolutionary. To prove this, they again have to assume evolution (they see very rudimentary versions of human cognition in apes, which are assumed to have genetic links to humans).

Second, wouldn’t it be very difficult to determine the cognitive abilities of an animal (one presumed to have been an ancestor to humans) based on its remains (fossilized or otherwise). On what basis do they make this analysis?

Schleifer says that humans’ higher cognitive abilities are not based on brain size or weight – humans do not have the biggest or heaviest brains either absolutely or relative to our overall size. Human brains have a different anatomy than that of animals’. The nerve centre is only slightly more complex than animals’ brains. None of these physical attributes would merit making judgements on the cognitive capacities or abilities of extinct species.

Based only on remains, how can we tell how an alleged pre-human relative communicated or thought? What characteristics in bones or fossils determine how that ‘pre-human’ made decisions? Collaborated with its peers? Judged something to be moral or ethical and acted upon those convictions? Sought after answers to ultimate questions? It seems to me that all these must either be dismissed or assumed based on faith that evolution is true.

No robust evolutionary explanation or mechanism

I have not seen a robust evolutionary explanation, and certainly no evolutionary mechanism, offered to adequately explain the gap in cognition between humans and animals. What I do see is evidence that fits far more logically into the notion that humans have been created in the image of God – with far and away more advanced cognitive ability than animals.

Historically, I think we’ve made a huge mistake in assuming that greater cognitive ability equals greater justification for dominance.

As our cognition differs in kind, not just in degree, we also have a difference in obligation as caretakers, stewards and protectors. Our superior cognition does not give us a licence to exploit. It is precisely because we have been endowed with the ability to make moral and ethical decisions that we are called to act accordingly. We will be held responsible for how we treat the rest of creation – humans first, the rest second – precisely because we were given the capacity to do so.

I welcome your thoughts and comments!


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