The Missing Link in Cognition: Origins of Self-Reflective Consciousness

The Missing Link in Cognition: Origins of Self-Reflective Consciousness

The Missing Link in Cognition: Origins of Self-Reflective Consciousness

The Missing Link in Cognition: Origins of Self-Reflective Consciousness


Are humans unique in having self-reflective consciousness? Or can precursors to this central form of human consciousness be found in non-human species? The Missing Link in Cognition brings together a diverse group of researchers who have been investigating this question from a variety ofperspectives, including the extent to which non-human primates, and, indeed, young children, have consciousness, a sense of self, thought process, metacognitions, and representations. Some of the participants--Kitcher, Higgins, Nelson, and Tulving--argue that these types of cognitive abilities areuniquely human, whereas others--Call, Hampton, Kinsbourne, Menzel, Metcalfe, Schwartz, Smith, and Terrace--are convinced that at least the precursors to self-reflective consciousness exist in non-human primates. Their debate focuses primarily on the underpinnings of consciousness. Some of the participants believe that consciousness depends on representational thought and on the mental manipulation of such representations. Is representational thought enough to ensure consciousness, or does one need more?If one needs more, exactly what is needed? Is reflection upon the representations, that is, metacognition, the link? Does a realization of the contingencies, that is, "knowing that," in Gilbert Ryle's terminology, ensure that a person or an animal is conscious? Is true episodic memory needed forconsciousness, and if so, do any animals have it? Is it possible to have episodic memory or, indeed, any self-reflective processing, without language?Other participants believe that consciousness is inextricably intertwined with a sense of self or self-awareness. From where does this sense of self or self-awareness arise? Some of the participants believe that it develops only through the use of language and the narrative form. If it doesdevelop in this way, what about claims of a sense of self or self-awareness in non-human animals? Others believe that the autobiographical record implied by episodic memory is fundamental. To what extent must non-human animals have the linguistic, metacognitive, and/or representational abilitiesto develop a sense of self or self-awareness? These and other related concerns are crucial in this volume's lively debate over the nature of the missing cognitive link, and whether gorillas, chimps, or other species might be more like humans than many have supposed.


Endel Tulving

The mental faculties of man and the lower animals do not differ in
kind, although immensely in degree.

C. Darwin, The Descent of Man

Among the games that scientists play, one of the best known is virtual tug-of-war. Two teams position themselves at the opposite ends of an imaginary rope that represents a continuum of nature, grab their end of the rope, and try to pull the other team over the center line. If they succeed, which actually seldom happens, they would declare their end of the rope the “truth,” and themselves the winners.

One long-lasting virtual tug-of-war has to do with the nature of the similarities and differences between the species, especially those between humans and other animals. The existence of the basic similarities has been accepted by intelligent people ever since Darwin's theory of “descent with modification” survived the harshest scrutiny that any set of scientific ideas has had to face, but the battle over the differences continues unabated. The differences typically have to do with humans and the species that occupy the neighboring branches on the evolutionary tree—sometimes chimpanzees and gorillas, sometimes all “greater apes,” sometimes all “nonhuman primates,” sometimes even other “nonhuman animals,” or simply “brutes,” as Darwin called all of them. And the two ends of the rope are called “qualitative” versus “quantitative,” or, as Darwin put it, “kind” or “degree.”

The contestants at one end of the rope believe that there are no essential differences between humans and the various “others,” and that whatever differences may seem to exist are either minor or uninteresting in the broader scheme of things. Those at the other end believe that in addition to many (uninteresting or less interesting) simi-

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