Learning from Animals? Examining the Nature of Human Uniqueness

By Zentall, Thomas R. | The Psychological Record, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Learning from Animals? Examining the Nature of Human Uniqueness


Zentall, Thomas R., The Psychological Record


ROSKA-HARDY, L. S., Ampersand NEUMANN-HELD, E. M. (EDS.) (2009)

Learning from Animals? Examining the Nature of Human Uniqueness

New York: Psychology Press

pp. vii-268, ISBN 978-1-84169-707-9

The editors of Learning from Animals? Examining the Nature of Human Uniqueness approached the question of comparative cognition from a novel perspective. Rather than trying to understand other animals from our point of view, they challenged contributors to use what we know about other animals to better understand ourselves.

As we learn more about the cognitive abilities of other animals, we begin to view them as more similar to us. And the more we learn about the role of emotion, reflexes, and basic learning (i.e., Pavlovian and instrumental conditioning) in complex human decision processes, the more we recognize that we are more similar to them than typically we have believed. But in taking the perspective of animals, this book also addresses the differences between humans and other animals, and it does so in a way that most of us usually do not, by pointing out that other animals are unique in their own, nontrivial ways. Although most of the examples given in this book are taken from the primate literature, it is also true of animals that are quite different from us. For example, we know that desert ants have the remarkable ability to keep track of where they are after many minutes of searching for food, such that they can return home in the absence of landmark cues (the remarkable ability known as path integration or dead reckoning). And we know that dogs have the ability to follow the scent trail left several hours before by a human walking through the woods. We also know that a hawk can detect the small movements of a mouse hundreds of meters below on the ground.

Much of the research described in this book deals with similarities and differences in behavior between the great apes and us, in particular between the great apes and young (often nonverbal) children. The first few chapters of the book deal with how we differ from other animals in our use of language. Recent research with chimpanzees, dolphins, and parrots notwithstanding, children acquire a first language with little or no training, whereas other animals do not fully acquire a simple form of language even with extensive training. To better examine why this is so, Fitch (Chapter 1) says we need to develop a better science of biolinguistics. This relatively new field of study examines the integration of three areas of research: understanding how the brain works (i.e., how the brain generates a "mind"), determining how the genes control the organization of the brain, and developing a good theory of how we determine the meaning of words (semantics).

In Chapter 2, Wildgen suggests that to understand the evolutionary origins of language one should start with the simpler forms of communication or protolanguage and examine the semantics and pragmatics of animal communication and early forms of human communication. Meguerditchian and Vauclair in Chapter 3 take a similar approach but argue that it is quite likely that human vocal language was actually preceded by gestural communication of the kind that can be seen in several primate species.

In the second section of the book, researchers compare the various cognitive similarities and differences between humans and other animals. For example, Bards and Leavens (Chapter 4) examine the development of joint attention (looking back and forth between a social partner and an object), a precursor of the ability to take the perspective of another (often called theory of mind). But the fact that dogs show some capacity for joint attention suggests that joint attention may be more closely related to sociality than to the ability to take the perspective of another.

Rakoczy (Chapter 5) focuses on the development of collective intentionality, which can also be considered a form of perspective taking. …

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