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Darwin's mistake: Explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 May 2008

Derek C. Penn
Department of Psychology, University of California–Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095; Cognitive Evolution Group, University of Louisiana, Lafayette, LA 70504dcpenn@ucla.edu
Keith J. Holyoak
Department of Psychology, University of California–Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095holyoak@lifesci.ucla.edu
Daniel J. Povinelli
Cognitive Evolution Group, University of Louisiana, Lafayette, LA 70504ceg@louisiana.edu


Over the last quarter century, the dominant tendency in comparative cognitive psychology has been to emphasize the similarities between human and nonhuman minds and to downplay the differences as “one of degree and not of kind” (Darwin 1871). In the present target article, we argue that Darwin was mistaken: the profound biological continuity between human and nonhuman animals masks an equally profound discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. To wit, there is a significant discontinuity in the degree to which human and nonhuman animals are able to approximate the higher-order, systematic, relational capabilities of a physical symbol system (PSS) (Newell 1980). We show that this symbolic-relational discontinuity pervades nearly every domain of cognition and runs much deeper than even the spectacular scaffolding provided by language or culture alone can explain. We propose a representational-level specification as to where human and nonhuman animals' abilities to approximate a PSS are similar and where they differ. We conclude by suggesting that recent symbolic-connectionist models of cognition shed new light on the mechanisms that underlie the gap between human and nonhuman minds.

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