Floodlight humaniqueness

1 minute read

Michael Balter reports on a session at the AAAS meeting about human cognitive evolution:

Richard Lewontin knows how to grab an audience's attention. Lewontin, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, led off a session titled "The Mind of a Toolmaker" by announcing that scientists know next to nothing about how humans got so smart. "We are missing the fossil record of human cognition," Lewontin said at the meeting. "So we make up stories."

So why did they invite him, I wonder? That's really a cranky-sounding way to start a scientific session. "All you people are just making up stories, you know next to nothing!" I mean, Richard Lewontin is certainly a well-known scientist, but he's not well known for research into the minds of early toolmakers!

On the other hand, I read what Marc Hauser apparently had to say, and I wonder...

Recent findings in his own lab and others, Hauser said, show that nonhuman animals can solve specific problems in often sophisticated ways (for example, the nectar-mapping dances of honeybees and the ability of some bird species to hide food and retrieve it much later), but they cannot apply those talents to other situations. In contrast to such "laser-beam intelligence," Hauser said, humans have evolved "floodlight intelligence" capable of adapting one solution to many new problems. Even tool use by animals--such as chimpanzees using sticks to fish for termites--is "whoppingly different" from what humans do, Hauser insisted. He hopes that the manifold human differences summarized in his "humaniqueness hypothesis" will yield clues about how our species evolved.

Hmmm.... "humaniqueness". Sounds like a perfume. If we're reduced to talking in analogies like "floodlight intelligence," maybe we really don't know anything.


Balter M. 2008. How human intelligence evolved -- Is it science or 'paleofantasy'? Science 319:1028. doi:10.1126/science.319.5866.1028a