Thursday, 11 December 2008

Why are people smarter than animals?

A little while back during my research I was struck by an odd question. Why are people smarter than animals?

With a little digging, I stumbled upon an area called evolutionary psychology which complements my area of research quite well.

The following are some books that I've been skimming through. I thoroughly enjoyed Consciousness regained by Nicholas Humphrey and I found his ideas about how the social environment provides subtle pressures for the development of intelligence quite useful.

For example, consider how humans children have the longest dependency period compared to the majority of other animals. This allows human children longer to learn and creates specific roles to emerge in the community to allow this to happen. For example, able bodied adults had to forage while elderly adults contributed through passing on their experiences.

Consciousness Regained: Chapters in the Development of Mind by Nicholas Humphrey

From the back cover:

How did human consciousness evolve? Why are people so much clverer than other animals? What is the basis of the human capacity for insight? Why do we dream, keep pets, go to the cinema? Is there a biological basis for art? Why do people believe in ghosts? What is the origin of religious ecstasy? What lies behind the suicidal nuclear arms race?

In Consciousness Regained Nicholas Humphrey brings together a selection of his penetrating essasy s about the human condition, adding an introductory chapter an a substantial new section on self-knowledge. In particular he examines the phenomenon of consciousness and helps to regain for serious study this most basic if most perplexing of subjects.

Bookmark: p38

Neural Networks and Animal Behavior: Monographs in Behavior and Ecology by Magnus Enquist, Stefano Ghirlanda

I found this book by looking at the biology section of my university library. It pays to look at books outside of your field.

From the back of the book:

How can we make better sense of animal behavior by using what we know about the brain? This is the first book that attempts to answer this important question by applying neural network theory.

Scientists create Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs) to make models of the brain. These networks mimic the architecture of a nervous system by connecting elementary neuron-like units into networks in which they stimulate or inhibit each other's activity in much the same way neurons do.

This book shows how scientists can employ ANNs to analyze animal behavior, explore the general principles of the nervous systems, and test potential generalizations among species. The authors focus on simple neural networks to show how ANNs can be investigated by math and by computers. They demonstrate intuitive concepts that make the operation of neural networks more accessible to nonspecialists.

Bookmark: p57 (Nolfi & Floreano), p98 (Tundra Frogs - temporal reasoning)

How Homo Became Sapiens: On the Evolution of Thinking by Peter Gardenfors

From the back of the book:

Our ability to 'think' is really one of our most puzzling characteristics. What it would be like to be unable to think? What would it be like to lack self-awareness? The complexity of this activity is striking. 'Thinking' involves the interaction of a range of mental processes--attention, emotion, memory, planning, self-consciousness, free will, and language. So where did these processes arise? What evolutionary advantages were bestowed upon those with an ability to deceive, to plan, to empathize, or to understand the intention of others?

In this compelling new work, Peter Gardenfors embarks on an evolutionary detective story to try and solve one of the big mysteries surrounding human existence--how has the modern human being's way of thinking come into existence. He starts by taking in turn the more basic cognitive processes, such as attention and memory, then builds upon these to explore more complex behaviors, such as self-consciousness, mindreading, and imitation. Having done this, he examines the consequences of "putting thought into the world" -i.e., using external media like cave paintings, drawings, and writing.

Immensely readable and humorous, the book will be valuable for students in psychology and biology, and accessible to readers of popular science.

Bookmark: p10

Brain, Culture, and the Human Spirit by James B. Ashbrook

I picked up this book as I was thinking about Triune Brain theories or about work by Chris Knight, one of my heroes, I can't remember which.

The basic idea behind Triune Brain theories is that the human brain developed in three stages. The first stage is reptilian brain which is responsible for our basics survival behaviors. The second stage is the mammalian brain which is responsible for our emotions. The third stage is the logical brain which is responsible for such abilities as speech and reasoning.

I don't know if it is a sound theory but it is a useful theory. It's also intersting how each stage is not very good at communicating with the other stages.

Product description:

This text contains essays on brain, culture and the human spirit, which are basic to understanding the relation between religion and science. The essays represent separate realms of inquiry, coming from physiology, anthropology, psychology and theology.


  1. It makes no sense to speak of “evolving consciousness.” Where is the transition from “nonconscious” to conscious? This question is addressed (and answered) in an exciting new book. Check out

  2. Hi Jim,

    I am wary of using the word consciousness since it is so unclear. I prefer to focus on continuously increasing capability.

    Thanks for recommending James Strickling's book. I'll definitely check it out.