Contemporary Psychology

Alone in the cognitive niche

Laurence Fiddick
Max Planck Project Group, "Common Goods: Law, Politics and Economics," Bonn, Germany

The descent of mind: Psychological perspectives on hominid evolution
Edited by Michael C. Corballis and Stephen E.G. Lea.
Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

In The Descent of Mind, Michael Corballis and Stephen Lea (1999) ask the question "Are humans special? Is there some special quality of mind or behaviour that sets us apart from other creatures, or can the principles of behaviour that are derived from, say, rats or pigeons be safely applied to our own species?" (p. 1). Surely the answer is "yes" – on both counts. Is there really any doubt that humans are different from other species? It would seem to be self-evident that we are. Likewise, is there anyone, at least amongst the scientifically minded, who seriously doubts that we have learned something about ourselves by studying other species, be it in biology, medicine and even psychology? Surely the question has been answered and doesn’t need to be asked. So why assemble a whole book addressed to answer it?

The problem is that Corballis and Lea, like others before them, have construed the question in a rather specific and contentious way. For Corballis and Lea, to be special is to have "some special quality" that makes humans different. By framing the question this way, Corballis and Lea are adopting an essentialist conception of human specialness that seeks a single internal attribute that can account for our manifold distinctiveness, such as Bickerton’s (1990) claim that language alone can account for all that is truly special about humans. Hence, Corballis and Lea are indirectly asking the much more controversial question: Do humans have an internal essence that sets them apart from other species? This is a rather different question and it is not clear that the answer is "yes".

As the collection of essays assembled here would seem to indicate, humans are different (or derivative) in a variety of ways: we make tools, we plan, we gesture, we speak, we have culture, we infer the mental states of others, and we perceive both purposes and personalities. Explaining all of these traits is a heavy burden to place on a single attribute. It doesn’t help that the weight of the explanatory task is obscured by a tendency on the part of Corballis, Lea and several of the contributors to collectively refer to the abilities in question as intelligence, implying some unified competence.

Consider, for example, Byrne’s (chapter 4, Human cognitive evolution) discussion of Machiavellian intelligence (strategic social reasoning) where he claims that the complexity of social interactions is predicated upon the abilities to:

  1. distinguish conspecific group members as individuals and as kin;
  2. remember their relative ranks and past affiliations; and
  3. in some case, remember even the personal histories of help given and received from various others (p. 76).

What exactly is it that these abilities have in common that they might collectively be reduced to? Face/body recognition, for example, might be a crucial precursor to individual recognition, but it would not inevitably entail kin or rank recognition, nor memory for past affiliations. Is there any internal principle that links these traits together? None is offered by Byrne, and I suspect there is none. What these traits have in common is not some special quality of mind, but a special quality of environment, a social environment. Social cooperation, for example, requires one to be able to both recognize individuals and remember that individual’s history of help given and received (Cosmides & Tooby, 1989). Hence, the connection between these abilities might be better viewed, not as a matter of logical entailment, but as the outcome of functional design for solving the adaptive problems posed by the social environment.

A more promising approach to our specialness is suggested by Whiten (chapter 10, The evolution of deep social mind in humans). Rather than attributing our specialness to this or that trait, Whiten locates the source of our distinctiveness in our evolutionary environment. The essentialist’s difficulty in reducing our manifold specialness to a single attribute does not confront the environmentalist, because the environment is as complex and multifaceted, if not more so, than our own minds. Hence the niche our species occupies has the power to shape our mind along several disparate dimensions, and in entering the cognitive niche (Tooby & DeVore, 1987), Whiten argues that our species has travelled along a rather remarkable evolutionary trajectory. Centered around cooperative big game hunting, the cognitive niche is a means of eking out a living in which abstract planning purportedly enabled ancestral hominids to compete against other predators such as felines and hyenas. According to Whiten this novel form of predation would eventually give rise to an "adaptive socio-cognitive complex" incorporating social cooperation, the cultural transmission of information and mind-reading abilities, not because these traits are derived from some common quality of mind, but because they would have coevolved, "reinforcing the effects each has on the depth of penetration of the cognitive niche" (p. 190).

The ability to plan is, of course, central to this account of hominid evolution and it is an ability that surfaces in several other chapters in the book as well. Donald (chapter 8, Preconditions for the evolution of protolanguages) argues that the planning of actions played a critical role in the early evolution of language. Rather than interpreting hominind cultural and neural evolution as the outcome of the sudden appearance of linguistic symbolization, Donald argues that both culture and language presuppose a "generalized capacity for deliberately refining action" (p. 141) which enables one to imitate the actions of others. Suddendorf (chapter 12, The rise of the metamind), in turn, argues that this form of planning, required for Donald’s imitative mimesis, is made possible by metamind, a form of metarepresentational ability in which representations can be formed of representations, thereby decoupling representational content from the constraints of perception and enabling one to treat representations themselves as an object of thought.

Suddendorf’s ambitious essay on metarepresentational abilities comes closest to identifying a candidate attribute that could potentially capture much of what is special about humans. Although a bit long on the benefits of metarepresentation and a bit short on the precise mechanism by which they are achieved, Suddendorf boldly maps out the connections between metarepresentational abilities and a vast array of mental abilities1. For example, he argues that metarepresentational abilities support, not only the highly developed theory of mind abilities found in humans, but also our creativity and our more advanced cultural achievements: morality, religion, language, science, etc. By making thoughts the objects of thought, we are, one might say, able to get a grasp on them and put them to use in novel ways.

Suddendorf’s proposal would be all the more attractive if he were to bring forward the date of the emergence of metamind from Homo erectus, as he proposes, to Homo sapiens, as Baron-Cohen proposes (chapter 13, The evolution of theory of mind). In his contribution to this volume, Baron-Cohen makes a valuable point, but he misses a golden opportunity. Baron-Cohen’s essay is concerned with the precise date at which metarepresetational abilities arose in the hominid lineage and the position that he is arguing against is Mithen’s (1996) claim that this ability is shared with other great apes, and hence evolved at least six millions years ago. Although Baron-Cohen successfully casts doubt on the presence of metarepresentational abilities in nonhuman primates and makes a good argument for its later emergence in Homo sapiens, he fails to bring out the potential significance of this later date and the evidence that he employs (the absence of creative thought in autism). For if Suddendorf is correct and metarepresentational abilities underlie cultural innovation – a proposal that Baron-Cohen would also seem to accept – then metamind and not language may provide the key to understanding the cultural explosion that coincides with the emergence of Homo sapiens. Mithen (1996), believing that metarepresentational abilities predated this cultural explosion by several million years, argued that language was responsible for the cultural explosion. However, the mechanism by which this is supposed to have worked is rather poorly argued and, hence, unconvincing. This problem doesn’t arise with metarepresentational abilities, for not only have Suddendorf and others made some progress in elucidating the mechanism by which metarepresentational abilities give rises to creativity, but there is actually good empirical evidence in the case of autism that suggests that metarepresentational abilities are the source of creativity (Baron-Cohen, chapter 13).

Indeed, one of Mithen’s (1996) key observations against the modular view of evolutionary psychology, namely rampant metaphorical thought in which domain-specific boundaries of thought are routinely breached, would also be readily explained. Not only have Turner and Fauconnier (1995; Fauconnier, 1997) developed an explicit model of how this conceptual blending is achieved via metarepresentation; there also exists evidence from autism suggesting that metarepresentational abilities are required for the appreciation of metaphor (Happe, 1993, 1995). Hence, metarepresentational abilities do, as Suddendorf argues, have the potential to explain many puzzling features about humans.

In comparing the various essays in this volume covering the related topics of planning, metarepresentation, and theory of mind, the pattern that emerges is that the contributers are more concerned with the specifics of the evolutionary histories and the resulting psychological mechanisms than they are with the question of whether humans are special. Most chapters are more narrowly focused on specific abilities or attributes: personality; language, speech and gesture; metarepresentation and theory of mind; handedness and cerebral lateralization; teological thought; culture; and assortative mating. It is with the concrete details of these abilities where the disputes are centered (e.g. Suddendorf’s claim that metarepresentational abilities arose in Homo erectus / ergaster versus Baron-Cohen’s claim that it arose later in Homo sapiens). Indeed, the problem of elucidating the precise nature of these abilities must precede the question of human distinctiveness. As Whiten notes "elements of mind-reading might be older than six million years" (i.e. shared with other apes, p. 189, emphasis original). Hence, in order to answer the question of whether mind reading is unique to humans, we need to first be able to specify what exactly we mean by mind reading. As the essays included here would seem to indicate, there is still considerable disagreement on these issues.

The intellectual pull in reading these essays is to try to figure out how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Is evolution of articulate speech from ingestive mouth movements (MacNeilage, chapter 7, What ever happened to articulate speech?) an example of what Donald meant by the "revolution in the cognitive control of action" (p. 141)? Although both MacNeilage and Donald claim that the control of action, and hence speech, is mimetic, Goldin-Meadow and McNeill (chapter 9, The role of gesture and mimetic representation in making language the province of speech) claim that speech is segmented and combinatorial, while gesture is mimetic. Are these contradictory or complementary views? At points like these I look to the editors for some guidance, but I find that they are preoccupied with another question, human’s specialness; but our position in nature provides little guidance in piecing these essays together.

Perhaps more distressing is the editors’ failure to reign in faulty evolutionary reasoning, or at least flag it as contentious for the unwary. For example, King, Rumbaugh and Rumbaugh (chapter 6, Perception of personality traits and semantic learning in evolving hominids) claim that high heritability is "a fact consistent with the adaptive importance of personality traits during recent hominid evolution" (p. 101). However, one would expect exactly the opposite, that natural selection would eliminate all genetic variation in favor of the fittest variant if the trait were of any adaptive importance. Moreover, the fundamental premise of Thiessen’s thesis (chapter 16, Social influences on human assortative mating) – that by mating with related individuals one can increase the spread of one’s genes – is also flawed. True, by mating with one’s full sibling one could produce a child who is 75% related to oneself instead of a child who is only 50% related to oneself had one mated with a nonrelated individual2. However, this ignores the fact that had you not mated with your sibling, he or she most likely would have had offspring in addition to those that you will produce with a nonrelated individual.

Although The Descent of Mind fails to achieve its putative aim of resolving the question of human specialness, one is left with the impression that it wasn’t the most pressing question in the first place. Surely, what has raised the stature of evolutionary psychology in the psychological community above that which sociobiology received is evolutionary psychologists’ focus on mechanisms – thereby engaging the rest of the psychological community on its own terms. This trend towards mechanism and away from theoretical speculation is clearly in evidence in the essays collected here. It’s just a pity that these essays had to be framed by a pointless question.



Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bickerton, D. (1990). Language and species. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.

Corballis, M., & Lea, S. (Eds.) (1999). The descent of mind: Psychological perspectives on hominid evolution. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1989). Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture, part II. Case study: A computational theory of social exchange. Ethology and Sociobiology, 10, 51-97.

Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2000). Consider the source: The evolution of adaptations for decoupling and metarepresentation. In D. Sperber (Ed.). Metarepresentations: A multidisciplinary perspective. Vancouver studies in cognitive science. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Fauconnier, G. (1997). Mappings in thought and language. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Happe, F. (1993). Communicative competence and theory of mind in autism: A test of relevance theory. Cognition, 48, 101-119.

Happe, F. (1995). Understanding minds and metaphors: Insights from the study of figurative language in autism. Metaphor & Symbol, 10, 275-295.

Mithen, S. (1996). The prehistory of the mind: The cognitive origins of art, religion and science. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson.

Sperber, D. (Ed.) (2000). Metarepresentations: A multidisciplinary perspective. Vancouver studies in cognitive science. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Tooby, J., & DeVore, I. (1987). The reconstruction of hominid behavioral evolution through strategic modelling. In W. G. Kinsey (Ed.). The evolution of primate behavior: Primate models. (pp. 183-237). New York, NY: SUNY Press.

Turner, M., & Fauconnier, G. (1995). Conceptual integration and formal expression. Journal of Metaphor and Symbolic Activity, 10, 183-204.


Author Note

Laurence Fiddick is currently a visiting researcher at the Max Planck Project Group "Common Goods: Law, Politics and Economics," Poppelsdorfer Allée 45, 53115 Bonn, Germany. In March, 2001, he will be a visiting fellow at the Center for Economic Learning and Social Evolution, at the University College London. Email:



1. Many of the specific features of metarepresentation that support the abilities cataloged by Suddendorf have been worked out independently by Cosmides and Tooby (2000). Their paper, which places metarepresentation within the cognitive niche framework cited by Whiten, makes for useful complementary reading with Suddendorf’s essay.

2. Properly speaking, this should be framed in terms of individual genes and the probability that a gene that is identical by common descent will be found in another organism rather than in terms of proportion of genes shared by two individual organisms.





Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles