The Gap is a new book by Thomas Suddendorf that argues the reason homo sapiens stand intellectually above other animals isn’t a matter of engineering but the results of having outlived our nearest competitors. According to the author, as little as 30,000 years ago, “several species of upright-walking intelligent hominins shared the earth with our ancestors.” (“The Last Man Standing,” by Nina Bai, Scientific American Mind, Nov/Dec 2013 pg 72). Scientists don’t know why they disappeared but evidence exists to suggest they shared many of our characteristics, including performing burial rites and making jewelry.
But even with the disappearance of our nearest challengers, If we set the bar low enough, we can find similar shared characteristics with a number of creatures. Parrots can speak, ants have agriculture, and crows make tools. One specie, the Great Apes, can recognize their reflections in a mirror, which suggests they have self awareness. Still, these similarities aren’t enough to give even our nearest rival a viable edge. Humans stand at the top of the heap because, as, Suddendorf explains, we have two unique capacities: imagination and a “strong drive to link our minds together by looking to one another for information and understanding.” (Ibid pg. 72)
Imagination and communion. I like Suddendorf’s understanding of us and think it far better than settling upon opposing thumbs as our distinguishing feature. Communion, for example, has an element of the spiritual which defines us a much as any physical enumeration of our characteristics. Unlike the great physicist, Richard Feynman, who said calculus was God’s language, I’m forced to disagree because calculus is a tool too rigid to express our notion of the divine. (The Language God Talks by Herman Wouk, Little Brown 2012, pg. 16) To my mind, art is more suitable to the task as it uses imagination to reach beyond our senses. Talking about the divine may strike some as a strange, coming from an atheist, but to say, “I do not know whether or not there is a God,” does not negate an innate longing for one. I know that longing exists. And I know, too, it is the essence of what separates us from our fellow creatures.
(Courtesy of cmarchesin.blogspot.com)
(Originally published 1/22/14)