Horny Head

…a completely out-of-context excerpt, first discovered on Deric Bownds’s truly excellent Mind Blog. Take note Dr. Bownds wrote a textbook Biology of the Mind (Wiley) and made it available online.

Promiscuous interfaces Humans have unique creative capacities and problem-solving abilities, which stem from the capacity to combine representations promiscuously from different domains of knowledge. For instance, humans can combine the concepts of number, belief, causality and harm in deciding that it is sometimes morally obligatory to harm one person to save the lives of many.

The generative mechanisms that underpin so much of human mental life acquire their expressive power because the recursive and combinatorial operations can functionally ‘grab’ the outputs of different modular systems or domains of knowledge. This capacity for promiscuously creating interfaces between domains is almost absent in animals. Thus, although both human and animal brains are characterized by modular functions and mechanisms, the modular outputs are typically restricted to a single functional problem in animals but are broadly accessible in humans. Non-human animals therefore show a form of myopic intelligence, designed to solve one problem with exquisite efficiency. For example, although honeybees have a symbolic dance that indicates the distance, direction and quantity of food, this communication system is largely restricted to food despite the intricate social lives of bees. Although meerkat adults teach their pups how to kill scorpion prey by providing them with age-appropriate opportunities for handling and dismembering, teaching does not occur in any other context. Although plovers use a deceptive display to lure predators away from their nest of eggs, they do not deceive in any other situation. And although chimpanzees use the direction of another’s eyes to guide strategic competition, they are far less skilled at using another’s eyes to guide cooperation. By contrast, in humans, neither language, teaching, deception, or the use of seeing to infer knowing are restricted to a single context.

The possibility of impossible cultures Marc D. Hauser; Nature 460, (9 July 2009) abstract: Insights from evolutionary developmental biology and the mind sciences could change our understanding of the human capacity to think and the ways in which the human mind constrains cultural expressions.

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