Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The long retreat continues

Once upon a time, human beings were unique, a divine exception to nature with dominion over it. Now we know that we share most of our DNA with chimps; other animals make and use tools, and reason in certain ways. Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser (not this one AFAIK!) has established a new line of defense. According to a Harvard press release distributed by EurekAlert, he says humans are still the only creatures who have the following four abilities:
to combine and recombine different types of information and knowledge in order to gain new understanding;

to apply the same “rule” or solution to one problem to a different and new situation;

to create and easily understand symbolic representations of computation and sensory input; and

to detach modes of thought from raw sensory and perceptual input.
animals have “laser beam” intelligence, in which a specific solution is used to solve a specific problem. But these solutions cannot be applied to new situations or to solve different kinds of problem. In contrast, humans have “floodlight” cognition, allowing us to use thought processes in new ways and to apply the solution of one problem to another situation. While animals can transfer across systems, this is only done in a limited way.
OK, folks, there's your target. Can your dog do any of that?

Actually, this puts me in mind of Thoreau in Walden, where he takes a different tack, speaking of
a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I than it is you. When the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, so far as he was concerned.

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