The Human Difference

Wray Herbert reviews Thomas Suddendorf’s The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other AnimalsThe most important distinction between man and beast:

Suddendorf’s main idea is that we humans are capable of cognitive feats to which no other animal—not even our impressive cousin the ape—comes close. We are able to imagine endless situations, to create scenarios and narratives about distant places, including the past and future. And, equally important, we have an insatiable drive to share those imaginings with other scenario-building minds. Our uniqueness, the author argues, rests on these two fundamental traits, but plays out in various domains of the human mind.

Language is one of those domains. A lot has been written about the abilities of other species to communicate, and those skills are indeed impressive. Bees signal the whereabouts of food, and birds have elaborate courtship dances. My dog clearly (and effectively) signals that it’s dinnertime by staring. But none of this adds up to language—not as I illustrated it above. Even humpback whales, with their very large brains, show only a narrow repertoire of communication skills, devoid of the flexibility and generative power that allow us to utter and comprehend novel expressions. Suddendorf systematically dismantles the claims of other species on language, arguing that even the great apes—the ones we have spent years trying to teach our language—fall far short of full-fledged language. What’s lacking, in the end, is the motivation to create symbols and grammar to share what’s on their minds.