Book Review

Brynja Adam-Radmanic

Thomas Suddendorf:
The Gap. The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals.

Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Basic Books (November 12, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0465030149
ISBN-13: 978-0465030149
Price: 29.66 EUR (hard­cover), 16.65 EUR (eBook)

Why Chimps Make Poor Scientists

The evolution of the human mind is a truly multidisciplinary field. For biologists entering with a genetics and neuroscience perspective, this popular science book by Thomas Suddendorf is a good starting point for an exploration of the behaviour side of research.

Is The Gap a book for biologists? You could say no. Although the subtitle promises to inform the reader about, “the science of what separates us from the other animals”, you won’t find much about science on the molecular or cellular level. So if you expect to read about genes influencing behaviour, neuronal activity or aspects of evo-devo, you’ll be disappointed.

However, perhaps surprisingly, I found this to be more of a feature than a bugbear. What makes Thomas Suddendorf’s book a recommended read for natural scientists is his skill in presenting his own level of expertise, not only from the viewpoint of a passionate researcher of cognitive abilities in humans and other primates, but also as an independently-thinking observer of comparative psychology itself.

A guide to psychology and ethology

So, for molecular and cell biologists interested in linking their results to research on behaviour, Suddendorf, a German comparative psychologist who emigrated over 20 years ago to New Zealand (and now lives in Queensland, Australia), is a guide to the world of psychology and ethology. By choosing the role of mediator between the two main schools of thought (called the ‘romantics’ and the ‘killjoys’ by philosopher Daniel Dennett), he is unusually fair to both sides – essential for any introduction to the fields.

Intelligent behaviour put to the test. Photo: 20th Century Fox

For every skill that is often described as uniquely human – language, memory, theory of the mind, intelligence, culture, morals – Suddendorf shows readers both the history of different questions and approaches and the battlefields where the rich interpretations of the ‘romantics’ collide with leaner accounts of the ‘killjoys’.

The ‘romantics’ emphasise the continuity between animal and human minds. When problems are solved by animals, they tend to interpret their behaviour as rooted in reasoning similar to human thinking. In contrast, ‘killjoys’ focus on differences and prefer the simplest explanation that seemingly intelligent behaviour can be based on learning solutions without any understanding of their underlying mechanisms.

On the one hand, Suddendorf acknowledges that these conflicting views can drive progress, because each interpretation is challenged by the other side. On the other hand, the wrong kind of divide can hinder progress when the interpretation of research results is oversimplified to fit the categories of one or the other scheme.

But, given that the truth may lie somewhere in the middle, is Suddendorf really fair to both sides? It’s more than that. When talking about comparing intelligence he suggests that we, “move beyond the simple dichotomy of rational agent versus associative machine, and try to map the diversity of cognitive abilities that exists in the natural world.”

In this spirit, Suddendorf provides a differentiated picture of both continuity and qualitative leaps in several different aspect of evolving minds. What similarities and differences are there between animal communication and human language? What do we know about social traditions in primate groups and our own much more cumulative culture? What is the connection between more general social cognition and the human art of ‘mindreading’ that relies on a theory of mind? And how is empathy in great apes interconnected with the much more abstract human morality?

For him, there are two major features that explain what sets humans apart in all of these distinct mental domains: The ability to imagine complex scenarios and the strong urge to connect our minds. He has developed an overarching idea from his own research on mental time travel, where he studied how young children grow an understanding of past and future and how this relates to memory and foresight in other animals.

“Human” rights for animals?

An interesting sideline is how Suddendorf’s research is interconnected with his political views. He takes a strong stand for human rights and environmental protection, but is against the inclusion of great apes in our moral community. Animal rights, in his view, would have undesirable consequences like the need to charge chimps with murder when they kill each other.

What I also enjoyed is the degree to which the book gets personal. Suddendorf shares family history, personal experiences and anecdotes from his children to illustrate points that he wants to make. For me, he has succeeded in weaving together an accessable synopsis of concepts in his field with his insights as a scientist and as a human being.

Letzte Änderungen: 25.03.2015