There's no consensus on the question of what makes us special, or whether we even are. The biggest point of contention is whether our cognitive abilities differ from those of other animals "in kind," or merely in degree. Are we in a class by ourselves or just the smartest ones in our class?
Charles Darwin supported the latter hypothesis. He believed we are similar to animals, and merely incrementally more intelligent as a result of our higher evolution. But according to Marc Hauser, director of the cognitive evolution lab at Harvard University, in a recent article in Scientific American, "mounting evidence indicates that, in contrast to Darwin's theory of a continuity of mind between humans and other species, a profound gap separates our intellect from the animal kind."
Hauser and his colleagues have identified four abilities of the human mind that they believe to be the essence of our "humaniqueness" — mental traits and abilities that distinguish us from our fellow Earthlings. They are: generative computation, promiscuous combination of ideas, the use of mental symbols, and abstract thought. [Read: Top 10 Mysteries of the Mind]
1. Generative computation
Humans can generate a practically limitless variety of words and concepts. We do so through two modes of operation — recursive and combinatorial. The recursive operation allows us to apply a learned rule to create new expressions. In combinatorial operations, we mix different learned elements to create a new concept.
2. Promiscuous combination of ideas
"Promiscuous combination of ideas," Hauser explained, "allows the mingling of different domains of knowledge — such as art, sex, space, causality and friendship — thereby generating new laws, social relationships and technologies."
3. Mental symbols
Mental symbols are our way of encoding sensory experiences. They form the basis of our complex systems of language and communication. We may choose to keep our mental symbols to ourselves, or represent them to others using words or pictures.
4. Abstract thought
Abstract thought is the contemplation of things beyond what we can sense.
"This is not to say that our mental faculties sprang fully formed out of nowhere," Hauser wrote. "Researchers have found some of the building blocks of human cognition in other species. But these building blocks make up only the cement foot print of the skyscraper that is the human mind. The evolutionary origins of our cognitive abilities thus remain rather hazy. Clarity is emerging from novel insights and experimental technologies, however."
Notice "the evolutionary origins of our... ". Homage to evolution is the tax that must be paid by any scientist who presents a finding that calls into question the materialist ideology on which evolutionary theory is based. Materialism has no explanation for man's capacity to reason, because materialism is an utterly failed theory of mind. But when I read the article and read the quite cogent description of the enormous qualitative difference between man and beast, I knew that somewhere the scientists had to pay homage to evolution. It's usually in the last paragraph, just to ensure materialist censors that the authors are still on the plantation.
The assertion of the scientists is refreshingly true, but not refreshingly new. Aristotle defined man as a rational animal, and all philosophers and theologians (e.g. Aquinas) who followed in his footsteps have agreed. It is the ability to engage in abstract thought, to use symbols and language, to combine and compare ideas, and to contemplate universals and not just particulars that defines man and sets an unbridgeable gulf between man and beast.
How did man's reason evolve? The ability to do metaphysics has little to do with reproductive success. It may even be a hinderance; who gets the girls, the football star or the philosophy major? And even the concept of 'evolution' of reason presupposes that reason is material, like hoofs or wings. But the materialist philosophy of the mind is in shambles, widely regarded as a dying superstition. Much of the mind is clearly immaterial, including the capacity for reason. How does something immaterial 'evolve'?
So how to account for man's qualitative difference from animals, which is his ability to reason? Perhaps, in addition to mind and body, we have spirit as well, and we were created in the image of a Spirit-- the Creator of reason.