Thank you for the great question.
Humans have extraordinary mental abilities that
allow us to achieve everything from building
skyscrapers to writing poetry. Despite our great
capabilities, I would note that other species
on the planet have their own amazing mental
abilities that can rival our own. For example,
the great feat of mathematical reasoning carried
out by Tunisian desert ants.
Each day, these ants leave their nest and search
the desert for food. Once they find food, they
then have to solve a tough problem: finding their
way back home. Scientists discovered that the ants
do this with trigonometry, that is, by
computing the best path home given their current
location, the position of the sun in the sky
(meaning they have a sense of time too), and their
knowledge about where the nest is located. They
usually are able to do this within 2-degrees of
error, much better than I would do on a
trigonometry test! Human reasoning is amazing
certainly, but not without rivals from other
animals, even by individual ants.
You ask a second excellent question, where
did all these amazing thinking and reasoning
abilities in the natural world come from?
Thinking and reasoning, called cognition by
scientists, takes place in the central
nervous system which includes the brain. The
brain, in fact, is the most complex object in the
universe, and exactly how it works and develops is
still a mystery for future scientists to figure
However, we do know something about the origin
of complex natural things like the brain: that it
must be a product of evolution by natural
selection. That is, the genes that create
brains were best able to replicate themselves
because they solved problems in their
environment. Different animals face different
problems in their environments and their brains
evolved to solve those particular problems.
Human cognition, thinking and reasoning, is no
different. It is done by our brains which were
designed by natural selection to solve problems
that our ancestors faced, including finding food,
avoiding predators, helping your relatives and
friends, navigating the world, and communicating
with each other. Also, many of our most amazing
abilities like writing and math and culture come
about as by-products of systems in the brain that
were designed for other solving problems we faced
over evolutionary time. We can explain
extraordinary powers of human thinking by studying
our evolutionary history, what problems we
faced in the last million years, and how the brain
evolved to solve them.
Human beings are not the only species that have
minds that can think and reason!
We used to believe that we were, but that is
because we have an ability to communicate via
language that other animals lack. For example,
remember that the word "dumb" in English
originally meant unable to speak rather than
stupid, but people assumed that those who could
not speak were stupid because they had no way of
gauging their smarts. Other animals (and many
plants) do communicate, but not via language.
Humans apparently have an evolutionary trait
that allows us (or forces us) to learn some kind
of language, which we then use to communicate
concepts that are not immediately present.
However, numerous experiments have now shown that
many other species of animals do understand the
abstract concepts that we humans once thought were
unique to ourselves, but just can't communicate
them as effectively as we can. These other animals
include such diverse creatures as dogs, ravens,
It's hard to communicate with other intelligent
species, so we don't know how smart they are.
Imagine a dolphin trying to get us to make clicks
to answer its questions. More and more,
scientists are discovering intelligence in other
animals. Koko the gorilla died recently,
and she knew lots of words and communicated with
them. You can read about her. When someone
paints a spot on the forehead of an elephant, and
the elephant looks in a mirror, it raises its
trunk to touch the spot that was painted on it. I
don't know how many of the elephants do that, but
scientists were surprised. And a dog knows
whether you're happy with it or angry at it, which
takes a certain amount of understanding. But
there's obviously also a huge difference between
us and the other animals - just look at all the
changes we've made in the world!
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