Hollywood seems to think so. Nerds in the audience know that visiting aliens, if they speak at all, often say something flattering. “We just think you’re super. We’re here to admire you for being better than other life in every possible way.” Presumably, there is no second Martian delegation telling our primate cousins the same thing.
People think they’re better than everyone else: big surprise. Vanity runs in the human family: people love to hear how smart, funny, and good-looking they are. We enjoy hearing our own names. We’ll even pick out our own names, spoken from the other side of a crowded room. Say, at a cocktail party.
But it makes sense that we, as a species, are vain. People build cities, use language, write poetry, and bake cheesecake. Animals don’t. Sharks have been around far longer, but still failed to invent the internet. What does the research say about this discontinuity between people and animals?
Penn and colleagues (2008) argue against “Darwin’s mistake”, the idea that our abilities in many areas form a continuum with that of animals, and that we don’t really think differently, we just think a little more or better. Instead, they say, we excel in so many areas because we have something special that animals lack. People can use relational reasoning, such as analogy. Animals can’t.
The essence of analogy is understanding how situations (or people, things, etc.) that differ on a physical or superficial level are nonetheless similar. This is a type of relational reasoning, because the similarity occurs in the roles items play in relation to other items. The canonical example is the love triangle. Suppose situation 1 goes as follows: “John loves Mary, but Mary loves Chad. John is jealous of Chad.” Situation 2 goes as follows: “Jessica loves Julian, but Julian loves Lorna. Jessica is jealous of Lorna.” When we compare the two situations, it is trivially easy to see how they are similar. They are both love triangles, where person1 loves person2, but person2 instead loves person3, leading to person1 being jealous of person3. We intuitively understand that John in situation 1 is similar to Jessica in situation 2, even though they look nothing alike. They both share the relational role of unrequited, jealous lover.
Our ability to understand analogies, and learn from them, stems from being able to represent relational concepts as distinct from examples of that concept. We understand the concept of lover, teacher, and brother, separately from our knowledge of examples of these roles.
As it turns out, animals sometimes seem like they can think this way.
Keep reading IonPsych in the coming weeks to find out more about relational reasoning, why it’s special, and how monkeys and other animals make us believe that they do it, too.
Penn DC, Holyoak KJ, & Povinelli DJ (2008). Darwin’s mistake: Explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31 (2), 109-178 PMID: 18479531