In Search of the Missing Link: What Is It That Makes Us Human?
“To imagine new events you need an open-ended system capable of combining old information into new scenarios. If mental time travel evolved for this purpose, then the price of this flexibility is that we may at times reconstruct past events creatively rather than faithfully—which explains some of the typical errors of episodic memory.”
Professor Thomas Suddendorf
Bridging the Gap With Animal Mothers
Thomas Suddendorf, the author of “The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals” grew up in Germany. He completed his postgraduate studies in New Zealand. Traveling the world in pursuit of scientific truths, he has earned awards from the Australian Psychological Society as well as the American Psychological Association. His book received critical acclaim and is already being translated into several languages.
A review of the book points to several phrases that help define its purpose, which is to determine exactly what it is that differentiate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. One of the focuses of his research is comparing the mental capacities of human children with those of animals to answer the elusive question of what lies between the gap with animal mothers as compared to human ones.
Among those differences are a “drive to connect with other minds” and “nested scenario building”, which is described as a form of mental time travel. According to Suddendorf, one aspect of the human gap with the animal mother is the ability to imagine what others may be thinking. While a sentence such as
“I think she thinks that I think that she likes me”
may be a little confusing, we are able to determine its meaning. For animals, such a sentence with a similar meaning would be literally unthinkable. Unlike our cousins, the apes, we are able to imagine scenarios without ever having experienced them, including dangerous scenarios, which we can rehearse from the safety of our armchairs.
Former Theories of Possible Differences
Professor Suddendorf isn’t the first to ask and attempt to answer the question of the gap with animal mothers. Mark Twain pointed out that the difference between animals and humans was the ability to blush, and added that humans were the only species that had reason to do so.
One answer to the question of the gap with animal mothers was the human ability to use tools, but researchers have discovered cases in which animals too have not only used, but invented, tools.
Others have suggested that it was cooking food, but Bonobos have been observed to be able to build a fire as well as cook. Of course, he did use matches invented by humans to do it.
The human ability to formulate language was once believed to be the difference between humans and other species. However, several other species have demonstrated the ability to learn both the sounds and meanings of many words in human language, as well as communicate through sign language.
Anthropologist and author Ernest Becker, in his brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Denial of Death” postulated that the answer to the gap with animal mothers is that humans are the only species with awareness of their own mortality. While researchers like Professor Suddendorf have conducted experiments which demonstrate that members of the ape family closest to humans are able to recognize their own images in a mirror, awareness of mortality would be much more difficult to determine.
According to Suddendorf, the major differences lie in the human desire to know what is in the hearts and minds of others and the ability to imagine things we haven’t actually experienced. These two traits resulted in humans being able to develop language and use memory to mentally visualize the future, a form of abstract reasoning necessary to survive within complex social networks. He also believes that being able to imagine what others may be thinking or feeling, or empathy, contributed to the development of morality. However, he concludes that we may never fully understand the gap with animal mothers because our closest living genetic relatives are quickly becoming extinct. If that happens, any future research that may hold the key to our genetic past, and perhaps our future, will be lost.
If you’ve ever wondered about the gap with animal mothers, or what made humans able to invent the wheel or control fire, you might enjoy Professor Suddendorf’s TED talk . It is as educational as it is entertaining.