The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us From Other Animals by Thomas Suddendorf
The Gap is an excellent book about what separates human minds from non-human minds, and hence the gap. Psychologist Thomas Suddendorf has provided readers with interesting perspectives on human evolution. His balanced approach and great use of current scientific research leads to compelling arguments and a satisfying reading experience. This fascinating 370-page book includes the following twelve chapters: 1. The Last Humans, 2. Remaining Relatives, 3. Minds Comparing Minds, 4. Talking Apes, 5. Time Travelers, 6. Mind Readers, 7. Smarter Apes, 8. A New Heritage, 9. Right and Wrong, 10. Mind the Gap, 11. The Real Middle Earth, and 12. Quo Vadis?.
1. Enjoyable, provocative, well-written science book suited for the masses.
2. The fascinating topic of human evolution in the capable hands of Thomas Suddendorf.
3. Suddendorf's balanced and reasonable approach won me over. He always seems in control of his topic and never chews more than he can bite. He is fair and shares the best of our current knowledge while making clear what we do know versus what we don't know. He is focused throughout the book on that gap that exists between human and animal minds.
4. Great use of charts and illustrations to complement the excellent narrative.
5. An excellent comparison between our brains and our remaining animal relatives. "Our brain comprises about 2 percent of our body mass but consumes some 25 percent of our energy."
6. A great job of sharing scientific consensus. Once again, Suddendorf is very careful in sharing the strength and/or weakness of said scientific consensus. "One way to achieve an unbiased result is to have the experimenter unaware ("blind") of what the desired response of the animal is."
7. How species achieve similarities. "In general, species may share similar traits for two distinct reasons: convergent evolution (leading to analogous structures) and common descent (leading to homologous structures)."
8. Excellent descriptions of what makes our minds unique. Suddendorf focuses on six domains: language, foresight, mind reading, intelligence, culture, and morality.
9. A look at language and how we differ from our relatives. "On current evidence, it is fair to say neither in their natural communications, nor in our attempts at teaching them human linguistic systems, have animals provided evidence for a full-fledged language."
10. A look at memory systems. "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."
11. I enjoyed a lot of the tidbits shared. "IF YOU LOOK STRAIGHT AT a rhesus monkey you might well be attacked. For primates, staring into another's eyes is typically a threatening gesture. Therefore, primates largely avoid eye contact, and face-to-face interactions are surprisingly unusual."
12. Excellent look at IQ testing. "A basic consensus in the IQ testing community is that intelligence involves the capacity to learn from experience, to adapt to the surrounding environment, and to reflect on one's own performance." Bonus, "On current evidence, then, reasoning by exclusion is not a uniquely human trait. Still, the difficulties most apes have with these simplest of inferences highlights substantial differences between humans and our closest relatives. It remains unclear what exactly the nature of their capacities are."
13. Great quotes that capture the essence of some topics. "The primary difference between our species and all others is our reliance on cultural transmission of information and hence on cultural evolution. --DANIEL DENNETT"
14. I really enjoyed the chapter on morality. "A key factor facilitating the standardization of moral rules within and across groups in human history has been religion. In most societies, fundamental cooperative rules are absolute and unquestionable by virtue of being presented as divine commands. God, religions promise, will reward adherers and punish transgressors. In a sense this is the ultimate form of indirect reciprocity. Religion reduces the need for policing because believers are to some extent policing themselves through their conscience--to avoid divine, rather than secular, punishment. Of course, people can derive and follow a moral code without, or in spite of, these threats and promises."
15. The two major features that set us apart. "In all six domains we repeatedly find two major features that set us apart: our open-ended ability to imagine and reflect on different situations, and our deep-seated drive to link our scenario-building minds together. It seems to be primarily these two attributes that carried our ancestors across the gap, turning animal communication into open-ended human language, memory into mental time travel, social cognition into theory of mind, problem solving into abstract reasoning, social traditions into cumulative culture, and empathy into morality."
16. A look at our ancestors' extraordinary journey.
17. Great use of converging science to make compelling arguments. "I HAVE REVIEWED HERE CURRENT evidence on the nature and origin of what makes us human. The data led me to propose that the peculiarity of the human mind primarily stands on two legs: our open-ended capacity to create nested mental scenarios and our deep-seated drive to connect to other scenario-building minds. These traits have had dramatic consequences for the way we communicate, our access to past and future, our understanding of and cooperation with others, and our intelligence, culture, and morality. We have managed to create a fast and efficient cultural inheritance system through which human groups have accumulated novel powers that ultimately allowed us to dominate much of the planet."
18. The future of the gap. "It is time we established a more balanced view that acknowledges both the similarities and the differences between animals and humans. This may require letting go of some long-cherished notions of self-importance, but it should in no way diminish our sense of wonder about our peculiar existence. Know thyself."
19. Excellent notes and references.
1. I would have included a more comprehensive table that summarized all our known evolutionary links and most noteworthy traits.
2. A timeline would have added value.
3. A tad repetitive.
In summary, what an enjoyable and accessible book on human evolution this was. I commend Suddendorf for his wonderful approach and for illuminating readers on such a fascinating topic. He covers many topics with great command and succeeds to satisfaction in explaining the gap that exists between animal and human minds. Get this, I highly recommend it!
Further suggestions: "Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil" by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, "Last Ape Standing: The Seven-Million-Year Story of How and Why We Survived" by Chip Walter, "The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution" by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature" by Steven Pinker, "Guns, Germs And Steel" by Jared Diamond, "Human" by Michael S. Gazzaniga,"Why Evolution Is True" by Jerry Coyne, "Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body" by Neil Shubin, "Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters" by Donald R. Prothero, "The Making of the Fittest" by Sean B. Carroll, "What Evolution Is" by Ernst Mayr, "Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution" by Nick Lane, "Relics of Eden" by Daniel J. Fairbanks, and "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution" by Richard Dawkins