Evolutionary and developmental foundations of human knowledge

In Michael S. Gazzaniga (ed.), The Cognitive Neurosciences Iii. MIT Press (2004)
What are the brain and cognitive systems that allow humans to play baseball, compute square roots, cook soufflés, or navigate the Tokyo subways? It may seem that studies of human infants and of non-human animals will tell us little about these abilities, because only educated, enculturated human adults engage in organized games, formal mathematics, gourmet cooking, or map-reading. In this chapter, we argue against this seemingly sensible conclusion. When human adults exhibit complex, uniquely human, culture-specific skills, they draw on a set of psychological and neural mechanisms with two distinctive properties: they evolved before humanity and thus are shared with other animals, and they emerge early in human development and thus are common to infants, children, and adults. These core knowledge systems form the building blocks for uniquely human skills. Without them we wouldn’t be able to learn about different kinds of games, mathematics, cooking, or maps. To understand what is special about human intelligence, therefore, we must study both the core knowledge systems on which it rests and the mechanisms by which these systems are orchestrated to permit new kinds of concepts and cognitive processes. What is core knowledge? A wealth of research on non-human primates and on human infants suggests that a system of core knowledge is characterized by four properties (Hauser, 2000; Spelke, 2000). First, it is domain-specific: each system functions to represent particular kinds of entities such as conspecific agents, manipulable objects, places in the environmental layout, and numerosities. Second, it is task-specific: each system uses its representations to address specific questions about the world, such as “who is this?” [face recognition], “what does this do?” [categorization of artifacts], “where am I?” [spatial orientation], and “how many are here?” [enumeration]. Third, it is relatively encapsulated: each uses only a subset of the information delivered by an animal’s input systems and sends information only to a subset of the animal’s output systems
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