Ideas from Darwin & Human Nature Conference: Tim Crane on Human Uniqueness

Darwin Conference Poster


Imitating for curiosity’s sake: what makes us uniquely human?



Ever since Darwin’s day, scientists have been seeking an evolutionary explanation for what differentiates humans from apes.  Many suggestions have been made, ranging from our brains to our language, to laughing and empathy.


At our recent Darwin and Human Nature conference held at CRASSH in Cambridge on 19 and 20 August, Tim Crane, Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy in the University of Cambridge, discussed how philosophers can contribute to the discussion. Tim’s particular interest is the philosophy of mind, its place in the natural world, and in particular, how the mental lives of humans differ from those of other animals.


Tim’s approach was to discuss the “interesting differences” between humans and animals, which he listed as language, ‘analogical’ reasoning, better developed social cognition, or an imitative ability. Out of this, Tim chose to focus on curiosity and imitation. Is it a uniquely human capacity to do something without seeing the point of it or out of pure curiosity, rather than for a rationally understood purpose? If we define imitation as “learning to do an act from seeing it done” (Thorndike 1898), it is clearly a very human activity – but are both humans and apes not able to learn by imitation?


Tim used the findings from Horner and Whiten’s experiment with a puzzle box (2005) which reveal that only human infants copy causally irrelevant (‘opaque’) elements of a task. The hypothesis is that this is the developmental mechanism for pure curiosity – interest in things for their own sake. Tim agrees with recent psychologist David Premack’s view that with ‘The child imitates to imitate, whereas the ape imitates to obtain food’ (Premack (2010) Why Humans Are Unique, Perspectives on Psychological Science January 2010 vol. 5 no. 1 22-32). Or, to broaden the perspective, animal abilities are limited adaptations restricted to a single goal, whilst human abilities are domain general and serve indeterminately many goals.


This could be seen as a ‘fundamental’ difference between animals and humans which would run counter to Darwin’s claim that there is no fundamental difference between humans and animals.


But the ontological question remains: could this be a matter of degree, only down to the fact that “Children have the longest childhoods of any primate, much of which is spent in play, practice and exploration, so there is plenty of opportunity to weed out wrongly assimilated aspects of the actions observed’? (Whiten et al, 2005: 280)


The discussion is sure to continue…

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