Reason as the Leading Motive

Human and Animal Cognition

Posted by Jerry on February 19, 2008

This Harvard University study seems to suggest that scientists are finally catching up to the insights of the Objectivist epistemology.

Professor Marc Hauser recently presented his new theory, which postulates four key elements differentiating human cognition from animal cognition. Notably–as I have stressed in the past as well–Hauser regards human cognition as being not merely higher up on the same scale of cognitive complexity in comparison to that of animals, but as being of a fundamentally different nature in itself–in his words, a “great cognitive gap”:

“Animals share many of the building blocks that comprise human thought, but paradoxically, there is a great cognitive gap between humans and animals,” Hauser says. “By looking at key differences in cognitive abilities, we find the elements of human cognition that are uniquely human.”

The four key differences between human and animal cognition that Hauser identifies neatly aligns with the core elements of Objectivist epistemology. In the following, first is the element that Hauser identifies, which is then followed by the Objectivist concept that is its equivalent:

1. “the ability to combine and recombine different types of information and knowledge in order to gain new understanding”

Integration–a cardinal function of man’s consciousness on all the levels of his cognitive development. First, his brain brings order into his sensory chaos by integrating sense data into percepts; this integration is performed automatically; it requires effort, but no conscious volition. His next step is the integration of percepts into concepts, as he learns to speak. Thereafter, his cognitive development consists in integrating concepts into wider and ever wider concepts, expanding the range of his mind. 

2. “to apply the same “rule” or solution to one problem to a different and new situation”

Principles–an abstraction which subsumes a great number of concretes. It is only by means of principles that one can set one’s long-range goals and evaluate the concrete alternatives of any given moment. You have no choice about the necessity to integrate your observations, your experiences, your knowledge into abstract ideas, i.e., into principles. Concrete problems cannot even be grasped, let alone judged or solved, without reference to abstract principles.

3. “to create and easily understand symbolic representations of computation and sensory input”

Concepts and Words–Concepts and, therefore, language are primarily a tool of cognition—not of communication. The primary purpose of concepts and of language is to provide man with a system of cognitive classification and organization, which enables him to acquire knowledge on an unlimited scale. Concepts represent condensations of knowledge, which make further study and the division of cognitive labor possible.

In order to be used as a single unit, the enormous sum integrated by a concept has to be given the form of a single, specific, perceptual concrete, which will differentiate it from all other concretes and from all other concepts. This is the function performed by language. Language is a code of visual-auditory symbols that serves the psycho-epistemological function of converting concepts into the mental equivalent of concretes. Language is the exclusive domain and tool of concepts. Every word we use (with the exception of proper names) is a symbol that denotes a concept, i.e., that stands for an unlimited number of concretes of a certain kind.

4. “to detach modes of thought from raw sensory and perceptual input.”

Focus–The act of focusing one’s consciousness is volitional. Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality—or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make. When man unfocuses his mind, he may be said to be conscious in a subhuman sense of the word, since he experiences sensations and perceptions.


There are, of course, many more insights into human cognition that Ayn Rand identified in her Objectivist epistemology that in my opinion are not exhausted by Hauser four identifications: for example, Ayn Rand’s theory of measurement-ommission and its role in concept-formation.

However, all of the above–and the entire corpus of the Objectivist theory of epistemology–indicates a simple and self-evident fact about human cognition that is denoted by single concept: the conceptual faculty; that is, man’s consciousness is uniquely conceptual in nature.

[I learned of Professor Hauser’s study from the Objectivism Online forum. Note: All four hyperlinked Objectivists concepts and their brief descriptions are quoted directly from The Ayn Rand Lexicon.]


11 Responses to “Human and Animal Cognition”

  1. NS said

    Lots of psychologists recognize these distinctively human traits. It’s not something new or special to Hauser.

    The people who still say that human beings and other animals are only different in degree are holdover behaviorists from the 1960s who were way to enthusiastic (and dishonest) about chimp studies. The trouble was that, as anthropologists rather than psychologists, they didn’t know too much about concepts, and so wouldn’t know how to recognize a concept in an animal if they found one. Today’s cognitive psychologists are better (though not perfect).

    And Hauser, by the way, is also really bad on some other things, like moral psychology.

  2. Ergo said


    My primary intent in posting this comparative list of Hauser and OE’s identifications of the nature of human cognition was to highlight two things:
    1) Just how much Ayn Rand had contributed to the advancement of human understanding in diverse fields–not just in philosophy.
    2) To point out how the scientific community–and most people–tend to disparage Ayn Rand and her ideas vehemently without even a cursory study of her philosophy, but only to accept those very same ideas when it comes from “authoritative” academic sources, like scientists from Harvard, for example.

  3. Kendall J said

    Nice job Ergo. I read a summary of the four traits earlier today and my first thought was that it sounded an awful lot like Rand’s description of a conceptual mentality. Thanks for pointing it out!

    Kendall J

  4. Tim R said

    Very interesting.
    I actually had an argument recently with a Masters psychology graduate about animal “rights”. My argument being that animals don’t have volition and therefore don’t require rights. But I should have also talked about concept formation.
    Ironically my dog doesn’t like this guy (and only this guy) – it’s really quite strange, and a bit funny.

    – I think there are actually classes on animal rights in some universities now!

  5. Ergo said


    Your argument is sound in that the existence of a rights-possessing entity necessitates that the entity possesses volition, i.e., the natural and self-motivated ability to act freely, in order to make the practice of rights meaningfully applicable to it.

    However, the conceptual nature of human consciousness makes it possible for humans–the only entities–to devise the concept of rights in the first place and then erect a civilized and non-contradictory political system that is based on such a concept of rights.

    And I think you’ve trained your dog well! 🙂

  6. evanescent said

    Great post Ergo – thank you for highlighting this scientist’s work and bringing it together nicely with Objectivist epistemology. Now whenever the subject of animal understanding comes in, I can just link to your article! 🙂

  7. smally said


    Your argument is sound in that the existence of a rights-possessing entity necessitates that the entity possesses volition, i.e., the natural and self-motivated ability to act freely, in order to make the practice of rights meaningfully applicable to it.

    I don’t know much about Randian rights theory, so I have a question. If I may slightly re-phrase what you’re saying here, your claim is that a rights-holder must be a moral agent. I’d like to know what it is about whatever grounds Rand’s rights theory that is inconsistent with the conjunction of these propositions:

    1. There are rights-holders who are moral agents.
    2. There are rights-holders who are not moral agents (just moral patients).

    Note that those rights-holders who are moral agents may have completely different rights than those who are not. For example, perhaps those who fall under (1) have the foundational right of self-ownership, while those who fall under (2) have the weaker right to not be the property of agent capable of ownership.

  8. Ergo said


    There are rights-holders who are moral agents and there are also rights-holders who are not moral agents. Examples of the latter are little infants, children, and the severely disabled. Although they have limited rights commensurate with their metaphysical status and physical abilities, they are members of the species denoted by the concept “man”, which refers to all metaphysically rational beings–the infants and children on one end of the spectrum, whereas the severely old on the other end of the spectrum.

    To clarify:

    A human infant, a severely retarded person, the very old and the infirm are not exceptions to the rule that humans are the *only* species on this planet with a volitional and conceptual faculty, and therefore have rights.

    A human infant is nevertheless a *human* being, on one end of the spectrum.
    An old and infirm person is nevertheless a *human* being, on the other end of the spectrum.
    A severely retarded person is most definitely a *human* being with accidental characteristics of disability or abnormality.

    What disqualifies an entity from possessing rights is when its *essential* AND *fundamental* attributes (not an accidental or abnormal attribute like a disability) make it impossible for the entity to have volition in the pursuit of goal-directed action, for which purpose rights would be necessary. Rights are meaningless if the entity simply has no choice in the practice, implementation, demand, or denial of said rights. For example, the right to life to an animal is meaningless because it has–-essentially, metaphysically, fundamentally–-no choice in the matter of living, continuing to live, or committing suicide. It is led inexorably to what it must do to survive or procreate.

  9. The arguments used in explaining the abilities of animals and man are mostly vague generalities. I would like to interject a general statement that is often made in some sciences in answer to the heirarchies presented in the original essay: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence of the described abilities in animals.” Does anyone remember, “Man is the only animal that uses tools.” Darwin maintained that there was continuity between the species, and for lack of a more proper researcher I chose to side with him.

    On a personal note, using passive speech research techniques, I explore animal cognition in another species. My discoveries are detailed in my little-known book, “Another Kind of Mind: A Talking Bird Masters English.” The book traces the bird’s language development, and the final chapter presents experimental data and information about one bird’s cognition. Through the macaw’s lexicon of more than 4000 different words, phrases, and sentences, I show that she has many characteristics that have been described previously only in ancient times. The bird’s free speech indicates that she understands human language and can speak human language to relay messages and to think. She can invent sensible novel phrases; she has a “Theory of Mind,” and she is a conscious being. For more information visit the macaw’s Internet site: http://www.ParrotSpeech.com


  10. Suresh said

    Hi Ergo,

    That was a great read, though i’m curious about two aspects

    1. Does “to detach modes of thought from raw sensory and perceptual input.” also include the ability of human beings to focus selectively (necessary, contextual) so as to form abstractions?

    2.which one chronological precedes the other – differentiation or integration.


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