Brief Book Review of The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals by Thomas Suddendorf

gapI dislike writing book reviews but I enjoyed reading The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals, written by Thomas Suddendorf, sufficiently to motivate me to write a short review.

From the book description:

There exists an undeniable chasm between the capacities of humans and those of animals, but what exactly is the difference between our minds and theirs? In The Gap, psychologist Thomas Suddendorf provides a definitive account of what makes human minds unique and how this disparity arose. He proposes that two innovations account for all of the ways in which our minds appear so distinct: our open-ended ability to imagine and reflect, and our insatiable drive to link our minds together. It is not language or morality that set us apart, but the ability to consider a range of scenarios, real and imagined, past and future. A provocative argument for reconsidering our place in nature, The Gap is essential reading for anyone interested in our evolutionary origins and our relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom.

Pros:

  • Suddendorf shows that the gap between humans and all other animals is misleading due to the fact that we are the last of the hominins. As little as 30,000 years ago, there existed us, Neandertals, Denisovans, and homo floresiensis (controversial). There is enough evidence for the mentality of Neandertals to conclude that they possessed minds between the great apes and us. And it is reasonable to conclude the same for the others.
  • The above point can be extended back to the first evidence of tool use among hominins. Hundreds of thousands to about 2 million years ago, Africa resembled Tolkein’s Middle Earth with multiple hominins residing side by side all possessing mentalities between those of the great apes and modern humans.
  • Suddendorf does a good job of reminding us that our mental faculties, especially consciousness, evolved over time. The fossil record shows how we evolved physically, which can lead all too many to neglect our mental evolution.
  • Suddendorf makes effective comparisons of child mental development studies and the mental abilities of various primates. This clearly illustrates differences in mental ability that are not explicitly linguistic.
  • There are those who wildly exaggerate animal mentality due to faulty experimental design and/or interpretation along with confirmation bias and those who err in the opposite direction thinking of animals as little more than Descartes’s automatons. Suddendorf clearly notes these opinions and generally concedes that both sides make valid points and the answer is somewhere in the middle.
  • Thankfully, Suddendorf fully acknowledges the fact that we are vastly more mentally capable than animals. For instance, how many articles have appeared that relate rudimentary counting ability by some animals and then conclude that animals can do math. They fail to note that this limited ability actually shows the vastly greater mentally ability possessed by humans. After all, no other animal can forge the chain of logic from natural numbers to rational, real, complex, quaternions, etc. and of course the vast edifice of mathematics is inaccessible to other animals.
  • Suddendorf is an excellent writer. His prose is fluid and he writes clearly. This was a pleasant surprise as he is an academic and English is not his native language.

Cons:

  • The book is about 1/3 too long. There is a lot of filler material that gives the appearance of a page count quota.
  • As the author is a welfare recipient (an academic), he is a statist and at times shows this. However, this was only a mild annoyance.

This was one of the most interesting and informative books I have read this year. I highly recommend it for those who are interested in human evolution.

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