Unraveling the evolution of uniquely human cognition

MacLean, E. L. (2016). Unraveling the evolution of uniquely human cognition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(23), 6348–6354. doi:10.1073/pnas.1521270113 [PDF]

A satisfactory account of human cognitive evolution will explain not only the psychological mechanisms that make our species unique, but also how, when, and why these traits evolved. To date, researchers have made substantial progress toward defining uniquely human aspects of cognition, but considerably less effort has been devoted to questions about the evolutionary processes through which these traits have arisen. In this article, I aim to link these complementary aims by synthesizing recent advances in our understanding of what makes human cognition unique, with theory and data regarding the processes of cognitive evolution. I review evidence that uniquely human cognition depends on synergism between both representational and motivational factors and is unlikely to be accounted for by changes to any singular cognitive system. I argue that, whereas no nonhuman animal possesses the full constellation of traits that define the human mind, homologies and analogies of critical aspects of human psychology can be found in diverse nonhuman taxa. I suggest that phylogenetic approaches to the study of animal cognition—which can address questions about the selective pressures and proximate mechanisms driving cognitive change—have the potential to yield important insights regarding the processes through which the human cognitive phenotype evolved.