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Designing Minds

How should we explain the origins of novel behaviors?

Edward A. Wasserman, Mark S. Blumberg

Insight About Insight

A salient recent example can be found in a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in Spring 2009, in which crows were observed to fashion wire into hooks that were then used to retrieve out-of-reach food items. These behaviors have been interpreted by some authors as products of this species’ creativity and insight. In contrast, other scientists have investigated similar “insight” problems in crows, monkeys and other animals; but by focusing on the origins of these behaviors, they have discovered the critical learning experiences, as opposed to forethought, that gave rise to them. Nonetheless, we seem to be in the midst of a resurgence of faith among some scientists that animal behavior can be explained by creativity, insight and other mentalistic concepts. For our part, we remain skeptical about the utility of such groundless explanations. Indeed, we are unconvinced that creativity and insight are proper explanations even for human behavior.

Of course, few people are unnerved when the cognitive prowess of crows or other animals is questioned. Things get stickier when we express similar skepticism about the human mind. Yet as with the invention of human artifacts, we see good reason to doubt the prevailing belief that novel human behaviors—what we might call behavioral inventions—are necessarily the products of a designing mind.

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