News from the savannah

From The Economist:

3907st1Which is more dangerous, an elephant or a minivan? For most readers of this newspaper, the answer is going to be a minivan. From childhood, people in motorised civilisations are warned about the dangers of running into the road, taught the appropriate highway code and—when old enough—permitted to get behind the wheel only after having undergone a rigorous programme of training that ends with a formal examination.

You might think, therefore, that such people would be more aware of the movements of vehicles than of animals. But if you did think that, you would be wrong. An experiment just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Joshua New of Yale University shows that people pay more attention to the activities of animals than to those of vehicles. That applies even among urban Westerners who rarely see an animal from one year’s end to the next.

Dr New was testing a theory of mind originally developed by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby of the University of California, Santa Barbara, with whom he collaborated on the experiment. Dr Cosmides and Dr Tooby were among the first to break from the idea that the brain has evolved as a general-purpose problem-solving machine. They suggested that some tasks are so important and so universal that you would expect to find specially evolved “modules” to handle them, just as the senses are handled by specialised areas of the brain’s cortex.

More here.