Social Animals: Pondering the limits of anthropomorphism

Wray Herbert in The Weekly Standard:

BOB.v19-21.Feb10.Herbert.Getty_I could, if I chose to, make this sentence go on and on and on—forever, really. Don’t worry: I’m not going to do that, but it’s noteworthy that I could. In fact, I have the ability to write a sentence that’s longer than the longest sentence previously written, just by adding another relative clause, then another, and so on.

That may seem like a cheesy way to play the longest-sentence game, but it’s actually linguistically clever—very clever. The longest sentence game is not just a parlor trick. It demonstrates an important linguistic principle. The fact that I can think to do this, and that you can understand what I am doing, reveals characteristics of language and of mind that are unique to humans. With a finite store of symbols, I am generating one novel combination after another, all of which you can more or less comprehend. I’m counting on you to understand what I’ve written here, which is in itself remarkable. My idea is now in your head, and, importantly, that pleases me.

I, in turn, am taking these ideas from the mind of Thomas Suddendorf, a psychologist at the University of Queensland, Australia, and author of this fine new book. Even though I have never met Suddendorf,and have never been even close to Australia, I can nevertheless comprehend his thinking and share it with you. Suddendorf’s main idea is that we humans are capable of cognitive feats to which no other animal—not even our impressive cousin the ape—comes close. We are able to imagine endless situations, to create scenarios and narratives about distant places, including the past and future. And, equally important, we have an insatiable drive to share those imaginings with other scenario-building minds. Our uniqueness, the author argues, rests on these two fundamental traits, but plays out in various domains of the human mind.

More here.