Keith Frankish has an interesting article at Psyche pondering what ability separates modern humanity from archaic humans (such as homo erectus). His vote is hypothetical thinking. From the article:
The ability I mean is that of hypothetical thinking – the ability to detach one’s mind from the here and now, and consciously think about other possibilities. This is the key to sustained innovation and creativity, and to the development of art, science and technology. Archaic humans, in all probability, didn’t possess it. The static nature of their lifestyle suggests that they lived in the present, their attention locked on to the world, and their behaviour driven by habit and environmental stimuli. In the course of their daily activities, they might accidentally hit on a better way of doing something, and so gradually acquire new habits and skills, but they didn’t actively think up innovations for themselves.
This description of hypothetical thinking seems a lot like imagination in general. However, I think the description of archaic human behavior vastly underestimates their abilities, or even that of mammals in general. Being habit and stimuli driven seems more like a description of fish, amphibians, or arthropods. It seems like we have enough accounts of imaginative forethought in mammals, birds, and cephalopods to conclude that this kind of thinking starts much earlier than modern humans.
Anyway, Frankish goes on to posit that it was the development of language which ultimately led to the development of hypothetical thought. Citing Daniel Dor and Daniel Dennett, he describes a sequence where humans first learned to call each other’s attention to aspects of the environment, then to describe those aspects to each other in the absence of immediate stimuli. Finally, we began talking with ourselves, instructing our own imagination, leading to the feeling of a private inner experience.
The entire hypothesis is interesting and deserves to be read in full.
However, aside from the issue I noted above, it feels anthropocentric to me, and I think it gets the sequence of developments wrong. There are compelling reasons to think that episodic memory goes back to reptiles, and includes mammals and birds. And episodic memory is imagination, just of the past. When we remember a past episode, we’re essentially imagining, that is simulating, a past sequence of events. The same machinery enables us to simulate a possible future sequence.
Personally, I think if we’re looking for the special sauce of modern humanity, it’s symbolic thought itself, along with the underlying deep recursive metacognitive framework. Symbolic thought enables language, art, mathematics, and many other capabilities. It’s arguably what allows a primate from the African savanna to ponder concepts far beyond its ecological niche.
It also supercharges imagination. It is accurate to say that human hypothetical thought is magnified far beyond that of other species. So in that sense, I think Frankish is right. Most animals only seem able to plan a few seconds or minutes ahead. Humans can do it days, weeks, months, or years into the future. Doing that is extremely difficult if you don’t have symbolic concepts like “day”, “week”, “month”, etc.
So it seems like Frankish is on the right track, but takes a wrong turn with the language first aspect. It’s worth noting that he’s far from alone in this view. He cites Daniel Dennett, who does express similar views. And other writers such as Joseph LeDoux and Frank Amthor also see language as foundational for human consciousness.
This view doesn’t seem right to me, but maybe I’m missing something? Are there compelling reasons I’m overlooking for the language first hypothesis?