The cognitive niche: Coevolution of intelligence, sociality, and language

Introduction & Excerpts (via Steven Pinker@

Although Darwin insisted that human intelligence could be fully explained by the theory of evolution, the codiscoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, claimed that abstract intelligence was of no use to ancestral humans and could only be explained by intelligent design. Wallace’s apparent paradox can be dissolved with two hypotheses about human cognition. One is that intelligence is an adaptation to a knowledge-using, socially interdependent lifestyle, the “cognitive niche.” This embraces the ability to overcome the evolutionary fixed defenses of plants and animals by applications of reasoning, including weapons, traps, coordinated driving of game, and detoxification of plants. Such reasoning exploits intuitive theories about different aspects of the world, such as objects, forces, paths, places, states, substances, and other people’s beliefs and desires. The theory explains many zoologically unusual traits in Homo sapiens, including our complex toolkit, wide range of habitats and diets, extended childhoods and long lives, hypersociality, complex mating, division into cultures, and language (which multiplies the benefit of knowledge because know-how is useful not only for its practical benefits but as a trade good with others, enhancing the evolution of cooperation). The second hypothesis is that humans possess an ability of metaphorical abstraction, which allows them to coopt faculties that originally evolved for physical problem-solving and social coordination, apply them to abstract subject matter, and combine them productively. These abilities can help explain the emergence of abstract cognition without supernatural or exotic evolutionary forces and are in principle testable by analyses of statistical signs of selection in the human genome.


Few scientists today accept Wallace’s creationism, teleology, or spiritualism. Nonetheless it is appropriate to engage the profound puzzle he raised; namely, why do humans have the ability to pursue abstract intellectual feats such as science, mathematics, philosophy, and law, given that opportunities to exercise these talents did not exist in the foraging lifestyle in which humans evolved and would not have parlayed themselves into advantages in survival and reproduction even if they did?

I suggest that the puzzle can be resolved with two hypotheses. The first is that humans evolved to fill the “cognitive niche,” a mode of survival characterized by manipulating the environment through causal reasoning and social cooperation. The second is that the psychological faculties that evolved to prosper in the cognitive niche can be coopted to abstract domains by processes of metaphorical abstraction and productive combination, both vividly manifested in human language.


The theory of the cognitive niche helps explain many zoologically unusual features of H. sapiens: traits that are universal across human cultures (3) but are either unique or hyperdeveloped (especially in combination) with respect to the rest of the animal kingdom. Three in particular make our species stand out.

1. Technological Know-How.

Humans use and depend upon many kinds of tools, which involve multiple parts and complicated methods of fabrication. The tools are deployed in extended sequences of behavior and are acquired both by individual discovery and learning from others. They are deployed to capture and kill animals, to process foods (including cooking, fermenting, soaking, peeling, and crushing them to remove toxins and increase the availability of nutrients), and to generate and administer medicinal drugs (4, 5).

2. Cooperation Among Nonkin.

Humans cooperate with other humans: they trade goods, favors, know-how, and loyalty, and act collectively in child-rearing, gathering, hunting, and defense. This cooperation extends to other humans who are not related to them, in shifting partnerships, coalitions, and trading relationships, and thus must be explained not by kin selection but by mutualism or reciprocity (11).

3. Grammatical Language.

…… Although every language must be learned, humans have an ability to coin, pool, and learn new words and rules and thus are not dependent on some other species as teachers (as is the case with apes), or even on a longstanding linguistic community, to develop and use language (26).

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08. June 2010 by Miguel Barbosa
Categories: Curated Readings, Psychology & Sociology | Leave a comment

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