It’s been awhile: A Developmental Perspective on the Cognitive Niche


Kids explore,

Kids build,

Kids figure out how stuff “works”.

It’s built-in, innate. Nobody teaches them to zoom across the living room floor to get into…everything. And then start touching, inspecting, poking with their fingers, figuring out what something does, what makes it “go”, how it works. And around the age of two they no longer merely fondle and manipulate and probe things, setting them down briefly only to pick them back up again to chew on, or to visually inspect or throw,…they set them down, one on top the other, one next to another, and leave them there in some form of structure. Children age 2-3 quite deliberately construct an arrangement…they build. They make things. No-one teaches them to do that either. I contend that a human infant’s ability to conceive of objects, things, and understand and manipulate their causal interactions is the real hallmark of human uniqueness which allows us to problem solve our way through just about any environment: filling the cognitive niche.

Not your dog, not a chimp, nor a clever crow able to bend paper clips to dig out food morsels in someone’s animal laboratory will ever spontaneously develop, nor refine over an extended childhood, any of these behaviors so unique to the human animal, which we quite unknowingly take for granted. Yet, these abilities make us what we are every bit as much as language, empathy, or culture.

In discussing human development and human evolution, much is made of our competence for ToM-Theory of Mind, which humans develop by around age 4. It is defined as the capacity to ascribe mental states to others: we assume other humans have feelings, knowledge, desires, ideas, perspectives, emotions, i.e., a mind much like our own. Being able to relate to others as thinking, feeling, beings just like us is certainly a hallmark of human communication and social interaction. We come to know others to be selves… just like us. This ability is incredibly important to communication and learning to be sure.

But little is made of our abilities to build, to make things, and to understand ToP (Theory of Process) (as I have coined it): the idea that things “go,” or “work:” that some causal process or another is going on, or will occur if one turns a knob, pulls a lever, or starts a marble down a ramp. And crawlers and toddlers just love to explore things not just for their textures, shapes, colors, or how they feel in their fingers or mouths, but how they work: what happens when you turn this knob or press that button. Even as adults we are fascinated by the ongoing process of how things “work”, watching them “go”:

We love thus stuff!!: simple causal things going on, and the more the better:

These of course, are extreme examples of extensive chain reactions, in elaborate structures that we adults love building as much as we love watching them “go”. We set them up for our entertainment, but why do they have such universal appeal?

A block falls and hits another block. If you’re not a kid, there’s nothing new or exciting about that. But when a ball rolls down a ramp, drops into a cup which pulls a string, that in falling over tips a spoon on a fulcrum, which knocks a block onto a trigger that fires a mousetrap, launching a ball into another cup that tips over to pull another string… and on and on, all simple gravity-driven drops and slides and rolls and swings and trips or spring-loaded launches and pushes and un-windings and…well, you get the idea. Adults aren’t entertained anymore by just a simple lever turn making a top pop open, or a button pushed that sounds a horn. But when every one of us was just starting out, we were just as fascinated with those simple causal actions of dials and levers and buttons and knobs, and one at a time. Now, we need dozens, hundreds, (thousands?) occurring in a clever and lengthy chain reaction to get excited about. No-one teaches us to become un-endingly curious about “What happens when you do… this?” “What’s going on?” How does this thing work?” “What’s it’s function?” What’s the drill, here?”, “What’s happenin?”… “Look at it go!”

Maybe just learning how to work our fingers and hands for the first time, turning a knob or pushing a button, was as big a deal as seeing what happens when you do. It may be no coincidence that the child’s Activity Center pictured at the top of this blog requires a number of different and exact hand and finger articulations: index finger button pushes, precision grip dial-turns and twists, finger spins of rollers, power grip pulls of levers, wrist rotations, etc. All new, and to be mastered over many years by the crawling infant, preschool toddler, young child, and adolescent. Even 8 year-olds have difficulty operating a screwdriver. It requires cognitive skill and attention as much as manual control and dexterity to keep the correct pressure (not too much, not too little) on the slot of the screw, keeping the screwdriver parallel at the same time as executing a controlled wrist turn, and re-gripping the handle with the fingers each 1/4 turn, not letting the head slip out of the slot, or letting the hand drop, trying to pay attention to all these requirements at the same time. The intimate connection of hand-brain abilities and the conceptualization of objects as discrete entities that undergo causal interactions, with our hands manipulating them, is strikingly evident in the simple hand-object interactions the child is so fascinated to pursue.

Young children delight in learning these manual skills that exemplify the unique hand-brain evolution we bipedal primates have undergone. I’m continually fascinated by these developmental milestones every child recapitulates: “When and how does that develop?”

But even more intriguing to me is simultaneously asking: “When the hell did that evolve?”
Ontogeny may not exactly recapitulate phylogeny in that we do not go thru a fish stage, an amphibian, reptile, or primitive mammal stage in prenatal development, but one may look at post-natal child development as a road map for human cognitive evolution. Demonstrating which cognitive advances come first, may provide logical constraints on which cognitive ability needs to develop before another. This further suggests what abilities might need to evolve first, mediating the next cognitive advance.

Turning a screwdriver, or manipulating the thousands of tools humans employ daily all over the world in building things, from computer mice to skyscrapers, paper dolls to video game controllers, from the dedicated hobbyists ships-in-a-bottle to the LHC (the Large Hadron Collider): all had their beginnings in the hand-brain connections wired up during the emergence of our species in the two handed competence production of stone tools.

The LHC. The most complex machine ever built, just to see how things work: how does the world go?

One hand (for most humans, the left one) typically steadies the object to be manipulated or worked, while the other dominant right hand (again for most of us) carries out the causal operation. For the stone tool maker, the left hand orients the tool to be made in space for the right hand to strike with a hammerstone in an expedient and contingent series of various precise blows: chipping off small pieces, grinding away loose edges, striking hard to knock off large flakes, and snapping long thin flakes off with carefully aimed glancing blows. Each strike has a specific purpose. Each distinct action has a different meaning: a specific causal consequence if executed properly. In addition, given that the opposite side of our brains largely controls the other side of our bodies, the right parietal lobe of our brains (corresponding to the left hand’s spatial orientation and steadying tasks) is noted for its visuo-spatial functions, while our left parietal lobes mediate a host of abilities related to the causal, purposeful, and instrumental functions or our right hands: dexterity, understanding the functional use of a tool (praxis), hammering, clubbing, throwing, twisting, sewing, writing, even counting, symmetry, logic, and symbolic notation.

We steady the paper to be written or scribbled upon with the left hand under visual guidance, moving it in proper orientation in service to the action of our right hand, which operates the crayon, pencil, or ink pen by thought, by feel, by tactile feedback alone: without visual guidance, “feeling” where our fingers and instrument are moving and going next. The stone tool maker looks at how he has the tool angled in his left hand, properly placed for the next blow. He does not watch the hammerstone in his right hand, nor his fingers, wrist, arm, elbow, and shoulder as they rotate and cock and deliver the blow. That is accomplished all without visual guidance. We look at the nail, not the hammer. As an aside “hammer” stone is a bit of a misnomer as no successive pounding occurs in stone tool making, the stone in the right hand chips, and grinds, and flakes, both thick, and exquisitely thin slices of stone peeled off the tool in the making. No repeated bashing away happens here.


That’s what happens when we teach chimps to make the simplest of stone tools. The bash the tool with a hammerstone repeatedly making lots of dust and useless small chips. As is so typical in chimp emulation of tasks, they get the overall idea to hit one stone upon another to get a piece which can cut a string to get a food reward, for example, but unlike the human child, they don’t attempt to imitate the precise hand actions, correct angle or force, to drive off a properly sized, sharp flake. Chimps eventually get lucky in their pounding away with the hammerstone and produce a usable flake. Not so with the earliest of human tool manufacture dating back to at least 2.8 million years ago. Our hominin ancestors could drive off an easily-held, good sized, razor sharp flake, employing a hard but somewhat glancing blow on an acute edge of a stone, leaving a hand sized chopper with a pointed end that could chop joints apart and break into bones quite effectively. No random bashing here. Even by 3 million years ago, the early hominins with only chimp sized brains, employing human-like hands were employing a precise, intentional blow that implied at least a simple understanding of the causal operation of what happens when you hit the right kind of stone, with a different kind of stone, and hit it just right. “This is what happens when you do this.” Tool-making became one of the first intentional causal manipulations of our environment, using hand brain actions which require cognition in tandem with manual skill: maybe our first big step into the cognitive niche.

It takes not only a human hand, but a human brain to operate human tools of all kinds with not only sufficient cognitive awareness and guidance, but with the proper hand-brain connections. Precise, distinct blows are employed by intention alone without visual guidance. The causal process and end result, accomplished mostly thru practiced “feel” is an exemplary instance of what modern psychology calls “embodied cognition.” The infant and young child is not merely developing dexterity, and not just simple object property and causal understanding but a precise feel of what their hands and fingers are doing. This embodiment is every bit as important as manual skill and the discovery of causal properties of objects. We delight in the exercise of our embodied cognition in all sorts of un-necessary activities for their own right, for our pure enjoyment: hobbies, games, play, sports. We practice for hours to develop that “sweet spot”, the feel of hitting a golf or base ball just right, or spend hours perfecting our tennis serve and return, or delicately assembling that ship in a bottle or setting up those elaborate chain reactions which rely not only on clever cognition but the precise feel of balance and alignment in our fingers and hands.

The intention and the correct sculpting of the stone tool is monitored in the left hemisphere areas where word meaning, metaphor, abstraction, symmetry, logic, and symbolic notation also reside. We know what a precise blow of one kind means versus another different strike with an altogether different result. That action means something different.

Maybe the origin of understanding causal results got burned into our brains through a couple million years of stone tool production: “When I do this, this happens.” The right angle, the right force of blow, the right kind of stone, the right grip on the tool, the right flick of the wrist…or it doesn’t work right; the intended flake does not peel off.

I suspect such understanding and curiosity underwent a further advance to modern levels after stone tool production became sufficiently complex to require a good number of rather distinct, precision blows, to incorporate ideas of equality and symmetry that the early simple tool making of the first two million years may not have required. Rather late in human evolution, only in the last 40,000 years do we see manufactured items of all sorts beyond those marvelous symmetric handaxes first made over 500,00 years ago pictured above, either appearing for the first time, regularly, or proliferating in form and substrate: needles, symmetric harpoons and bird-bone flutes, hafted tools, figurines, compound tools (spear-throwers and bows and arrows), notations, geometric designs, and the explosion of art depicting hunted ice-age animals all over rockshelters and caves. “If I do this, this happens”. “If I do it this way, or on this substrate( stone, antler, bone, wood, ivory) I get this, it goes like this.”

It appears that child-like curiosity to manipulate and figure things out, became extended to anything and everything, that is, real creativity and manufacture of purposeful items, rather late in our 3 million year journey into that cognitive niche. We had to evolve the ability to understand what happens, what’s going on; more precisely that there is something happening, there is something “going on”, some causal process or another is occurring when we do something. This recognition in our minds is beyond just doing it, beyond mere rote repetition of a few steps in making a simple tool or processing edible plants and meat. That’s not enough. Just doing the behavior, repeating an action, without further knowing that it is purposeful is not enough. We need not only to represent in our minds, not just the motor program that mediates the action, but cognitively re-represent that action as an instance of a causal process. At some point, again I think quite late in human evolution, that understanding blossomed into an innate motivation, an undeniable curiosity to see what happens, to see what we can do with something, and a delight in making things work, in making things, in seeing how things “go”.

Douglas Hofstadter relates a marvelous and delightfully nerdy example of himself as a young child desperately wanting something to “work”, to “go”, to undergo some process. As a parent in his 40’s he watches his 1 year old daughter delight in pushing the “on” button on the dustbuster and watching it work, hearing and feeling it go, each time she pushes and releases said button. Then she spies another button and pushes it, only to show utter disappointment that it does nothing. Nothing happens, since it is merely the release that only allows one to remove the front half of the dustbuster if properly pulled apart. Nothing goes, nothing happens. Her obvious dismay reminds him of a similar disappointment from his own childhood, albeit somewhat unique to Hofstadter’s mathematically inclined genius.

As a young child, he was delighted to find in his father’s mathematical papers, the power of exponents as represented by superscripts. They stood for the interesting function of repeated multiplication of integers. Wow. Something happens with those exponents. Cool. Interesting. His subsequent abject disappointment, so similar to his daughter’s decades later, was produced by discovering that with subscripts there was no such interesting process that they stood for, those little numbers below the regular numbers merely signified order in a series: no process here, nothing going on, nothing happens. Just simple order, no process, no function. Aw, darn it. Boring.
Only human animals do this:

A process, a function, represented here: Something going on, something happening: interesting, pleasing.


Nothing going on, no process, no operation, no function: not terribly interesting, not pleasing.

We like things to be going on, we want to know how things work: more generally, how the world works. We approach the world as a problem to be solved. Infants turn knobs just to learn how and to see what happens, adults make things for fun and profit, to make our lives easier, but also just to figure out how things work, even to extremes of pure discovery such as sussing out the elementary particles in incredible machines like the LHC (the most complex machine ever built), just to know, just to see how they interact to make up our world…merely to know, to understand. From just trying to stay sheltered, warm, and fed to attempting to understand the universe itself. We began by figuring out how to live and prosper in any environment, by making tools and machines to manipulate it to our advantage. This is our uniquely evolved adaptation. The human animal occupies the “cognitive niche.” The cognitive scientist and noted author Steven Pinker captured this singular skill succinctly in but one short sentence:

“Homo sapiens is a species that lives by its wits, concocting and pooling notions of how the world works…”

The “pooling of notions”, i.e., the sharing of information through language and culture empowered by our advanced abilities for social cognition in understanding others through shared attention, ToM, and other traits is discussed at great length in many a popular and scholarly work describing the evolutionary trajectory of our hominid ancestors. Yet, as in Pinker’s exposition, during our cognitive evolution “concocting notions” must have come first. We dream stuff up on how to make things, fix things, solve problems, figure out how the world works. And yes, real cultural explosion of complex ideas requires advanced social cognition like ToM, but ToP had to evolve first or there would be nothing to share, nothing to talk about. Concocting: what a great word to choose. From the online dictionaries we get synonyms such as: brew, admixture, preparation, contrivance, solution, and definitions of: “To prepare by mixing ingredients, as in cooking or to devise, using skill and intelligence; to contrive.” Like the elaborate Lemonade chain reaction and domino videos linked above…now that’s real concocting! And so are stone tools manufactured to perform any number of cutting, slicing, chopping, tasks. But there is something more important than just the task, just the expedient manipulation of objects in the world.

Other animals like the chimps and crows I mentioned perform clever manipulations to retrieve food: some chimps crack open nuts in the dry season, other chimps know how to tear twigs off a stick and fish for termites. Crows can figure out how to bend paper clips to stab a grub out of a curved tube. But they don’t know what they are doing. There is no evidence of understanding that they know they are bending, altering, hooking, grabbing, etc., i.e. performing some sort of causal action in addition to performing a behavior that procures food.

Beyond the fact that’s all crows or chimps do: simple, single uses of expedient tools for one task only, the virtually unlimited human manufacture of tools for an infinite number of operations on objects in our world, most of which are far removed from these single examples of food procurement, belie that singular fact that humans also have an understanding of whats going on with those objects and the causal chain of actions we perform with them. It is one thing to be able to perform a simple task, and know it will work, it is another to understand why it works: and that’s what the young child is also discovering with his object manipulations. We don’t just employ and repeat expedient tool use, as Pinker notes: we concoct notions. We re-represent those tool actions in our minds as causal operations. We theorize what is going on when we do something. There is no evidence that any animal, in performing a rote operation, also understands whats going on and generalizes it to other actions. They just blindly do what works, repeating a single action for a single purpose. It may have been much the same for us thru most of human evolution: that we had only a basic understanding of what was going on, and for nearly 3 million years, didn’t really have much of an understanding of how the world really works beyond the flaking of stone tools. It took until the last 40,000 years to see real understanding of spatial concepts in not only symmetric handaxes, but deliberate and precise symmetry in other tools, including tools made on different substrates, and compound tools like spear throwers and bows and arrows, and notations of what may be moon phases, carved figurines, needles, flutes, all made on not just stone and wood, but antler and animal bone, and bird bones and and ivory.

Even then, the first truly concocted contraptions like water wheels to drive a mill or irrigate a field appear much later still, tens of thousands of years later, not being made until the first century BC. The closest early item we have from the Late Paleolithic to such later complex contraptions like water wheels driving millstones, if you will, which required causal understanding beyond a simple single action like chipping bone or stone, is the bow and arrow, which needed at least a cursory understanding of the tensile properties of both taut string and bent wood, employed at the same time in the same tool. How to manufacture each component and assemble them properly to make a functional bow and arrow was no mean feat. Yet, there is another 20,000 years between the habitual manufacture and use of the bow, and that first machine; the waterwheel. It appears concocting notions of how the world works was a very gradual process, not at all a sudden or all of a piece phenomenon, as it is with the child’s long journey to increasingly better object manipulation and causal understanding over years of practice and learning.

The wheel itself, whether a potters wheel, or a wooden disk with a hole for an axle on a horse cart doesn’t appear until the Late Neolithic, around 4,000 BC. Another 3,000 years passed before the understanding of a rotating wheel pushed by falling water was evident in those first water-wheel machines. Suffice it say that the child’s simple explorations of what happens when they turn a lever or knock something off of a shelf, is the beginnings of not just manual dexterity and a grasp of singular causal actions. Like the child’s incremental accumulation of manual skill, embodiment, and causal understanding, human cognitive evolution appears to have been accomplished in multiple, cumulative, and distinct steps, over an extended period, not a sudden single leap to full-blown intelligence and understanding, culminating in our modern abilities and motivations to discover and know, taking until the very last 10,000 years of human existence to include all the mental abilities we take for granted as normal to the human animal and our modern existence.

ToP (Theory of Process) then, develops in gradual, small, and distinct steps, and it appears first (before ToM)…in child development and quite possibly in our cognitive evolution. Simple causal interactions of hand and objects as exemplified in simple stone, bone, and wood tools, exist long before the multitude of tools and machines in what we view as modern human culture arrive on the scene. During development, crawlers and toddlers are constantly exploring, mouthing, fingering, examining everything in sight, with hands, eyes, and mouth discovering object properties. As they grow, the hands replace the mouth completely and exploratory behaviors expand beyond shaking rattles and mouthing objects, to include more and more causal process exploration, turning dials, spinning wheels, pushing levers and buttons, rolling marbles down ramps, knocking pictures off the end table, picking kitty up by the tail…all with the hands. The hands allow more than mere understanding of object shape and properties. Manual causal explorations have a logical cognitive component, which underlies the question: “What happens when I do this?” “How does this work?” “What is going on here?”

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it gave the human animal a whole new and never before seen on earth adaptation, moving into the cognitive niche. As I stated above, I am personally fascinated by the question:
“When in our evolution did that ability appear in the human repertoire of cognitive skill and motivation?”

“There’s somethin’ happenin’ here…what it is aint exactly too clear” – Buffalo Springfield. And we always wanna know just what is happenin’, as kids and adults! In doing so we exploit the cognitive niche, an adaptation created of our own insatiable and innate curiosity. We explore, manipulate, build, make, feel, discover, theorize, and understand out of necessity to flourish in any environment… and just as often, just for fun, just for the satisfaction of knowing…”So, that’s how it works!”

(This post, the first in couple of months, at more than 4,000 words will prolly comprise most of a chapter in the book I am working on “Tools, Concepts and Consciousness” and gives a good indication of what my head has been buried in for much of the past year. The Unbelieving Scum secular and science podcast starts sometime 1st quarter (depending on funds for audio-visual equipment). Working on the studio-library now, looking good! Detailed announcement will be out in a few weeks).

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  1. Pingback: Father’s Day Musings on Cognitive Evolution – Dispatches from the New Enlightenment

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