I'm sort of polling you guys...how many of you think that human intelligence marks a break with animal life that has gone before and how many of you think our abilities are best understood as a continuance of non-human animal abilities?

If you would, please also tell me why you think what you do.

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Human intelligence definitely marks a break with animal life that has gone before.
No other creature had made so many life improving advances in such a short period of time. Sure, insects dominate the earth in numbers, but they took billions of years to achieve this status. It's the same issue with flight - all of the sudden, we could fly, while other creatures took millions of years to do the same. Everything we do; using tools, healing, telling stories, flipping a light switch, all of it is far, far beyond what any other creature can do, and snaps off of any continuum for development that may exist for the rest of the animal kingdom.
As to whether we have transcended the laws of nature and can control our evolutionary path, I'm not so sure, but we're definitely a different kind o' creature.
A little of both.

As Stephen pointed out some animals can do many of the things we do, albeit in a more limited way. However, no animal that I'm aware of comes anywhere near the generative abilities we possess. That is, no other animal can infinitely combine and recombine the smallest units of language or behaviour as we do. Even human children are far more capable than the chimpanzees who've showed the most potential. For example while chimpanzees can be taught sign language and can come up with sentences they haven't explicitly been taught, using the words they were taught, their limit seems to be around 3 words. And none have spontaneously developed language as humans will.

Looking at our own history the scattered evidence provided by a variety of fields of study can be synthesised into a picture of punctuated development; three transitions which marked significant changes in our culture, reflecting significant changes in cognition. At each transition the subsequent stage would obviously be seen as a continuation of the previous, but when comparing the very initial stage with the current, the multiple transitions in-between reveal the discontinuity when comparisons are made at a more than superficial level.

So those animals which seem to possess a rudimentary form of many of our abilities are very unlikely to reach our level without a series of transitions of their own. It's our culture combined with our biological development which has allowed our intelligence to be expressed at the level it is today.
I tend to agree with you. Our advantage is most likely due to both out culture and our biology.
I think that our intelligence is a slight edge above what came before; we excel because of quantity of neural connections not quality. While a few differing skills may be the result of emergence, the fact that we can pass along knowledge within generations and between generations using spoken language is a key difference. Add in being on dry land and having thumbs, unlike dolphins that have brains of comparable size to humans but no opposable thumbs or pressures to establish larger fixed communities, and that pushes us just over the edge where we no longer need to bootstrap each generation.

Also, after 100,000-200,000+ years of human development have relatively recently resulted in us dominating the landscape and expanding our cumulative knowledge. If, with all the advantages I mentioned before, we were qualitatively different, I'd expect that we would be able to accumulate knowledge at a much more rapid rate.

Additionally, if we were so qualitatively different, why did humans almost get wiped out 50,000 years ago? It is possible that we benefited from an adaptation at that point *because* the population was so small and a theoretical qualitative change in intelligence could spread more rapidly, but I haven't been able to identify one trait that is strictly human beyond the thumb and voice box combo and those aren't brain structures.

Corrections appreciated.
I think that there was a break. It came when beliefs were used to project how life should be. It started a creative process.* Eventually, it led to the scientific method or scientific thinking. Unfortunately, by the time we were able to perceive reality accurately our languages still had beliefs at their basis. Leaders realized that rational people posed a danger to their power so they used fantasy to instill fear into the minds of population. It was easy to do because most human languages were and do have beliefs at their bases.
Here is an interesting test. Compare our concepts with what we know to be accurate in reality. Many will have trouble with this test because they don't really know the difference between the perception of reality and actual reality. Some, however, knowing that reality exists beyond our perceptions, will realize that many of our concepts are based on what we belief, not what we actually know about our environment (reality). That is why even atheists have beliefs that are based on irrational premises even though their concepts might be extraordinarily filled with rational thought. It is not surprising that we disagree with each other so much.
We now are at another threshold for human beings. If we can break away from beliefs and base our behavior on what we know and not what we believe (how we want the world to be), we will be able to adjust to our ever changing environment. Before it was not so important because we didn't have such a dynamic effect on our environment. Unfortunately, many still don't understand how beliefs stagnant our ability to perceive reality accurately.
*You may be wondering what triggered the ability to believe. Like so many other situations in Evolution, random events came together such as human(s) who had a particular brain pattern combined with particular environment(s) which stimulated the behavior.
Addendum: Recently, it has been discovered that the human brain can conform by changing it neurological patterns, even in elderly people. A whole new science has been developed to manipulate our behavior to maintain optimal brain function as we age.




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