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lectual 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 term cognitive niche was proposed by Tooby and DeVore (1987) to explain the constellation of zoologically unusual features of modern Homo sapiens without resorting to exotic evolutionary mechanisms.

Their account begins with the biological commonplace that organisms evolve at one another’s expense. With the exception of fruit, virtually every food source of one animal is a body part of some other organism, which would just as soon keep that body part for itself. As a result, organisms evolve defenses against being eaten. Animals evolve speed, stealth, armor, and defensive maneuvers. Plants cannot defend themselves with their behavior, so they resort to chemical warfare, and have evolved a pharmacopeia of poisons, irritants, and bitter-tasting substances to deter herbivores with designs on their flesh. In response, eaters evolve measures to penetrate these defenses, such as offensive weapons, even greater speed or stealth, and organs such as the liver that detoxify plant poisons. This in turn selects for better defenses, selecting for better offenses, and so on, in a coevolutionary arms race, escalating over many generations of natural selection.

Tooby and DeVore (1987) suggest that humans exploit a cognitive niche in the world’s ecosystems. In biology, a “niche” is sometimes defined as “the role an organism occupies in an ecosystem.” The cognitive niche is a loose extension of this concept, based on the idea that in any ecosystem, the possibility exists for an organism to overtake other organisms’ fixed defenses by cause-and-effect reasoning and cooperative action—to deploy information and inference, rather than particular features of physics and chemistry, to extract resources from other organisms in opposition to their adaptations to protect those resources. These inferences are played out internally in mental models of the world, governed by intuitive conceptions of physics, biology, and psychology, including the psychology of animals. It allows humans to invent tools, traps, and weapons, to extract

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