These findings, and others like them, have been pulled together into two competing theories that seek to explain what exactly is special about the human mind. The first is the theory of the “cognitive niche.” It argues that humans found themselves in a unique selective environment that favored the evolution of the ability to solve problems on developmental, as opposed to evolutionary, timescales. The result was an “improvisational intelligence,” a collection of enhanced cognitive abilities that allowed humans to come up with complex solutions on the fly. And indeed, we can see that human behavior is full of clever ideas, like using the poisons secreted by frogs to lace arrow tips, and these have arisen from cognitive innovation, not genetic mutation.
More recently, the cognitive niche theory has been challenged by researchers, with a counter-movement. They, and other critics, argue that the cognitive niche places too much emphasis on what individuals are capable of, whereas the real secret of the success of our species is our ability to harness the collective intelligence of groups. This alternative theory, known as the “cultural niche” argues that while individual humans do possess remarkable problem-solving abilities, this is not the entirety of what is unique about human cognition. In addition, we have highly developed capacities to communicate, teach, and talk as well as to copy, recombine, and refine ideas from other people. It is this combination of individual and collective cognition that drives human uniqueness.