Tes caught up with David Geary, a cognitive developmental and evolutionary psychologist who is a curators’ professor at the University of Missouri, for a podcast last year. Here’s a brief excerpt from the interview (you can listen to the whole thing at bit.ly/TesGeary):
What are primary abilities?
“By primary, I mean human universal abilities. These were things that would go typically under the rubric of what’s called folk psychology, folk biology and folk physics.
“Folk psychology, for example, would include things such as language, theory of the mind, your ability to know what other people are thinking, reading facial expressions and body language, so forth.
“Folk biology includes knowledge about plants and animals. It isn’t that important for people in developed nations, but if you’re living in the real world, you need an extensive knowledge base to survive.
“Folk physics involves things like being able to navigate to get from one place to the other, knowing how to use tools, and so forth.
“The brain has an organisation to it in certain areas that makes sure that infants and young children find some things more interesting than others…so you have these built-in, early skeletal structures that guide kids’ experience to make sure they get the feedback necessary to fill out these primary skills and adapt them to whatever their local conditions are.”
What are secondary abilities?
“By secondary abilities, what I mean is evolutionarily novel knowledge. These are abilities, competencies, whatever you want to call them, that have emerged fairly recently in human historical time. So we’re talking maybe in the last few thousand years or so.
“And it would include your typical academic skills studied in school: reading, writing, arithmetic. You don’t need any of these competencies to be able to survive and do well in traditional societies, but you certainly do need them today in developed societies.
“With things like reading, for instance, it only emerges in cultures where there are institutions set up to teach kids how to read. It doesn’t emerge in the same way that language emerges, for example.
“Basic language comprehension – making inferences about the nuances of what somebody says and so forth, as long as it’s an uttered sentence, not a written one – that would be all part of the primary language base.
“Reading skills and writing skills are built on top of this primary language system, as well as some other systems, so there will be some overlap between the two.”