This article has two goals. The first is to assess, in the face of accruing reports on the ingenuity of great ape tool use, whether and in what sense human tool use still evidences unique, higher cognitive ability. To that effect, I offer a systematic comparison between humans and nonhuman primates with respect to nine cognitive capacities deemed crucial to tool use: enhanced hand-eye coordination, body schema plasticity, causal reasoning, function representation, executive control, social learning, teaching, social intelligence, and language. Since striking differences between humans and great apes stand firm in eight out of nine of these domains, I conclude that human tool use still marks a major cognitive discontinuity between us and our closest relatives. As a second goal of the paper, I address the evolution of human technologies. In particular, I show how the cognitive traits reviewed help to explain why technological accumulation evolved so markedly in humans, and so modestly in apes.
Krist Vaesen is a postdoctoral researcher in philosophy at Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands. He holds an M.Sc. in Bioscience Engineering and a Ph.D. in Philosophy. With Andy Clark and Duncan Pritchard, he is preparing a special issue of Philosophical Explorations on extended cognition and epistemiology.