I define "generalization" as the ability to put things together into groups based on common characteristics. I define "abstraction" to be the ability to articulate what those characteristics actually are (I'm open to choosing new words for those concepts). For instance, I know that apples, cheese, and beef go into the category "food", even if I can't articulate the property that they all share (I can eat them).

However, I can do both, so it's hard for me to think about an intelligence that can't. I'm working on a world with a proto-human species, and I'm thinking about their language and cognitive abilities. Let's say that they could generalize decently well but couldn't abstract very well. What would that mean? Would it even make sense? For instance, I suspect that they would be able to group foods into the "food" category, but wouldn't be able to sort items based on colour. Would it even make sense for such an ability to be lacking?


2 Answers 2


It is very common for people to be able to come up with the right answer without knowing precisely why it is the right answer or to articulate why that is the right answer. The distinction you make between being able to "generalized" and being able to "abstract" sounds a lot like being able to do something unconsciously without being able to do so consciously and rationally.

(The process of "abstraction" that you describe sounds very much like what is often called "inductive reasoning". Many dictionaries define inductive reasoning as the derivation of general principles from specific observations.)

When a policeman arrests or searches someone but can't articulate the reason he did so, and it turns out that the person actually was guilty, we call that in the law a "hunch" (if the policeman can articulate a reason it is "probable cause" instead). But, a hunch is usually not just dumb luck and instead is actually a situation where the policeman arrested or searched someone and was correct that there was a reason to do so based on observational evidence and the policeman was simply too inarticulate to explain why.

Similarly, the popular book "The Gift of Fear" articulates the concept more generally that "gut instinct" can often more accurately diagnose risk to your person than conscious reasoning processes.

At a neuroscientific level, this basically arises because the older limbic system in the brain (sometimes called the mammal brain) has specialized sub-systems devoted to threat analysis and honed by natural selection, that the more generalist and younger cortex unique to higher primates, does not. In contrast, different parts of the cortex are involved in different subparts of inductive reasoning.

It also bears some resemblance to the notion of blindsight, which "is the ability of people who are cortically blind due to lesions in their striate cortex, also known as primary visual cortex or V1, to respond to visual stimuli that they do not consciously see."

Another example is a rule of English grammar concerning adjective order that almost no native speakers of English are aware of, that is not found in any common school grammar books, that native speakers nonetheless slavishly follow without knowing that they are doing it. Native speakers will recognize that a sentence that does not follow this order is off, without being able to articulate why this is so. English as a second language learners, meanwhile, must be taught the rule.

In the Star Wars universe, people who are "strong in the Force" can similarly act with superhuman awareness and precision by letting the Force guide their bodies subconsciously rather than relying on their conscious observations and rational conscious thought processes.

In short, this very much makes sense and could easily flow from a brain structure in which brain structures in the subconscious mind are capable of categorizing or generalizing in some particular domain (ideally one with a great deal of selective fitness value) and another part of the brain engaged in abstraction and articulates the basis for the generalization. If the latter structure is absent or ill developed, then the phenomena you describe would arise.

  • $\begingroup$ That's a great explanation. It also gives me a decent thing to go on to explain why they are limited in some things but not others as much. $\endgroup$ Apr 21, 2017 at 2:39

I love your question, but I'm not sure the specific example you give is that great, on the other hand I might not understand your intent very well. I think that understanding food is stuff you can eat is basically a definition, Ich is not literal to the world. Here are some things that I would expect to change:

One large realm of thought that could easily be lost is mathematics, even in its most basic forms. There have been human societies which did not develop counting systems and survived into the age of recorded history. Your society might not have a numerical system that went beyond 1,2,3, many. 0 is a very late idea and is certainly out.

Morality, not just blind adherence to customs, is out. There is no way to develop a moral code without abstract thought. That said, it wouldn't be a lawless wasteland. Things like fear, and classical conditioning govern lots of behavior.

I'd guess the ability to invent gods and an afterlife, and hence most religious beliefs are out. There is some wiggle room for beliefs that arise out of chance events.

Empathy might take a hit. I doubt they could imagine being in someone else's place without having had the same experience. Things like love which arise out of our own neurochemistry probably don't change much.

  • $\begingroup$ Very interesting, thanks. Quantity, I believe, will be limited to singular (one), plural (many), plural-diminished (ie: few, not many, indicating that it's not worth the effort to get, say, the few berries), and some (allowing for sharing, "I'll give you some" means "I will not give you all"). Otherwise I agree for sure. Morality maybe is out, but social norms and taboos are still there, do you imagine? $\endgroup$ Apr 21, 2017 at 16:19
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    $\begingroup$ I think so. There is a great study where researchers created a social taboo (climbing a ladder) in a group of monkeys by shocking all of them when one tried. They then enforced the no climbing rule on new members when they were introduced. The norm persisted even once all the monkeys subjected to the punishment had been removed. Over the long arc of history certain taboos could crop up in this manner where bad events spuriously correlated with certain behaviors and so those behaviors became unacceptable without anyone ever thinking of a mechanism. $\endgroup$
    – Mathily
    Apr 21, 2017 at 16:47
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    $\begingroup$ Here's a question: I intend to have them preserve their history and their knowledge through "song", or chants. For instance, to remember the way to an important migratory route, it might be something like "now bright star, sky hill, many trees, river" to indicate "when the bright star rises, cross the mountains, the forest, and the river". The people would constantly sing these songs as part of their social bonding, and would create new ones as they discover new things. Is that an unreasonable jump, given the restrictions on their brainpower? $\endgroup$ Apr 21, 2017 at 19:54
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    $\begingroup$ I wouldn't think so. Lots of animals keep track of complex migratory paths. That speaking animals would do so via song seems natural. $\endgroup$
    – Mathily
    Apr 21, 2017 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ Good to hear. I think that these people are shaping up to be very interesting. $\endgroup$ Apr 21, 2017 at 20:14

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