Derek C. Penn | Academic Publications

This page is intended for those interested in my academic research concerning the evolution of human and nonhuman cognition. In addition to my academic pursuits, I am also Co-Founder and CEO of Aficionado Media LLC, a developer of online social communities for aficionados. If you fell on this page looking for information related to my commercial endeavors, please click on the link above.

contact info

Academic inquiries only, please: dcpenn (at)

short bio for academic purposes

Derek C. Penn is an amateur academic affiliated with the Cognitive Evolution Group at the University of Louisiana and The Reasoning Lab at UCLA. Derek is primarily interested in understanding what nonhuman minds can teach us about the evolution of human ones and in helping the field of comparative psychology develop a coherent computational framework for investigating animal cognition.

Derek has published numerous peer-reviewed articles in some of the most preeminent journals in the field, including The Annual Review of Psychology,The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and has been an invited speaker at a variety of venues, including the Salk Institute, the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, the Ernst Strüngmann Forum in Frankfurt, Germany and the Royal Society in London.

Professionally, Derek spent the early part of his career on the trading floors of various Wall Street firms and the later part in Silicon Valley as an investor and software entrepreneur. Derek is currently in the midst of launching his third startup, this time in music.

Derek studied philosophy at Boston University, French Literature at the Université de Provence, Semiotics at the Université Paris VI and neuroscience at Columbia University.

selected video

Penn, D. C. (2011). Why Are We So Odd? Explaining the Discontinuity Between Human and Nonhuman Minds, Los Angeles, CA, UCLA Center for Behavior, Evolution and Culture.
This talk, given at UCLA's Center for Behavior, Evolution and Culture series in 2011, is a fairly non-technical introduction to my thoughts and speculations on what makes human cognition so unlike that of any other animal on the planet.

selected publications

Penn, D. C. and D. J. Povinelli (in press). The Comparative Delusion: the 'behavioristic'/'mentalistic' dichotomy in comparative Theory of Mind research. Agency and joint attention. H. A. Terrace and J. Metcalfe. Oxford University Press.

It is no secret that research on the Theory of Mind (ToM) abilities of nonhuman animals has been "fraught with controversy" (Shettleworth 1998). 'Low-level', 'behavioristic' hypotheses purportedly claim that nonhuman animals learn about the statistical regularities in others' observable behaviors using low-level mechanisms akin to Pavlovian conditioning without any ability to reason about the causal relation between those behaviors in an abstract or inferentially coherent fashion. 'High-level', 'mentalistic' hypotheses, on the other hand, propose that nonhuman subjects attribute (at least some) mental states to others and reason about the causal role played by those mental states in a fashion roughly analogous to the way that we (the folk) do. The debate between these two dichotomous alternatives has dominated comparative ToM research ever since (and including) Premack and Woodruff's (1978) original paper. Notwithstanding the eminent consensus arrayed against us, we will argue herein that both of these eminent alternatives are equally implausible and that the entire three-decades long debate has been largely otiose.
Penn, D. C. and D. J. Povinelli (2012). The Human Enigma. The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning. K. J. Holyoak and R. G. Morrison. Oxford University Press.
Why is there such an enormous gap between human and nonhuman minds? Humans have been asking themselves this question for millennia. But if anything, the question has only become more enigmatic since Darwin and the genetic revolution. In the present chapter, we review the various answers that have been proposed to this question in recent years—from a "language instinct" and a "Theory of Mind" to the "massively modular" hypothesis—and argue that none of them provides a satisfactory solution to the enigma of the human mind.
Penn, D. C. (2011). "How Folk Psychology Ruined Comparative Psychology and What Scrub Jays Can do About It." Animal Thinking: Contemporary Issues in Comparative Cognition,. R. Menzel and J. Fischer. MIT Press. 8: 253-265.
The cognitive revolution in psychology was founded on the premise that all cognitive processes result from rule-governed operations and that cognizers do not need to understand these rules to act "rationally" or "intelligently." Despite its intent to replace romantic folk psychological intuitions about how the mind works, anthropomorphism is prevalent throughout much of comparative psychology: claims that animals perform "human-like" feats find broad acceptance in the media and permeate the academic debate, while less anthropomorphic explanations are largely dismissed. To construct a viable scientific theory of nonhuman minds, comparative psychology must aim for a computationally explicit account of cognition—not just folk psychological descriptions. Given the impressive body of data that has been collected on the social cognitive abilities of scrub jays, compiling a functional specification of corvid social cognition would be a great place to start.

Penn, D. C. and D. J. Povinelli (2009). "On Becoming Approximately Rational: The Relational Reinterpretation Hypothesis." Rational Animals, Irrational Humans. S. Watanabe, A. P. Blaisdell and L. Huber. Keio University Press.

Some of the most contentious and intractable debates in comparative psychology result from the fact that researchers persistently overlook—or frankly refuse to acknowledge—the distinct roles played by different levels of explanation in cognitive science. We examine two prominent explananda—"Do animals reason about causal relations?" and "Do animals have a theory of mind?"—and show how in each case, comparative researchers continue to gloss over the difference between functional- and representational-level claims. We propose a representational-level hypothesis about how nonhuman animals have evolved to become approximately rational without employing higher-order reasoning processes. And we show how comparative researchers might become approximately rational as well.
Penn, D. C., K. J. Holyoak, et al. (2008). "Darwin's mistake: Explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 31(2): 109-178.
Over the last quarter century, the dominant tendency in comparative cognitive psychology has been to emphasize the similarities between human and nonhuman minds and to downplay the differences as "one of degree and not of kind" (Darwin 1871). In the present target article, we argue that Darwin was mistaken: the profound biological continuity between human and nonhuman animals masks an equally profound discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. To wit, there is a significant discontinuity in the degree to which human and nonhuman animals are able to approximate the higher-order, systematic, relational capabilities of a physical symbol system (PSS) (Newell 1980). We show that this symbolic-relational discontinuity pervades nearly every domain of cognition and runs much deeper than even the spectacular scaffolding provided by language or culture alone can explain. We propose a representational-level specification as to where human and nonhuman animals' abilities to approximate a PSS are similar and where they differ. We conclude by suggesting that recent symbolic-connectionist models of cognition shed new light on the mechanisms that underlie the gap between human and nonhuman minds.

Penn, D. C. and D. J. Povinelli (2007). "On the lack of evidence that non-human animals possess anything remotely resembling a 'theory of mind'." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 362: 731-744.

After decades of effort by some of our brightest human and non-human minds, there is still little consensus on whether or not non-human animals understand anything about the unobservable mental states of other animals or even what it would mean for a non-verbal animal to understand the concept of a 'mental state'. In the present paper, we confront four related and contentious questions head-on: (i) What exactly would it mean for a non-verbal organism to have an 'understanding' or a 'representation' of another animal's mental state? (ii) What should (and should not) count as compelling empirical evidence that a non-verbal cognitive agent has a system for understanding or forming representations about mental states in a functionally adaptive manner? (iii) Why have the kind of experimental protocols that are currently in vogue failed to produce compelling evidence that non-human animals possess anything even remotely resembling a theory of mind? (iv) What kind of experiments could, at least in principle, provide compelling evidence for such a system in a non- verbal organism?

Penn, D. C. and D. J. Povinelli (2007). "Causal cognition in human and nonhuman animals: A comparative, critical Review." Annual Review of Psychology 58: 97-118.

In this article, we review some of the most provocative experimental results to have emerged from comparative labs in the past few years, starting with research focusing on contingency learning and finish- ing with experiments exploring nonhuman animals' understanding of causal-logical relations. Although the theoretical explanation for these results is often inchoate, a clear pattern nevertheless emerges. The comparative evidence does not fit comfortably into either the traditional associationist or inferential alternatives that have dominated comparative debate for many decades now. Indeed, the similarities and differences between human and nonhuman causal cog- nition seem to be much more multifarious than these dichotomous alternatives allow.