From Aping to Asking

Joseph Jordania offers a clever but not entirely satisfying answer to the question posed in the title of his book Who Asked The First Question?

“The first human being.”

Did asking questions make us human? Maybe not exactly, or at least that can’t be the whole story. But to be human is to ask questions, and clearly the ability to ask things of each other — to request clarification, to invite others to join with us in some activity, to make offers and claims or demand reasons — is at the very core of human social life; and in primate cognitive evolution, asking or the power to ask must represent a significant turn toward the human.

A 2004 study of chimpanzee gesture sequences by Liebal and Tomasello suggests that apes do not request clarification in the way we do, from infancy, to help the other convey meaning or in order to negotiate meaning collaboratively. Asking for clarity, we recognize the other, show that we appreciate the role she is playing in trying to communicate with us, and we make meaning together; and just as importantly — and on a more basic level — we commit to the project. It’s not language use that differentiates us here; it’s the commitment (though I would not be surprised if these turned out to be indistinguishable and inextricable). The so-called “speaking” bonobo Kanzi will play with toys or participate in the preparation of food, but so far as researchers can tell, Kanzi lacks understanding that he is doing these things together with you: he is not jointly committed with you to the activity, does not recognize your role or support you in it.

Kanzi learns, but lacks commitment.

Kanzi learns, but lacks commitment.

For Tomasello and his colleagues, our amazing ability to co-create meaning or even to coordinate through request and reply isn’t what ultimately sets us apart. The first human may have asked the first question, but the power of asking and language use itself is “not basic; it is derived.” “An adaptation for participating in collaborative activities involving shared intentionality” is the more fundamental evolutionary step, write Tomasello et al. in a 2005 paper on human cognitive evolution. “At some point — perhaps heralding the emergence of modern humans some 150,000 years ago — individuals who could collaborate together more effectively in various social activities came to have a selective advantage.”

Early human life, in this view, does not look so nasty, brutish and short, or at least not so nasty and brutish; and Tomasello is aware that he’s running against the prevailing “Machiavellian” account of human evolution. He offers a “Cultural account” of human cognitive evolution that “emphasizes … the importance of collaboration, cultural historical processes, and strong reciprocity based on social norms.” Putting the emphasis on collaborative give and take instead of on winner-take-all competition may not make sense of every step in our evolution, but it helps Tomasello bring into focus an important aspect of human cognition. Specifically, he argues that it was through collaboration (not competition) that we became highly skilled at reading and sharing intentions.

Although intention reading may be helpful in competitive interactions, it is not absolutely necessary — since in competition I care mainly about what you do. That is to say, in competitive interactions, the interactants do not have goals about others’ intentional states; the situation is that we both have the “same” goal (e.g., both want that piece of food), and the key thing is that I anticipate what you will do next. In contrast, collaborative interactions require interactants to have goals about others’ intentional states so that the requisite shared goals and plans may be formulated. Thus, in collaborative interactions, we are faced with the so-called coordination problem from the outset: to get started, we must somehow coordinate or negotiate so that we end up with a shared goal…Then, in addition, to collaborate effectively, we must mesh our action plans at least some of the way down the hierarchy — and this requires some communication about those plans, at least to some degree ahead of time.

“The motivations and skills for participating in this…’we’ intentionality are woven into the earliest stages of human ontogeny and underlie young children’s developing ability to participate in the collectivity that is human cognition.” In other words, we are hard-wired for soft sharing skills — born to collaborate. At only 14 months of age, infants “begin to understand full- fledged intentional action – including the rudiments of the way people make rational decisions in choosing action plans for accomplishing their goals in particular reality contexts and selectively attending to goal-relevant aspects of the situation.”

This kind of understanding leads to some powerful forms of cultural learning, especially imitative learning in which the observer must perform a means-end analysis of the actor’s behavior and say in effect: “When I have the same goal I can use the same means (action plan).” This analysis is also necessary before one can ask why someone did something and whether that reason also applies in my circumstance (“rational imitation”).  Without such analysis, only simpler forms of social learning are possible.

That is how, to riff on the horrible pun I’ve chosen for the title of this post, we manage to do more than simply ape the behavior of others; we learn by analyzing and asking. We can learn recipes and social rituals, make tools and share techniques, build bridges and launch sea voyages. We can inquire whether another’s reasons match our circumstances, and when we make that effort at rational imitation, we have only just begun to tap the power of asking. In order to ask why someone did something, after all, we must first see them as someone who has reasons: we ascribe rationality to them and to ourselves. You are someone who acts with reason, for reasons, and so am I. We are mutually accountable, so we can demand (or ask) that we bring reasons for our actions.

2 thoughts on “From Aping to Asking

  1. david

    Louis – truly fascinating distinction. Speaks to why kids with autism or other “social connecting” issues have such a hard time – and why people have a hard time helping them. Another thought re: collaboration vs. survivalist individualism – as apes with no claws, teeth, and not at all strong, all we’ve really got is collaborative brains. David

    Reply
    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      Interesting that you mention children with autism right off the bat: this is one of the groups Tomasello studies. While they are capable of understanding others as having intentions, he observes, they appear much less motivated than typical human children “to share attention with others or to inform others or to help others.” Without that motivation coming from them, I guess, it’s hard to find a way to share with or help them. So it’s again about this human capacity for forging something between you and me, creating a “we” intentionality.

      Reply

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