Tag Archives: Evolution

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.

Dennett on Sunlight

Here’s my transcript of what I consider one of the more striking moments in the conversation with Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett moderated by Alex de Waal at the “Unlearning Violence” conference held at Tufts’ Fletcher School in February. (A video of the discussion in its entirety follows.) Daniel Dennett is speaking:

Something’s happened, which is absolutely unprecedented in the history of civilization, which is a major — I think a major change. And yes it’s the internet and electronic communication. But what it has done, it has rendered the epistemological atmosphere in which we live transparent in a way it never was before.

There’s a lovely book — speculative book by Andrew Parker, a zoologist in Oxford, who [in In The Blink Of An Eye: How Vision Sparked The Big Bang Of Evolution], argues, very plausibly, that the cause of the great Cambrian explosion, this huge outpouring of new life, that the trigger for that was the transparency, the sudden, relatively sudden growing transparency of the oceans and the air, making sunlight available and making vision possible for the first time. And it was the immediate evolution of eyes which changed everything, because now predator could see prey, prey could see predator, and if you didn’t have eyes you were sunk. And this set off a five million year arms race of sort of guerilla warfare enhancements, defense and offense, and that’s what created all the remarkably different body types and behavioral types and defense types that mark this great explosion.

Well, he may or may not be right about that, I — I — it’s one of those evolutionary ideas that I am very fond of but I haven’t committed to it because it hasn’t been shown yet. But it’s a plausible and pretty well researched theory. Whether he’s right or wrong, I think something exactly like that has happened now.

All the institutions in human culture, not just religions but armies, governments, banks, relig- uh, corporations, clubs — they have all evolved in a relatively murky epistemological atmosphere where people could be relatively ignorant of things at a distance around the world and even about a lot of their own, the features of their own organizations. And organizations evolved to exploit that ignorance, cause it was — you could rely on it. That ignorance is evaporating at a colossal rate, and we see it, we see it in Edward Snowden. We see it where the security experts are now saying there’s no such thing as a firewall, um, because people, you have to rely on people’s fidelity, because people’s fidelity is infinitely malleable by memes, by all of the information that is floating around in the internet.

Religions: what this new transparency does is, it renders knowledge not just widespread but mutual: it’s not just that everybody knows that p, it’s that everybody knows that everybody knows that p.

Fifty years ago, I’m sure, there were millions of Catholics that knew of a priest who had molested some boys. Millions of them. But nobody knew there were millions of them. Now, millions of Catholics know that millions of Catholics know. And that changes everything. Now, you have a Bishop giving a press conference where he makes a big point of saying you’ll note how I never, whenever there’s a young boy around I’ll always have my hands in front of me. Can you imagine a bishop of the church saying anything like that fifty years ago?

This is an awkward and gauche and ineffective response to the new transparency. Well I think that in itself is going to force every institution in the world to evolve very quickly or go extinct.

And what that does for violence is — it’s not clear. In some ways it may be a great diminution in violence; on the other hand it may unleash forces that we don’t even imagine yet, and make new inroads into violence more likely.

Al Gore Believes in Evolution

The emails hacked from East Anglia University don’t add up to a climate change conspiracy. But now the scientists who were building – or, as one wag at the Wall Street Journal put it, forging – the climate change consensus have lost control of their story. And only two weeks out from the climate conference in Copenhagen. This cannot end well.

This may not be “the worst scientific scandal of our generation,” as Christopher Booker put it in the Daily Telegraph, and Copenhagen may not be “mankind’s last chance…to save civilization on the planet,” contrary to what an Australian newspaper says. But the email scandal gives deniers and demagogues the opportunity they’ve been seeking; and the Copenhagen conference may simply end in confusion.

Self-proclaimed “skeptics,” many of whom are know-nothings with a political or business agenda to advance, will now press their case that climate change is just a big scare, or, as Nick Griffin would have it, an “elite scam.” This is the worst kind of nonsense, and Mr. Griffin himself is, of course, an elite scam artist of the highest order — a Cambridge University graduate, Holocaust denier, former member of the National Front, now Chair of the right wing British National Party — a man who trades on fear, hatred and feelings of disenfranchisement to gain power for himself. That he has been awarded a place on the EU delegation to the Copenhagen conference does not exactly inspire confidence. Look forward to a circus.

One of the more positive things that could come out of this whole imbroglio would be some new awareness of the role that science plays in society, some attention to the authority science has in shaping policy, and some fresh critical thinking about science as a discipline and a discourse — a public discourse, and, even, an ideology. I am aware that this is probably wishful thinking on my part. I’m also aware that scientists like to think that they have no influence on public policy, or not enough; but to my mind they only think that because they haven’t really looked into the matter. Ultimately their concerns are a form of special pleading, and less interesting than concerns about the philosophical deficit on the other side.

Apart from charges of elitism, or scary stories about great wizards behind curtains and the brave new world they are foisting on us — either the world is going to end in a huge polar tidal wave or Al Gore is going to usher in one world government, who can say which? — apart from all this, what language do we have for talking with one another about science? How are we to debate its findings, decide its limits, its proper application or real world consequences, both intended and unintended?

Gore himself seems enthralled to science and scientific thinking. Think about An Inconvenient Truth, or consider the article he published with David Blood just last week in the Financial Times. Here, Gore and Blood discover the causes of the 2008 financial crisis in how “our brains are hard-wired to think short term because evolution has rewarded serial short-term successes such as avoiding predators and other dangers that faced our ancestors.” A good day trader may have all the instincts of Australopithecus; but one wonders why Gore and Blood have to reach so far back into the past, millions of years back, to a dangerous era of hunting and gathering, to make their case. They could just as easily follow Weber back five hundred years to the moral basis of capitalism in the Protestant ethic, or or look at structural changes in the financial markets in the era of Morgan, or review the more recent history of deregulation beginning with Ronald Reagan and continuing right through the Clinton and George W. Bush years. A careful reading of recent history might suggest we are not so hard-wired after all.

Be that as it may, where the authority of science goes unquestioned, one might well ask (with Mark Steyn), who is guarding the guardians? And the answer today is, no one, really. It seems fair to say that philosophy, our philosophy, the kind we use every day to orient ourselves in the world, is not up to the task.

There are many reasons for this – some having to do with the fact that we understand science to be an amoral enterprise, neither good nor bad in and of itself; some having to do with the macroscopic and microscopic scales on which science is conducted, beyond the reach of ordinary human means. And as a society we haven’t cultivated the discipline and habits of mind, or created the institutions, to deal with science’s encroachment on our lives. It’s commonplace to say that over the past century or so, science has delivered enormous social benefits; but scientific advances and the technologies they muster and require have also exacted a social cost that we have yet to calculate. This is a failure, not of science, but of the unscientific community.