Saturday, February 10, 2018

Art and Adaptability

I am pleased to announce the publication of Art and Adaptability: Consciousness and Cognitive Culture (Brill 2018). The book argues for a co-evolution of theory of mind and material/art culture and covers relevant areas from great ape intelligence, hominin evolution, Stone Age tools, Paleolithic culture and art forms, to neurobiology. 

Please ask your librarian to order a copy of the book, ISBN 978-9004354524. Hardcover, 216 pages, with five color illustrations. More information can be found here. The publisher's page is here.

And a testimonial:

“Gregory F. Tague approaches two ancient questions, what is art and what does it do, in a new and intriguing way. Drawing on science, specifically evolution through natural selection, he proposes that art, like other forms of social behavior, is in part genetic, creative or imaginative impulse, and part environmental, social interaction. Support for this proposal comes from primate studies and current studies in neurobiology, cognition, intelligence and communication. He proposes, and I agree, that culture is common among great apes with whom we share social and mental abilities. Modern humans, however, unlike other primates, have a more highly degreed theory of mind. This ability to make predictions based on the perceived mental states of others facilitated our ancestors’ ability to competitively cooperate. Culture, which would include art, was, as he explains, “part of a predictive attempt to affect another’s emotional or cognitive outcome, often in subtle ways.” As influence is a critical part of social behavior, art, which has costs that can be quite high, provides social benefits. In sum, the road Tague takes to answering the questions – what is art and what does it do, how might it be connected to health, pleasure, play, sociality, and emotions – is complex; however, art is not a simple thing to explain. While he draws on many variables to build and support his argument, he provides the reader with a provocative and enlightening journey. Art and Adaptability is an excellent book – a fabulous search through many fields for an explanation of the curious behavior we call art.” 

– Kathryn Coe, Ph.D., Professor and Lilly Scholar in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Indiana University-Purdue University. Author, The Ancestress Hypothesis: Visual Art as Adaptation

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Evolution, Imagination, and Improvisation

Stephen T. Asma. The Evolution of Imagination. University of Chicago Press, 2017. ISBN: 978-0226225166. $30 U.S. Hardcover. Illustrated.

Stephen Asma’s The Evolution of Imagination is a required addition to the library of academics interested in evolutionary studies. The well-organized book is thoroughly researched, engagingly written, and fortuitously illustrated by the author, who is also an accomplished jazz musician and philosopher. Asma is also fluent in the culture and philosophy of Asian countries, which impact directly on his main points and discussion, especially concerning creativity, self, meditation, mindfulness, and morality. No doubt this is a book I will refer to in the future, and I recommend it to philosophers of biology and neuroscience. I’d also recommend this book to scientists who wish to see how philosophy and the creative mind accommodate their research. Artists who are curious about the nature of their creativity will also learn much from this book. Stephen Asma’s beautifully-written scholarly study of the evolution of imagination is a powerful new approach to the adaptation of creative improvisation.

Broad areas Asma covers in terms of imaginative creativity include culture, storytelling, consciousness, and ethics. Lev Shestov said that all things are possible. Stephen Asma says that all things are possible because of the human imagination. What he sees as a mistake is how philosophers characterize imagination as cognition and not as action. Rather than ambiguous concepts and universals, Asma homes in on the particulars of sensation and emotion. What does it feel like to imagine oneself as...? There is an adaptive advantage to imaginative, playful what ifs. The imagination is physical sense that prompts one to improvise creatively. In evolutionary terms, then, the imagination helped us survive and reproduce in unprecedented ways. Improvisation especially helped us, says Asma, thrive in its inventive environment, but less as a computational and more as an emotional action. To be precise, imagination is not necessarily useful as noun; it’s more effective a gerund – imagining or the act of making.

Like many brain functions, imagination is not fixed or static but a dynamic process across many regions, including motor systems and emotions. An improvising imagination, says Asma, more easily and fluidly taps into the brain’s storehouse of knowledge, whether scientific or artistic. For Asma, hardcore evolutionary psychologists who emphasize domain-specific modules have it wrong: improvisation comes out of general intelligence or, as he labels it, an “anti-module.” Improvisation, according to Asma, is evolutionarily old and therefore pre-linguistic. Given our close relationship with great apes, foundations of creative improvisation can be found in emotional and bodily social gestures. Asma is right to say, along these lines, that our human intellect grew out of the primate mind’s ability to organize and manipulate emotional and social experiences. The body and emotion, for the philosopher Asma, are more central to imaginative creativity than concepts and language. He goes as far as saying that the imagination provides a glimmer of the Homo mind before language. Asma aligns his approach with biosemantics, which looks for meaning not in language but in social embodiment, like dance, music, and calling.

Imagination probably came early on and is best considered when we think of how Pleistocene hunters anticipated a kill by simulation and prediction. There are several features of improvisation, says Asma: spontaneity, intuition, adaptation to an environment, resource deficiency that prompts creative thinking, discipline according to rules or physics, and emergency response. Improvisation happens in real time and is not preparation for a later performance. However, what’s learned through improvisation could be greatly beneficial over the long run. Improvisation is, in many respects, Darwinian: random mutations and then natural selection; changes and solutions that, if beneficial, are selected for because of adaptability to the environment. Improvisation is also simply trial-and-error, where one makes an accidental discovery and then continues to work through mistakes until achieving an optimal result. Forms are mixed and hybrids are created. This sounds to me a little like Tomasello’s ratchet effect, selection on culture.

In addition to chance, Asma makes the important point that affective systems often are responsible at the initiation stage of improvisation. Does one freely want to go through with this action, and how will it make one feel? In this way human creativity relies more on the limbic/emotional systems rather than higher neocortical structures. In addition, there are elements of stream of consciousness in improvisation.

Through a discussion of brain chemicals and epigenetics, Asma goes on to discuss how scientists and not just artists achieve inspiring moments when not focused or controlled but relaxed in consciousness. For example, consider how one reimagines different outcomes to an already finished experiment or event. The human imagination, says Asma, is essentially not computational but associational. The human mind often imagines the unreal and can work in counterfactual ways to produce alternative outcomes. So it seems in line with the thinking of David Hume, quite often emotion is paramount to information in human thinking. We have more control in imaginative play than we have in reality.

It’s a little unclear to me where Asma falls on the so-called 50kya neural leap. He seems to favor it but then at other times not. He’s sensitive to Neanderthal culture up to a point. He does not mention the groundbreaking work on Neanderthal culture done by Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks (2000) or April Nowell. Though he rightly says we should be careful to assign reason or advanced culture to other primates, that oversimplification ignores important work by, for example, Sue Taylor Parker and Kathleen Rita Gibson. But to be fair, some of these topics, while addressed, are outside the full scope of Asma’s discussion.

Asma’s overall point is well taken: the adapted human mind is embodied. Mind is as much about motor sensations and emotions as well as representations and even rational thought. For example, motor simulation and bodily synchronization stem from the cerebellum which, Asma notes, grew faster than the neocortex. That means that bodily sequencing, special, and temporal movements developed before and set the stage for reasoning, planning, and decision making. As Asma says, the mind is not just a calculator but a mover. In evolutionary terms, these advances no doubt arose in primates because of movements related to food sourcing, evident today in how great apes are dexterous in handling food. There are multiple steps required to locate and process nutrition, and these coordinated movements are more to the cerebellum than to the neocortex.

This is not to minimize the social import of primate development and learning but only to highlight how we evolved in bodily form. Social learning of some skills is cerebellum dependent, since the body has to move correctly and in synchrony to copy movements accurately. This would be especially true, says Asma, in resource gathering or food preparation. Mirror neurons suggest that our brains are in tune with other brains. Consider, for example, mother-infant facial interactions. These are non-cognitive, emotional, mirroring rewards. Improvisation relies on such unconscious communication, or what we might designate interpersonal thinking with the body.

At this point Asma goes into some detail about what he calls hot cognition (quick emotional actions) and cold cognition (deliberate planning). Hot cognition is embodied and full of affect and emotion, fast. Cold cognition is deductive. Improvisation is closer to our ancient hot cognition since our ancestors lived extemporaneously. From here, Asma gives a nice overview of Antonio Damasios’s “somatic marker” hypothesis where the brain engages in “engraving memories with affective associations that automatically and rapidly influence decision making” (78).  No rational thought is without emotion, and new experiences result in new affective layers. Evolutionarily this is important sine early Homo onward was governed by a limbic brain. This paleo-mammalian cortex combines memory and emotion in a social brain geared to parental care and feelings of fear or desolation. The feeling brain precedes and is integral to the thinking brain.

Contrary to domain specific modules, Asma is advocating a flexible, general intelligence brain capable of enough plasticity to solve basic problems in a highly volatile evolutionary environment. For Asma, this implies that very early Homo improvised in dramatically different climates and habitats. Even so, I don’t think Asma gives enough credit to the cognitive advances of some Homo species. For instance, he says language probably dates only to 200kya. But Dan Dediu and Stephen Levinson (2013) say Neanderthals likely shared a modern language and that some language probably dates back to Homo heidelbergensis.

For Asma, the evolution of imagination, closely linked to improvisation as an adaptation, was and aid for one’s emotional life and social intelligence. The perfection of game hunting, coming around 500kya, no doubt involved bodily gestures, facial expressions, and mimicry, theatrical improvisation of individuals for communication among the group. He claims theory of mind is a late, Middle Pleistocene development and questionable in other mammals. But readers might wish to refer to Christopher Krupenye, et al. (2016) and David Buttleman et al. (2017). I realize these papers might not have been available to Asma as he was finishing his book, but there was of course related work by Kristin Andrews. Yet Asma’s point is well taken, for emotional intelligence and improvisation can come from understanding or reading very subtle body/emotional cues. The improvisational reading of these physical signals is prosocial behavior.

At this point Asma demonstrates his knowledge of moral philosophy, Eastern and Western. There is moral improvisation where one does not simply adhere to static rules but bends flexibly to dynamic contexts and situations. Here Asma acknowledges that our moral responses are emotional and draw from our long mammalian and especially primate evolution.

In terms of art, I am happy to see that Asma recognizes how such creations are cognitive and descend from much earlier utilitarian forms. For the most part, however, Asma clings to cave paintings, a very late development and only what’s left of parietal art lost on exterior walls. This is a huge research area to cover; so when he claims that visual art “exploded in a short period” he leaves out much early rock art and other forms of material culture we might consider aesthetic. Some of this ground is covered in authors like Robert G. Bednarik, Genevieve von Petzinger, and especially Ellen Dissanayake. While Asma nobly crams much into his book, that means space is lost for a full examination. I’m thinking of his approach to the so-called Venus sculptures and cave paintings where he focuses exclusively on the vulvas and sexuality. See von Petzinger (2016) for a convincing alternative reading.

Likewise, following David Lewis-Williams and Jean Clottes (though he does not mention them), Asma ascribes the creation of cave painting to shamanistic ritual. This argument is not new and also addressed by von Petzinger. There is evidence based on hand prints and narrow fissures with paintings that adolescent boys and others were cave painters. Nonetheless, the discussion is thorough going. It’s only that with the emphasis on improvisation and how mind-altering substances help creativity the shamanistic approach of course works best for Asma’s argument. This leads nicely into his discussion of dreams as improvisation in how they loosely organize thoughts and feelings, giving us a reminder that the mind is not like a computer. There are perceptual images stored in memory which can become conceptual and useful in creative improvisation to solve practical or social problems. Images have more life and substance to them than words about those images, the stuff that dreams are made of. Improvisation as an evolutionary adaptation has utilitarian and fantasy aspects, the blending and reframing of forms.

Asma notes that some philosophers say mind is rational, linguistic thought; so without language there is no mind and, therefore, no thinking. He is, rightly, against a Chomsky-like universal grammar: can’t be tested, does not account for cultures, ignores how children learn languages and so not innate. Rather, and closer to his notion of improvisation, Asma suggests repetitive movements embedded in each other, loops of physical, recursive sequencing, like motor movements in dance, as responsible for the learning of language. He goes on to explain that not surprisingly evolutionary biologists don’t agree with the rationalistic philosophers. For instance, there is the complex social world of animals, especially thick between mother and infant, where interchanges usually accompanied by sounds exhibit a type of proto language.

It’s not so much the grammar, syntax, word/abstraction but the physical act of conversing because of its social nature, as per Robin Dunbar. As Asma says, verbal/social grooming is more cost-effective than nit-picking, can service many simultaneously, is low energy, and probably emerged from some type of gossip, not all of which is negative. This is an engaging discussion of storytelling and Asma wonders if the ritualistic aspects of chants and mantras stemming from early proto language are the bridge to stories. That could be one piece of the puzzle; I see no mention, for example, of the work by Michelle Scalise Sugiyama who has written on the role of narrative in human subsistence. Perhaps more mundanely, how I have argued for the origin of narrative in individual consciousness. Asma says that language is the fuel for improvisation, but as he suggests, modern literary stories have lost much of the direct, physical impact on one’s emotions from early storytelling and from theatrical drama.

I found Asma’s discussion and coverage of self and consciousness engaging and thorough. For instance, he says that in contrast to Australopithecines, some apes and other early humans, Homo erectus, during climate change, began to be more deliberative accounting in part brain expansion. I’d add that Constantine Sedikides et al. (2006) note that in Homo ergaster/erectus we first find the symbolic self. Here, as in other parts of the book, Asma draws from a number of scientific, artistic, and philosophical resources to make points and to expand his discussion. Calling on Jaak Pankseppp and Antonio Damasio, Asma says the self might be in the deep, older limbic brain and not in, as commonly assumed, the prefrontal cortex. Consciousness is in levels; there is no on/off switch. One might also look to Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallat (2016) to see how phenomenal consciousness dates back to over 500mya.

I was happy to see included in Asma’s book inclusion of the default mode network, which is the brain at rest, as in mind wandering. G. Gabrielle Starr (2013) has done work in this area with aesthetics. In talking about the default mode network Asma covers meditation and mindfulness. Very roughly speaking, meditation is mind clearing (awareness of emptiness) and mindfulness is mind focusing (impermanence of phenomena). Neither deals directly with creativity. Meditation is without evaluation and is close to, but not equivalent with, the default mode network. There is some intentional thinking in meditation. The default mode network is active while making music, so maybe it is involved in creativity, but Asma is cautious here. Perhaps, at least, the default mode is involved in the initial steps of the imaginative process because, as Asma says, improvisation works without top-heavy conscious awareness.

Imagination is a meaningful simulation of reality, existential, says Asma, and not an abstraction. Improvisation very often is the trading of sounds or ideas in social (kin and non-kin) communication, an evolutionary advantage. This type of bonding is not abstractly but emotionally cognitive. Against Utilitarianism, Asma correctly states that we act ethically to those we have some emotional tie to over a group of strangers. Imagination is a key in how one unlocks herself as a moral character or not. Art is real in ways beyond representation – it is visceral. Stephen Asma’s book is a welcome and worthy addition to the research and thinking that puts the arts in an evolutionary perspective.

-    - Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D., professor of English and founder of The Evolutionary Studies Collaborative at St. Francis College (N.Y.), author of Making Mind (2014), Evolution and Human Culture (2016), and Art and Adaptability (2018).

Copyright©2018 Gregory F. Tague – All Rights Reserved

Posted with Permission from Dr. Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, editor, Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, a journal which will publish this review in its April 2018 issue.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Culture and the Human Mind

Kevin N. Laland. Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind. Princeton: PUP, 2017. 464 pages. Illustrated. ISBN: 9780691151182. $35.00US

Kevin Laland, professor of behavioral and evolutionary biology at the University of St. Andrews, presents an excellent and thorough discussion of how human culture in feedback loops adapted the mind to tackle ever increasing complex social and technological problems. While there are many fine books on culture and evolution, such as P. Richerson and R. Boyd’s Not By Genes Alone, A. Mesoudi’s Cultural Evolution, M. Pagel’s Wired for Culture, and G. Hatfield and H. Pittman’s Evolution of Mind, Brain, and Culture, Laland’s book is both a product of decades of research in his Lab and a result itself of cultural evolution, drawing from previous authors. No one book should be read and relied on; students need a range of voices. What’s different about Laland’s work is how, following the extended evolutionary synthesis, he places emphasis on humanity’s (his word) unique (his word) cognitive capabilities to develop a cultural mind through innovation, teaching, high-fidelity copying, and learning. A worthwhile book to study, I’d recommend this for anyone – across disciplines – interested in learning about cultural evolution. Like others before him, Laland rightly believes biology can explain some of our complex social systems and technology; indeed, he does admirable work in a book filled with details and discussion on the science of culture.

Let me summarize most of Laland’s extensive argument and then get into some specifics. A cultural drive evolved through natural selection via the benefits of precise copying. Human intelligence and cognition increased because of many factors, ranging from better diets to sociality, and subsequently cooperative learning increased. The reason human beings have such complex culture is attributable to their high-fidelity copying, both maintained and innovated on through social transmission and especially teaching. The rising degree of social learning fed into conformist (i.e., cultural) norms. From the emphasis on teaching, language probably evolved as an adaptation to make teaching more effective. In this way, genes and culture co-evolved, evident in the gradually increasing importance and spread of tool use and other technologies across hominins. The gene/culture co-evolution feedback prompted brain expansion and innovations that helped fuel, over hunter-gatherer societies, agriculture and farming, which in turn led to cities. Subsequently, the scale of physical and psychological cooperation exploded, demanding further teaching and learning as well as division of labor and organized social structures.

In Laland’s view, modern physical and artistic cultures have not necessarily given any reproductive benefit. Likewise, he sees no sole originator in the evolution of mind – rather, each new innovation enabled cognitive feedbacks to engender yet more development. Though not discounting our continuities with animal predecessors, Laland clearly sees us as special: He often uses the adjective unique in describing our humanity, a noun of which he is fond. What seems to be different about us, according to Laland, is our ability to teach. We don’t just assist or give aid to offspring and kin; we actively engage in learning and instruction, keys to our massive neural plasticity, innovations, and expansive niche construction. We maintain what we’ve learned, share the information, and improve upon it through various methods, all of which equate to cumulative culture.

In other words, our capacity for culture is probably responsible for human intelligence and language. Innovative behaviors can happen in other animals quickly, which means they are not traceable, as with us, to genes but to simple learning. Of course the human career is a long story, so Laland’s claim for human uniqueness and separation from other primates includes the lineage from australopiths to anatomically modern humans. In two words he narrowly sees any connection between us and nonhuman primates as “superficial similarities” (15), and he insists on a rather large gap between us and even great apes. No one would say we are chimpanzees. Some human/chimpanzee genes don’t necessarily function similarly; and there are no copies of some human genes in chimpanzees. Even down to the axon, the splicing of genes can reveal considerable human/chimpanzee differences, notes Laland, to say nothing of the switching on/off sequences of genes. The largest difference of gene expression between humans and chimpanzees appears in the brain and, Laland goes on, the chimpanzee brain is physiologically closer to a monkey’s than to a human’s.

While he seems to paint a black-and-white picture here, a key consideration is this: Early in our hominin lineage we were closer to a great ape; our cultural creativity enabled the vast differences between us and nonhuman primates over the course of millions of years. I should say, however, that some studies (perhaps too recent to appear in Laland’s book?) point to great ape full theory of mind. See, e.g., Christopher Krupenye, et al., 2016, (“Great Apes Anticipate that Other Individuals Will Act According to False Beliefs.” Science 354.6308. 110-114) and especially David Buttelmann, et al., 2017 (“Great Apes Distinguish Truth from False Beliefs in an Interactive Helping Task.” Plos One 12.4. e0173793). Krupenye’s paper is co-authored by M. Tomasello and J. Call, whom Laland relies on to stress what appear to be black-and-white differences. But Laland’s overall point is, simply, that hominin evolution clearly took several major upsurges as opposed to nonhuman primates.

Laland, for instance, labels as remote any indication of ape language, including those who’ve been taught to sign, since they do not use grammatical syntax on their own. This, however, is splitting a hair between intellectual capacity and ability. It almost seems that in order to bolster his repeated claim of human uniqueness and superiority Laland must lower the capacities (potentials) and abilities (actions) of nonhuman primates.  As one example, Laland resists acknowledging any moral sensations in animals but yet admits to their complex emotions. Emotional responses are directly tied to what we label moral behavior. Contrary to his dismissing ape morality as “romantic” (24) we need to admit, without using the problematic word morality, that nonhuman primates and especially great apes have social intelligence and often exhibit caring, empathy, and most notably self-control. No wonder, in my reading of Laland, he seems indifferent to the work of someone like Frans de Waal. For instance, Laland says that emotions do not equate to morals (25). While to some degree technically true, a good interdisciplinary study that pairs moral philosophers with primatology on the moral senses could chip away at that assessment. To support his claim, Laland cites numerous cases of animal indifference to others, exploitation, or self-serving behavior. Surely, we tend to be an overwhelmingly caring and helping species, but it’s inaccurate to ignore our continual amount of maliciousness. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer put it best in the early nineteenth century in his book On the Basis of Morality. Schopenhauer talks about the difference between human beings and animals: We can be maliciously harmful to one of our own species for no reason; we will deliberately inflict pain, and not necessarily for our survival. So how does that make us morally superior?

I quibble. At any rate, the bulk of Laland’s argument deals with teaching and learning, both of which have achieved incredible complexity not seen in other species. This is not to say there is no social learning in apes for food resources, like termite fishing or nut cracking. Bird species that migrate transmit directions to youngsters. Even in the case of some fish species, one sex will copy another in mating behaviors. Laland details these examples and some of the experiments he and his Lab team conducted concerning guppies. Many fish learned by observing one demonstrate the best route to food, in some cases even when the way to the food resource is longer than another. This is social learning. In terms of predation, built-in instinctual responses are not enough, for one must learn socially how to elasticize responses to predators. For example, a rhesus monkey raised in captivity does not fear snakes, which is one of its main predators in the wild. So that’s a learned behavior.

Why copy, asks Laland. Not only to learn but to socialize. There is asocial learning, where one works alone and often makes mistakes, as in food theft. Asocial learning is costly but can offer big payoffs. There is also social learning, important especially in dealing with challenging environments. In social learning one garners information second hand. For example, Laland tells us, birds and other species learn to forage remnants of food resources directly acquired by another species. While natural selection seems to favor the copying behaviors of social learning, the asocial learners are crucial in discovering the actions to be copied. For humans, Laland says social learning became strategic copying (56). Copying without innovation reduces costs. It pays to see how well others benefit, or not, when exerting effort. If current practices yield a low payoff, what are others doing to benefit themselves?

There is game theory here, and Laland and his team devised a tournament which revealed that observant social learning over time paid off more/better than always trying to innovate. Asocial learning tends to be beneficial under extreme circumstances. Importantly, though, Laland’s Lab experiments, mathematical models, and aggregation of literature reviews lay stress not on simple copying but on flexible, precision copying. Good copies of copies ensure that if one successful strategist dies there’s a reliable copy somewhere. These findings play out in long and well-written narratives Laland offers, for instance, about stickleback fish and how they share and rely on information from others. As per game theory, in some cases fish would copy feeding habits more when they saw greater numbers of fish feeding at certain locations. While Laland admits to learning and innovation across species, he drives home the point that “humans alone” (102) have a monopoly on innovation.

Laland follows Allan C. Wilson: If problem solving and copying are coded in the brain, then natural selection would enlarge brains to be more innovative which, in turn, would further increase brain structures. As Wilson generally predicted about intelligence (innovation) and brain size, primates with larger brains are more flexibly creative and copy each other more often. In this way tool use might have been a feedback offshoot of gradually advancing social learning, which helps any innovation spread. Selection would then favor the social learners, magnified by the number of innovations, and so the feedback loops. Why big brains when even honey bees can copy, asks Laland. His point is that larger brains do more than make duplicates – they copy precisely and can even innovate from the copy.

In larger brained species, alternatives come into play when copying, and this is related to sociality or attention to the behavior and social nuances of others. A cultural drive begins to take hold and is favored by natural selection since there are survival payoffs to efficient copying with innovation. Hence, larger brains can facilitate problem solving abilities, comprehension, and fast learning. Cutting against the modularity of evolutionary psychology, Laland argues that there is high general intelligence across social learning primate species: capuchins, baboons, macaques, and great apes. The fundamental basis of primate intelligence, Laland’s Lab concludes, consists of several elements selected for and cultural, like infant dependence and learning, an extended life history, and activity in a large group. In accord with Terrence Deacon, Laland reminds us that when brains evolve parts once separate connect. A large brain is not essential for social learning, but a larger brain permits better copying by allowing different brain regions to communicate. Corvids, like apes, have large brains relative to body size, with an enlarged frontal area. High-fidelity copying favors ratcheting where innovations are improved upon. Laland’s mathematical models suggest that precision copying advances significant change well beyond local stimulus enhancement, typical for most species. Importantly, what’s learned is passed on culturally and then tinkered with.

How is culture learned, asks Laland. Through teaching, which is a vital adaptation for humans and related to cultural cooperation. Many other species learn on their own without active intervention. However, Laland says there is evidence that teaching (i.e., one’s behavior is modified so as to instruct another) occurs in meerkats, ants, bees, pied babblers, the superb fairy-wren, and possibly in cats, cheetahs, and tamarins. Chimpanzees, in contrast says Laland, do not engage in teaching; one observes and then works through trial and error. Since this type of social learning is evolutionarily effective, it does not pay for adults to expend costs in teaching. For humans, however, there is very little individual trial and error learning and much more coaching via cumulative culture. Teaching is evident in cooperative breeders: humans, ants, bees, meerkats, and pied babblers. For example, human children will cooperate and demonstrate for each other, in contrast to other primates like capuchins or chimpanzees.

An important component to Laland’s argument is the evolution of language – there are connections in speech, mentality, teaching, and learning. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on language and gene/culture co-evolution, pivotal to claims centered in the book. Communication for nonhuman primates is typically not learned and with little change. Whereas other animals have somewhat fixed calls, our language needs to be learned because the content is always changing. The cultural drive, Laland explains, that ratchets complexity is dependent on teaching and learning, bodily gestures and eye movements as well as verbal utterances; this combination of subtleties in teaching is really only human. As part of the extended evolutionary synthesis, language for our ancestors was the means to instruct efficiently in a cultural niche dependent on learning.

According to Laland, language evolved in terms of teaching and then broadened out to general cooperation. Moreover, language is probably implicated in hierarchical, sequence structures or the process of learning in stages. Here, too, Laland’s team worked on an extensive human subject experiment to find that rather than imitation, education with language most likely played a functional role in early Oldowan stone tool manufacture. In turn, evincing gene/culture co-evolution, the use of the tools would have favored selection for improved language, evident in more refined Acheulean tools later. Laland offers a comprehensive explanation of some examples of gene/culture co-evolution, such as right-handedness and lactose tolerance: “culturally modified environments are capable of creating unusually strong natural selection...” (216). Gene/culture co-evolution over sexual selection accounts for changes to skin color, body shape, hair types, eye colors, and even behaviors like mate choice. In fact, Laland says that gene/culture co-evolution might be, for humans, the major form of evolution. To recapitulate: Culture is teaching and learning, relates to tools and so impacted hunting and butchering, which led to fire and cooking, and so expanded the environmental range of hominins, and diversity across all of the preceding increased cultural practices as the physical environment became controlled, not threatening.

Key here is the rise of farming and agriculture that permitted groups to expand into cultural societies. In contrast, says Laland, hunter-gatherers have much less cultural evolution since they are mobile, forage, and can’t carry around lots of goods. With a smaller group there are, statistically, fewer innovating individuals. Agriculture, on the other hand, became a critical niche construction. Certainly after the last ice age a warmer climate was conducive to plant domestication, but there had been warmer periods before and no other hominin species farmed. This means that the rise of agricultural based societies was cultural and not environmental, according to Laland, from a human mind that had been increasingly developing technology and ecological knowledge to deal with the environment. It’s a long story, told best by Laland over many pages, and there were health costs associated with farming. But the advantages of being able to control large volumes of food for many people outweighed costs. Hierarchical societies emerged with a division of labor to increase productivity. In terms of selection, look at the results, says Laland: Agriculturalists were able to do more than hunter-gatherers, like expand populations, innovate more/better tools, and create complex social structures. It’s difficult to discern if there is a value judgment here (probably not), or if Laland is speaking only as a biologist. The most famous example of a small group that lost its cultural know-how is the Tasmanians, who, once separated from mainland Australia because of rising sea levels about 10kya essentially lost their tool-kit knowledge.

In terms of differential fitness, larger groups with more technology in a growing feedback possess the means for variation and selective cultural inheritance. Top this off with our immense capacity to cooperate and share norms of behavior, and so we have the story of the human career and what Laland labels as civilization. Groups that were more technologically efficient and more cooperatively effective were selected over others and thrived; surviving groups, in Laland’s schematic, were those who consistently engaged in massive cultural transmission or the social teaching to and learning by non-kin.

Laland ends his book with a chapter on the arts, but it is too wide-ranging than some others, like the outstanding chapter on cooperation. Eventually he focuses on dance, which involves collaboration synchronization, but takes long to get to his main ideas. Laland emphasizes dance because it includes music, visual effects, and fashion, though he presents a recent, historical perspective that ignores art in prehistory as cultural adaptation. While some authors might draw continuities to other species, and demonstrated elsewhere in this book, Laland pulls back. And for readers conversant in Paleolithic art and material cultures from the long Pleistocene, this chapter might seem a bit thin – but it fits nicely with the book, is well written and argued, and provides an important capstone. Epitomized in dance is our complex culture that relies on the social nature of learning, teaching, and cooperation.

In a few words and to reiterate my opening, I highly recommend Kevin Laland’s book Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony for biologists and students in the humanities alike. After decades of work and thought the book captures and explains in detailed, lucid prose important findings in cultural evolution and the extended evolutionary synthesis.

- Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D., professor of English, St. Francis College (NY), author, recently: Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness (2014) and Evolution and Human Culture (2016).

Copyright©2017 by Gregory F. Tague – All Rights Reserved. This review will also appear in the journal Consciousness, Literature and the Arts

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Biology and Philosophy

How Biology Shapes Philosophy: New Foundations for Naturalism. David Livingstone Smith, ed. Cambridge: CUP, 2017. ISBN: 9781107055834. Hardcover. 364 pages. $99.99US

How Biology Shapes Philosophy is an excellent example of truly interdisciplinary work. These are not philosophers talking about literature or art; rather, these are philosophers who grapple with some of the hard problems of science. The verb shapes in the title is key: to make or create. Biology does not merely inform philosophical thought but forms it in some way. The collection confirms that we are biological, evolved creatures who like to speculate about our behaviors. In 1959 C.P. Snow erroneously and infamously wrote how his idea of “The Two Cultures,” the sciences versus the arts/humanities, could not communicate with each other. Snow has since been proven wrong, and David Livingstone Smith’s impeccable collection featuring a stellar line-up of top-notch scholars clearly demonstrates how biology and philosophy are parts of the same whole working together.

If you are a philosopher, I’d recommend you purchase this book for your department. If you are a biologist, you might be pleasantly interested to see how philosophy is reading and interpreting your work. Philosophers need to see the conversation they should be having, and not the barriers some maintain, between them and their colleagues in the sciences. For those of us who are not scientists, we don’t do “research” – we analyze texts, like those produced by natural and social scientists. But an excellent example of disciplines as seemingly divergent as biology and philosophy need to forge a closer working relationship now more than ever.

In addition to an Introduction by Professor Smith, there are thirteen chapters that cover a range of subjects, from neurophilosophy, teleosemantics, rationality, ethics, human nature, and gender, to name only a few. The contributors are philosophers but, almost without exception, exhibit a deep knowledge and deft handling of the sciences. In many cases, I was happy to see, aspects of evolution are pretty much treated with care and accuracy.

Although I’m neither a philosopher nor a biologist, allow me to comment on the merits of Professor Smith’s endeavor. I’m happy to say that except for two chapters I found difficult and one that seemed outright skeptical of an evolutionary biological approach, all of these authors take complex ideas from two disciplines and express them simply and directly. Daniel Dennett, for example, beautifully expresses how it’s essentially incorrect to force species into categories where there are and should be, according to evolutionary theory, gaps. Over essentialism we need to highlight the gradual change in great time of all living things, the gradations of phenomena like consciousness. Of course essence (if there is even such a reality) is microscopic, e.g., chemical microstructures that make iron what it is. At any rate, in Dennett’s metaphorical prose, the project now is “to reconstruct the most elevated philosophical concepts from modest ingredients” (22). Likewise, Alexander Rosenberg says philosophical naturalism is philosophy drawing from Darwinian ideas. Evolutionary forces affect adaptive outcomes like beliefs. Following Dennett, Rosenberg asks philosophers to consider why and for what in terms of evolution. If there’s any “purpose” (a debatable word) it comes from the three pillars established by Darwin: variation, competition, and inheritance.

Echoing the work of Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallet on the origins of consciousness (reviewed on these ASEBL pages), Peter Godfrey-Smith notes how, after Thomas Nagel’s question about what is it like to be a bat?, qualia and consciousness are now treated equally. There was, in very ancient prehistoric times, a rise of subjective experience in an environment of minds beginning somewhere in the Cambrian explosion. Simple cognition (not felt) appeared first (and is still with us), followed later by subjectivity (which some organisms do feel).

From my perspective, I’d like to see more collaboration between scientists and philosophers or scientists and artists. One fine example is in Patricia Churchland who, in her chapter, asserts there is no mind/brain split in spite of right/left brain hemisphere research. All the medical evidence (in brain, psychological, and pharmaceutical studies) shows that mentality derives from brain matter. Like Dennett, Churchland discourages philosophy from looking to or using words like soul or élan vital. Coming back to Nagel, and now adding David Chalmers, Churchland says contrary to some of their beliefs there is no “extraphysical” consciousness. In fact, Churchland’s essay is an excellent example of my point: she notes how Chalmers and Nagel philosophize abstractly without conscientiously relying on the research experiments science provides. Since consciousness is biological, scientific data needs to be used, as Churchland does, to explain it – indeed, to explain many of our behaviors. This is not to discredit philosophy but to highlight its importance in delineating larger and more enduring questions fundamental to scientific inquiry (e.g., bioethics).

I found the chapters on teleosemantics challenging (David Papineau) and dense (Karen Neander). The fault might be mine. What’s useful here is how, in line with teleosemantics, information received by an organism, and not necessarily the maker’s situation, determines its truth condition. As an example, Papineau offers the now famous illustrations of vervet monkey calls that represent, for the hearer, the location and type of predator. That is, the representation is true because it fulfills a biological function (101). This is more to functional biology and not evolution, and I note that Papineau cites Alvin Plantinga. Maybe this is justified here in that natural selection works on the evolution of beneficial behaviors and not on particular beliefs. Teleosemantics deals exactly with behavior and is, therefore, oriented to outcome content (109). In this way, most human representations are species conducted.
Parts of the book, especially here, were written for certain classes of philosophers. Not to be unfair, but at times I thought the book’s version of biology might be a handmaid to philosophy. That is not necessarily a criticism, though; it might be an operation of how these two disciplines work together. On a similar score, I’ve read books by neuroscientists and primatologists who bandy about philosophical ideas as labels. My point is that in terms of readability, parts of the collection were hard to grasp.

On a related note, I thought Ronald De Sousa’s chapter was skeptical concerning how biology can inform human knowledge about self-identity. Maybe so. It seems in a small space De Sousa tries to get to the question of human nature and says nature has intentions – see the fixity of species. But Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin demonstrated, later confirmed, that species are not fixed. I know that previously De Sousa has written against any evolutionary approach to the arts [2004. “Is Art an Adaptation? Prospects for an Evolutionary Perspective on Beauty.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 62.2. 109-118.]. In this essay he proclaims, talking about the human, female orgasm, “Some of the best things in life are spandrels” (148). From here he seems against any natural law theory based in biology. For instance, he says that any preference for “nice people over nasty ones” does not need to rely on evolutionary theory (150). I don’t know that the cultural anthropologist Christopher Boehm, to name one, would agree. Next, we read that “evolutionary ethics is “unconvincing” (150). I’m not sure that Dennis Krebs, to name one, would agree. With statements like these De Sousa is coming close to how T.H. Huxley denied any evolutionary component to morality, that it was entirely a human, cultural creation. It is not. We see many examples, to name one species, of caring and punishment in chimpanzees. De Sousa says that just because a behavior is frequent does not make it “good” (150). As far as I know, an evolutionary biologist would not say that either; traits and characteristics that contribute to survival and reproduction get passed on. It’s not a question of good or bad. A male chimpanzee understands and exercises self-control, and if he castigates another too much, the group will howl disapproval. This is not good/bad behavior, per se but is a clue to what in the human realm we declare as right/wrong. 

On the top of page 151, contrary to some of the other authors in the collection, it seems to me De Sousa makes the mistake of suggesting human uniqueness over other species. This is based on how we alone have “speech” (151). This is not true if we consider the range of vocalizations across species, how many (and not just us) have the FOXP2 gene for vocal learning, like song birds and dolphins. Consider, too, how chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans have been taught to communicate with sign language, granted some better than others. True, our speech enables a greater value system; but this overlooks how other species have survived longer without such values. Homo erectus, who probably had some type of proto-language, was around longer than (so far) us, and probably because its values were kinship with the environment and other species. Some of our “values” are actually destructive. We overproduce, overconsume, and waste resources. Yet H. erectus, among others in the hominin radiation, bequeathed to us the very emotions (shared with apes) De Sousa claims are harmful. Another slip De Sousa makes is to assume, as he seems to believe, that evolution is based on survival of the fittest (154). In the first edition of On the Origin of Species Darwin does not use this phrase (which came from Herbert Spencer) and regrets using it in later editions. The fit do not survive; traits and characters, no matter how small – jealousy or a fear response – survive because they have benefited the species.  

Samir Okasha covers a theory of rationality, distinguishing between epistemology, which evaluates how a belief is rational, and practical philosophy, which evaluates how any action is rational (161). Mirroring an extended evolutionary synthesis, Okasha sees choice, or a type of rationality, in response to an environment so as to modify behavior.

In terms of morality, Philip Kitcher follows Darwin in The Descent of Man regarding a moral sense evolving across species, a genealogical method. This approach leans more to species connections and continuities and less to natural selection. Like Okasha and others in the collection, Kitcher is aware that evolution comes in various dimensions, first outlined in Evolution in Four Dimensions by Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb and more recently by work of Kevin Laland, to name a few. Kitcher makes the valid point that philosophers need to be in contact with the phenomena they discuss, otherwise the argument becomes irrelevantly abstract. I once had a philosopher insist that Bergson’s Creative Evolution is real science and that morality comes from above, not below. Closer to the truth would be an examination of kin selection, group interactions, retribution, reciprocity, and altruism in nonhuman primates and even other species. In his books, primatologist Frans de Waal has plenty of examples of empathy in nonhuman primates. Kitcher believes in “moral progress” (195), which also makes me think of how Huxley separated human morality from anything natural. On its face this is anti-evolutionary, teleological. Similarly, nature has no purpose. But Kitcher’s qualification is that any such progress is not “toward” but “away from” (195). In other words, our ancestors learned from and corrected their mistakes. That type of progress I can live with. I know Kitcher is aware of the hominin lineage and our continuities with nonhuman primates, but perhaps space restricted his reference to them. Instead, he seems to deal with periods only around the time fully modern humans began to establish agriculture and cities.

All of which brings us to the question of “human nature” discussed by Edouard Machery. People are extraordinarily different but yet all part of the human race. Note: there are wide variations of personality across great apes, too. Human nature is, then, descriptive only. What are the constituents of a human nature? A moral sense? Speech? Bipedalism? Machery says, rightly, we need to see those constituents in action; they are not instilled by a supreme power (208). While the arts and humanities seem to manifest some of our human qualities, Machery says that science “holds the keys of human nature” (208). The arts and humanities are good indicators of our imaginative and creative predispositions since they evolve with us. Machery’s point is that any so-called human nature (I’d prefer the expression human tendencies) is the result of evolution in its multiple dimensions. This approach, too, correctly accommodates the extended evolutionary synthesis. Machery questions the view of human uniqueness that says a function of human nature is “to draw a line between human beings and other animals” (211). We could say each species, certainly, is unique and fills its own evolutionary niche. In other words, there is no human essentialism. As an example, Machery says we are not bipedal because we are human but that bipedalism is the result of evolutionary forces and selection pressures on australopiths, our distant ancestors. There are practical and moral considerations here, since it is difficult to modify traits that are supposedly and only distinctly human.

Taking us further in this realm of plasticity and away from ancient and medieval notions of fixity, is John Dupré, who writes about sex and gender not only from a biological angle but also from an ontological one. Like Machery’s question concerning human nature, Dupré asks about the “divisions” in nature; is there an essence, and if so is it on the atomic or genomic level (230)? As we know, many organisms are asexual and have been for eons. Dupré notes that among sexed organisms, “sex can be fluid” (231), and he provides examples. I recall, too, reading once about an organism that is asexual but under survival pressures will become sexual to diversify its gene pool. What this means is that for biologically sophisticated creatures sex has to be considered on a developmental plane where genes interact with the environment. Biology is a process of change, not a predetermined fixity. For instance, Dupré cites this example. We know a male has XX chromosomes and that a female has XY. But there are variants of XYY (male) and XXY and XO (female) breaking this paradigm. Even with the variants, Dupré seems to question the sex attributions. There is a false dichotomy established by culture, not by nature; and, in development, chromosomes might not ultimately matter.

Not to get off track, but I’d be interested to know Dupré’s take on the famous David Reimer case. The boy was born male but, because of tragic circumstances after his birth, was raised female on the advice of Dr. John Money (at Johns Hopkins) circa 1967. Money was convinced because of his research that gender was completely constructed, so while “Bruce” was raised as a girl, “Brenda,” and was anatomically on the outside “corrected” in that way, his internal mechanisms (chromosomes, hormones, body chemicals) were all male, and at some point he came to realize he was a man. No one, least of all me, would discount the tremendous impact of parents, peers, and culture, but the Bruce/Brenda case raises questions about what we might otherwise call plasticity. I don’t know for sure, but here’s a good example where biology and philosophy should meet.

I think Dupré stresses, more, the plasticity of the chromosomes which, in turn, can be dramatically affected by developmental influencers. That is, there are tendencies and not necessarily determinants in genes; no one gene acts alone, and many factors can influence if genes are turned on/off. The genome sequence might be static, but the genome is not fixed (242).

Luc Faucher, drawing from some extent on Machery (and providing a nice complement to Dupré), writes about the biophilosophy of race. There is not all that much genetic variability between “racial” groups (more within a group), so that someone in group A over here might actually be more genetically similar to an outsider in group D over there. These scientific facts fly in the face of those who tried to establish racial essences. So Faucher makes the nice distinction between the truth of scientific “race,” which finds variability within a group and not outside of it, and folk ideas concerning race, which are culturally constructed and might have some basis in evolutionary psychology. The concept of race has its roots in local identity and distinguishing oneself and his/her group from the others. Can cultural time change one’s perception of others? Maybe, but Faucher seems skeptical since ethnic distinctions served our ancestors and are to some degree built in us. There might have been an evolutionary advantage (e.g., control of resources) to generalize about others, emotionally, but of course that led to typecasting, a downside. We can see some of this developmentally: children make very few distinctions about “race” and only do so later because of information or instruction from adults.

Finally, Richard Boyd promotes the antireductionist idea that complexity might be an aggregation of other complexes, e.g., species. His chapter is, albeit difficult, a fitting conclusion. He tries to get us to the non-reductionist from the reductionist. In other words, biology teaches us that phenomena are processes of other operations. I’ve heard philosophers complain that “science” is reductive. Is it? Rather, it seems to burst open possibilities. Think how, relatively speaking, nature was fixed before Darwin; but with is ideas, and that one simple graph in On the Origin of Species of speciation as a branching tree, the notion of fluid change in fits and starts and interchange mixing and matching traits among organisms came about. A common, popular cultural misconception, for instance, is that human beings evolved in a linear fashion. You have, no doubt, seen the silhouette “progression” of an ape walking to be a human. Nothing could be further from the truth, since we are a composite of many hominin species long gone who, in turn, shared a common ancestor with great apes. Are we closer to chimpanzees or bonobos? We share characteristics of both, and yet they are very distant from us in evolutionary time.

As I was finishing my reading of Professor Smith’s book, news broke that paleoanthropologists Jean-Jacques Hublin and Daniel Richter and their teams dated hominin fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco to at least 300kya. These are virtually anatomically modern humans and strikingly show that our species of Homo sapiens evolved from many others and not a few coming only out of East Africa. What were these people’s thoughts and habits and do their artifacts reveal how much like us they were? I don’t think only paleoanthropologists need to be involved in answering such questions that crucially impact on our history. If not established already, places of learning (i.e., colleges) should launch interdisciplinary centers that encourage conversations, like those in Professor Smith’s book, between the sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanistic disciplines.

- Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D. St. Francis College. Author of Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness (Rodopi 2014) and Evolution and Human Culture (Brill 2016).

Copyright c. Gregory F. Tague 2017 All Rights Reserved

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Moral Sense Colloquium III

We held our Moral Sense Colloquium III at St. Francis College on 2 June 2017. There were over 45 conference attendees. Keynote was Dr. Robert Trivers. Plenary was Dr. David C. Lahti. There were 3 panels with 11 speakers. Full program on the MSC tab of this website. Addenda: D. Pal and L. Delescu could not attend; instead of D. Pal Dr. Alison Dell presented on the cover art she especially created for the program cover - inspired by a chart from a paper by Richard D. Alexander. Here are some photos.

Registration with Dr. Dell


Registration bags

Dr. Alison Dell

Panel One: Dugan, Nolan, Freeman, and Hoque

Dr. David C. Lahti


Attendees in the Afternoon

Dr. Robert Trivers

Panel Two: Sparks, Shoppa, and Garrera-Tolbert

Dr. Christopher Jensen

Panel Three: Kim, Goodman, Jensen, and Godoy