Tuesday, February 5, 2019


























Unsustainable life? Essay and photo by Wies Hurkmans - Venture Lab in Experimental Arts and Humanities


Editor’s note: As part of the Evolutionary Studies Collaborative at St. Francis College, Gregory F. Tague initiated a Venture Lab in Experimental Arts and Humanities contest. Without reciting the detailed guidelines here, in a nutshell students at the college were asked to produce a hybrid writing/visual media work product that addressed this question: Emphasizing evolutionary ideas, how can we restore our biosphere, mitigate ecosystem degradation, or reverse extinction of rainforest plant and animal species critical to the sustainability of global climate health? What appears below by Wies Hurkmans, winner of the contest, represents an answer to the question.

Author’s bio: Born in the Netherlands, Wies Hurkmans was able to expand her cultural horizon after moving to the U.S. She has had the honor of traveling to a number of countries throughout the years. Now, after twelve years in the U.S., she is enrolled as a Pre-med Biology major while playing Division I volleyball at St. Francis College. In the summer of 2018, Wies traveled to and lived locally in Costa Rica for two months. This is where her interests on the protection of rainforests and its inhabitants began. Under the guidance of professors, Wies traveled to national parks (Corcovado, Carara, and Santa Rosa) and was embraced by a family in Monteverde.

Unsustainable Life with Degradation of Rainforests

Essay and Photo by Wies Hurkmans

Home to an estimated 8.7 million, flourishing species, a vulnerable future on earth is being generated as rainforests are uprooted by the development of innovative technologies and money-thirsty corporations. These most productive land masses found across the tropics are responsible for the vast majority of non-renewable resources, such as clean water, demanded by the ever-growing population and increased global consumption. Destruction due to agriculture, deforestation, and ecotourism are leading the remaining fifty percent of rainforest area to be demolished. In these areas, demolition provides a steady income for developing countries that are highly dependent on resources produced by cash crops and cattle ranching. The rainforests, however, function to provide the entire human population with necessities for survival; this includes the uptake of carbon dioxide and plants with medicinal compounds. Therefore, extreme measures for conservation must be implemented and backed up by proven statistics to portray the unsustainable, average human life style before earth is depleted of the resources we, as humans, desperately rely on for survival.

Annually, rainforest declines have totaled 78 million acres, which is 200,000 acres every day and 150 acres every minute. The greatest predators of land are directly wired to large corporations seeking to fulfill the demands of consumers, a market that is drastically increasing due to higher standards of living. Deforestation, for this purpose, is linked to the production of cash crops, animal farming, and tourism. Due to cash crops, produced for commercial export, like coffee beans and jackfruit which can only be grown in tropical environments, businesses thrive by clearing vast land areas, or habitats, that are made up of nutrient rich soil. In the same way areas are cleared for animal farming. Both of these incomes allow for money and resources that are shipped to foreign countries, but to add onto the concerns, this is directly related to an increase in toxic fumes and runoff. Toxicity soaks into soil and is mixed with nonrenewable water sources that are consumed by species hundreds of miles away. Many tropical countries, therefore, do not recommend tourists to drink unfiltered water due to contamination that supports the high standard of living. The developing countries are affected most as the rich pay for imports which in return leaves their land untouched.

Tropical plant and animal species are no match for the human power that is destroying habitats sustaining hotspots with endemics. As stated, there is an estimated 8.7 million species, which is widely contradicted to be lower or higher, but since species are going extinct before scientists can study an individual of the population, an accurate number is unidentifiable. Extinction is most prominently due to the destruction of habitats which leads to vulnerable species easily predated upon as they become more exposed. One of the animals that has foreseen danger is the white-faced capuchin, or Cebus imitator (Figure). Their advanced capabilities for adaptation has brought them to the tree tops where they are able to flourish. With continuous deforestation, however, this species will be one of the next on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list of threatened species. The loss of this specific species will lead to the decline of plants that are dependent on these foragers’ seed dispersion. These evolutionary relationships can be spotted across the tropics, where species are unable to successfully reproduce if the human population destroys their pollinator, disperser, or food source. Over the course of time, crucial species for Homo sapiens survivability will decline around the globe as plants with medicinal compounds and animals with nutrient supplies are neglected.

Also known as carbon sinks, plants in the rainforests are responsible for removing almost 40 percent of carbon dioxide released by humankind. Not only do they keep the global temperature constant by decreasing the foreseen increases in temperature, but, as stated prior, medicinal compounds found within the species are necessary for the human population to survive; plant compounds are found in almost a quarter of modern medicine. Without the uptake of carbon dioxide and release of oxygen through photosynthesis, the air quality will be depleted to an uncontrolled extent and will lead to global warming. Oxygen is necessary for respiration and also acts in the protective layer in the ozone (O3) against ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The thinning of the ozone layer will increase UV radiation and can become the leading cause of eye implications as it burns through the cornea. Therefore, degradation of the rainforest will not only lead to extinction but also to physical damage. From air quality to food sources these eukaryotes, multicellular organisms made up of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), are the backbone of human well-being.

Throughout the latest slice of the Holocene epoch, or arguably the Anthropocene, tourism has developed into a colossal, prosperous business. To make it sound nature-friendly, “eco” has been added to the title. This term is a disguise for the complete destruction of land to build magnificent architectural hotels with nothing less than exquisite luxury. A regular eco tourist’s day begins with a long hot shower, a breakfast too big to finish, and then a bus to take them across town to one of many attractions. By the end of the early morning, various nonrenewable resources are discarded as unnecessary amenities. On the other hand, tropical countries make a huge chunk of their income from this business and have developed crucial ways to shrink the human footprint. This includes solar panels to reduce energy impacts, recycling of water, and even lectures that can be attended to learn about rainforests and the protection of them.

There have been leaps taken to provide a future for rainforests. Lectures, for example are a great way to educate people of all ages. One of multiple success stories began with a United States biologist working in Monteverde, Costa Rica, who traveled to Sweden to spread her obtained knowledge. There, while teaching a group of students, interests sparked and a desire to protect bloomed. Known as Bosque Eterno De Los Niños (BEN), or Children’s Eternal Rainforest, the students are at the core of the fundraising that has totaled protection of more than twenty-three thousand hectares of biological treasures. In addition, constructed parks have kept tourists out of notorious areas without failing to see the extravagant features of the tropics. Trails and tours are a source of protection while supplying locals with a significant income responsible for park rangers and an increase in the local standard of living.

Studies have predicted a great downfall in earth’s ability to sustain life if humankind continues this abuse. As rainforests are cleared, species lose their habitats and food sources, establishing many species as endangered. How would the human race secure an altered fate? Even with advanced adaptability, low oxygen levels and the loss of nonrenewable resources will just be the beginning of a long list of exploitation that is unfolding. Agriculture, deforestation, and ecotourism must be controlled to provide earth time to replenish. In the eyes of money-thirsty corporate organizations “time is money,” therefore strict laws will be one of the only ways to strip them of their overdue abuse. Led by an increase in knowledge, no change is too small as ripple effects can travel across towns and spread beyond just personal gain.




Figure. Photo of Cebus imitator taken in Santa Rosa National Park, Costa Rica. As the troop passed by the campground their curiosity brought them down from the canopy into the understory layer of the forest. 













Works Cited

Seeker. “What Would A World Look Like When the Rainforests Disappear?” Seeker, 11 Feb. 2017.

Black, Richard. “Species Count Put at 8.7 Million.” BBC News, BBC, 23 Aug. 2011.

Taylor, Leslie. “Saving the Rainforest: A Complex Problem and a Simple Solution.” The Raintree Group, Inc.

Essay and Photograph copyright©2019 by Wies Hurkmans – All Rights Reserved

Friday, January 25, 2019

Review of Dialogues on the Human Ape by Dubreuil and Savage-Rumbaugh


Laurent Dubreuil and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh. Dialogues on the Human Ape. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. ISBN: 978-1517905651. $27US, paper. 248 pages.

I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to a number of audiences: those participating in lab research using primates; animal studies professionals; moral and cognitive philosophers; animal rights activists; the gamut of teachers and professors involved in interdisciplinary or consciousness studies. This book appears in an important series on Post-humanities, so academics and researchers in that field would certainly find much value in this volume as well. The book is intellectually and emotionally engaging, well written, and nicely organized. At the same time, some of the subject matter of the book is a bit disturbing in how it demonstrates the degree to which “scientists” can be somewhat cavalier in treating “animals” of high order sentience and sapience. In that regard I am not referring to the authors, of course, but to some of the people – from philanthropists to colleagues – Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh worked with in her efforts to meet the chimpanzees and bonobos on an equal plane, like persons, while others did not. So I hope the story will inspire some readers to begin working for animal rights. The book serves as a nice complement to the recent work done by, for example, animal rights attorney Steven Wise (Rattling the Cage) and cognitive psychologist/philosopher Kristin Andrews, et al. (Chimpanzee Rights). The question of what is “human” is at the center of the book, and some uninitiated readers might find the discussion both troubling yet enlightening in how the authors suggest a redefinition of human to include great apes.

All in all, Dialogues on the Human Ape by Dubreuil and Savage-Rumbaugh is a powerful and welcome manifesto advocating for the extraordinary mental and social capabilities of apes to integrate themselves into the human cultural community. I strongly recommend this book.  

While I read widely in this area, I was naively unaware of some of the un-collegial turmoil that could occur and what Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has had to suffer personally and professionally. The book was an eye opener in this regard and provides an intriguing history of the career of Savage-Rumbaugh, including some of the unsettling events she’s had to endure at the hands of people she trained in their zeal for professional advancement. In this way, the book, through a series of dialogues, almost reads like an eighteenth century epistolary novel – there’s a multi-vocal plot with dynamic characters and a protagonist who perseveres in spite of her antagonists. At the same time, because of Laurent Dubreuil’s incredibly wide knowledge of philosophy, the book also reads like a Socratic dialogue probing definitions and unfolding truths, and I think this multi-dimensionality is deliberate and effective. On a literary level the book is of very high quality, indeed, as it blends two distinct narrative voices (one scientific and the other philosophical) into one comprehensible thematic strand around the nature of what it means to be human.

The human desire to communicate with animals over history is documented in the book’s Introduction. Recent science has enabled ape language studies, and an historical overview is provided here, too. American Sign Language with apes did not seem wholly appropriate to their anatomy, so in the 1970s at the Yerkes primate lab in Atlanta, Georgia, lexigrams on a keyboard were used. Upon college graduation, Sue Savage was accepted to Harvard to study with B.F. Skinner, but she wisely turned down that offer when a haphazard meeting at the University of Oklahoma with Roger Fouts turned into a three day stay. She remained at UOK. Upon graduation she began work at Georgia State University in the 1980s on language research with chimpanzees, and in 1985 the bonobo Kanzi appears. The rest is history – or if you don’t know the story, then get this book and read it!

Young Kanzi “spontaneously” learned the lexigrams while the researchers tried to teach his adoptive mom, Matata. Other apes, chimpanzees and bonobos, were brought into his group, and eventually Kanzi learned to respond to spoken English. The focus was on establishing a culture around the apes so that they were not “learning” in small increments for a few hours a day while confined to cages. They experienced a full life under the ultimate direction of Savage-Rumbaugh. In the early 2000s Georgia State sold the bonobos to a “philanthropist” who set up a fancy lab (The Great Ape Trust) with academics who marginalized Savage-Rumbaugh. A flood nearly killed the apes, and when Teco was born, only Sue and her sister because of their expertise and care could assist with the newborn. In 2010 and 2011 Laurent Dubreuil visited the Trust and met Sue. He was impressed with the high level of “human language” utilized by the apes, Kanzi, Panbanisha, and Nyota. In 2011 Dubreuil talked to Sue for hours in the lab, about language, the bonobos, and philosophy, and sometimes the apes would participate in the conversation.

The core of the book is, according to Dubreuil, dia logon or language and reason among apes. He witnesses this ape and ape/human dialogic culture as an outside observer. Being human is not automatic but a possibility, says Dubreuil, via enculturation, and that’s exactly what Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has done with these apes. Previously, other apes had been enculturated in what we would consider “human” activities, like Chantek (orangutan) and Koko (gorilla). So by its potential nature, we see human in great apes. As Savage-Rumbaugh points out, Kanzi’s “language” came about because of his real life interactions and dialogues. Language is “embedded dialogue” and “meaning making,” and so too in Kanzi. Abstract thought and reference to others is highly developed in Kanzi, perhaps more so than in Koko or Chantek, say the authors, because the other apes (in spite of their accomplishments) were not fully dialogic since there was more emphasis on data collection and simple questions and requests. With Kanzi, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh had been “friends” with his mom Matata, and so Kanzi was reared in social dialogue. Before the move to the Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, Sue used to go into the forest with Kanzi and talk about everything they saw, which in turn provided reference to things, memories, and ideas not present. According to Savage-Rumbaugh, the ape group was exposed to books, television, and movies where they learned, e.g., of ape captures in Africa. She claims – and I believe this – that they were creating selves and becoming moral. Accepting the bonobo and having the ape willingly include Laurent Dubreuil and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh in dialogue creates a person.

Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh wonders if “animal” is a legitimate word to apply to the bonobos she’s dialogued with. Even the bonobos don’t like being referred to as “animals.” Laurent Dubreuil notes how Georges Bataille commented the paintings at Lascaux mark a moment of separation between human/animal, though Savage-Rumbaugh questions this about early people. By the Middle Ages and Renaissance, paintings exclusively depict humans. Laurent points out how the distinction between human/animal was not for ancient people so magnified as it is now. For the Greeks, there was simply an overall question of what it means to be alive, whether human or animal. The authors point out how the definition of “animal” depends on the social situation. For example, nowadays since there are more vegetarians and vegans, those groups would define “animal” differently than meat eaters. Savage-Rumbaugh points out how there is likely a chimp/other categorization in the chimpanzee but not in the bonobo mind. Chimpanzees eat other animals for food and in some cases kill other chimps in aggressive territorial conflicts.

Dubreuil says the me/other distinction doesn’t necessarily have to generate from discourse but can be a nonverbal descriptor of the group. Dubreuil refers to the constructed category of animal as fictive, since it serves human needs in our ignorance about nonhuman species. Savage-Rumbaugh says we need changes to the definitions of ape and even species. These too are constructs to ease human separation from others, for besides morphological and genetic differences (or similarities) what are the truly fundamental categorical variations? Some say language, but apes can “speak” and, in fact, Sue attached a voice machine to the keyboard only to have it removed when the bonobos were shifted to Iowa where the Ape Cognition and Communication Initiative (ACCI) took control. She says the human powers of the facility wanted to keep the bonobos in their place, and not in a human category. Yet the voiced keyboards were used by autistic children with enthusiasm by their parents. Likewise, the parents wanted the word SORRY added to the keyboard, even if the child did not understand or mean it. Meanwhile, Sue’s Iowa colleagues resisted adding SORRY to Kanzi’s keyboard because they believed he was incapable of regret. This shows the sometimes artificial divide between culture and science.

Savage-Rumbaugh created a mythological world of characters for Kanzi and Panbanisha (Matata’s biological daughter), and they responded to the symbolism recognizing its meaningfulness to such a degree that she feared its influence over them. So she stopped, to her regret, under the recommendation of others. In this way, bonobos are clearly capable of understanding and partaking in a symbolic world, which does not seem possible, e.g., with dogs and cats. This ability of figurative representation is beyond self-recognition or self-awareness. Rather, the construction of the symbolic world comes through language and discourse. Matata and Nyota were involved, too, with some individuals more immersed in the mythology than others.

At Yerkes early on, Matata was uninterested in the symbol system of lexigrams, while Kanzi and Panbanisha picked it up readily. Matata, however, often verbalized with gestures to Sue, as if beckoning the human to speak “bonobo” and not English. However, with the move to Iowa, Matata would use the keyboard on the sly when she thought no one was looking, so she had the ability of signs. In fact, once when Matata was sick, she signed to Sue on the keyboard for green medicine, symbols Sue did not think Matata knew. The green probably represented something medicinal from the forest, suggesting that Matata was not just signing about feeling better but about the concept of good health. At the Iowa facility, the bonobos came to know, and disliked the experience of, being scientific subjects studied by humans.

Before Iowa and what eventually became ACCI, the bonobos were near a forest in Georgia, which helped shape their perceptions of the world. In Iowa, they were basically relegated to a yard enclosure. This observation has direct bearing on the question of ape consciousness. Dubreuil sees consciousness as a theoretical question “challenged” by a modern focus on the unconscious and he even asks if we require the concept of consciousness at all. Can the notion of “consciousness,” he wonders, be like “society” or “humanness” as a construct tied up with language and meaning. In a discussion of Greek and ancient thought and literature, the authors note how dialogues altered the landscape of social thought, how something passes through those engaged in dialogue that enables a personal “change” where what was previously external becomes internal. This is not to say such internalization did not occur before ancient literature; it’s just that we have those works on record. Dubreuil says that the appearance of consciousness as we now understand it appears late in literature and philosophy and comes as a social construction. Apes share joint intentions via “modulation” of consciousness through dialogue. Neither author necessarily sees consciousness as the height of so-called humanity; sometimes we are not conscious. They see degrees of consciousness with “levels” of access that was evident in the evocative forest environment that stimulated dialogue but not in the confines of the Iowa backyard.

The work of Savage-Rumbaugh routinely points to how the great apes actively employ recursive thinking – i.e., thoughts that return and repeat, circling back and around each other with meaning and purpose. As a simple example, Savage-Rumbaugh worked with chimpanzee Sherman in counting, and he mastered this mental ability. Chimps also can quickly learn how to choose the right solution from several possibilities, indicating that a mental dialogue is going on about past experience, expectations, and outcomes. This type of mental interfacing mimics the dialogues with the apes, which promotes reflection and fosters more discourse. Dialogue, say these authors, helps create consciousness, in how, e.g., Sue and Laurent are able to understand the apes by their own “words.”

In retrospect, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh realizes she might have underestimated the true potential of the apes, and she provides some examples. On the other hand, her critics accuse her of overestimating the apes. Consciousness is control over mind and includes symbolic thinking. The book demonstrates how one can engage in a conscious dialogue where the ape and the interlocutor are both self-aware of each other’s autonomous agency as a thinking being. This probably cannot be achieved with most “animals” – though, on second thought, in that statement I am likely anthropocentric and underestimating the mental capacities of other living creatures. As the authors note, consciousness is a process of building and clarifying a self from an environment, where Savage-Rumbaugh, as an experimental psychologist, says that beyond any evolution of the body consciousness itself evolves over time. The point Savage-Rumbaugh seems to make is that in terms of psychological development and enculturation, since apes have a layer of consciousness that rises to the level of symbolism, she can teach them more, and they can better learn, than most other animals. As Laurent Dubreuil points out, the apes are capable of separating the self to imagine others for new possibilities, which permits expansion of consciousness.

The authors briefly discuss a study from China where Rhesus monkeys learned to recognize themselves in mirrors. (Mirror self-recognition does not come naturally to monkeys as it does to humans, great apes, dolphins, elephants, etc.) The China study is important because it shows how a concept of self can be learned; in turn, recognizing the self in relation to another can permit symbolic consciousness, which can eventually lead to “language,” where the internal world becomes expressed externally to another. In light of such research on monkeys, a basic question taking into account evolutionary scale might follow like this: Can a great ape use reference, i.e., where symbols stand in for or represent objects? Symbols are in the mind and can be employed in a variety of ways in different contexts and patterns with each other for thought and communication. The initial research by Dr. Duane Rumbaugh and Sue was not associative conditioning of objects to words, because with that approach the subject has difficulty generalizing. The word animal, for instance, has many different physical forms, and that knowledge only comes through reference.

The book provides a behind-the-scenes look at theoreticians and researchers. The authors, for example, have long discussions about the limitations of Chomsky’s theories and the lab work of Herbert Terrace (on Nim Chimpsky) and Michael Tomasello (of the Max Planck Institute). Savage-Rumbaugh says that Terrace did not consider Nim’s emotional states and that Tomasello refuses to consider, regarding ape “language,” the morphological/physical differences between human/ape. Tomasello, she says, does not consider how to handle the ape, how the background of the being needs to be considered. She goes on to say how ACCI is now looking only at bits of the ape and not his or her history of development and rearing. Some scientists want to study, in a lab setting (ironically), the innate instincts of apes and not raise them in any human way via referential dialogue, which might be more revealing. Savage-Rumbaugh raised apes into human culture to demonstrate their intellectual and social flexibility. While the authors admit it’s difficult to do so, measuring context is important in ape/human dialogue. For instance, in early work by Duane Rumbaugh with Lana, the chimp often made mistakes that others held against her without considering her upbringing and the fact that she was asked to communicate through a machine. Meantime, young children in a more stimulating environment often make mistakes in early language, and that is not held against them.

In spite of her difficulties, Savage-Rumbaugh came to realize that Lana achieved syntactical grammar and symbolic reference in her “language,” a huge accomplishment. This is why later Savage-Rumbaugh began speaking to the apes and not expecting them to verbalize only with a machine through trial and error. Note, however, that the authors seem to suggest that it is unfair to say ape language, since as any bonobo taught this language is not really ungrammatical or without syntax. Tomasello, once Sue’s student, acknowledges “languaged” apes but does not believe they “communicate” – and they say Tomasello’s position is “weird” and anthropocentric. For Tomasello, communication requires cooperation. However, Laurent Dubreuil says there’s immense data demonstrating how the bonobos communicate intentions in order to involve the thinking, or more, of their interlocutor. This can work when apes are reared in a languaged environment, and not only during one-hour sessions, as done by early researchers like Premack and Fouts. Those who used languaged environments include the Hayes and Gardners. Contrary to Tomasello, what Savage-Rumbaugh shows is that apes communicate and don’t just use “language” to obtain objects.

The apes had ready access to food in Atlanta and so were not communicating for the sake of getting something; they talked about other issues and ideas. However, in Iowa, where promises to Sue about continuing her work were made and then broken in very infelicitous ways, food was not readily available to the apes, so they had to ask for it. Then, not surprisingly, they hoarded it. So the communication is tied to the environment they experience, and not the cognitive abilities (or supposed lack thereof). This is contrary to what Tomasello has written. Likewise, when the apes are in a cognitively rich world, they have much to communicate; if they are in a Spartan world, there’s really nothing to talk about. Neuroplasticity is common to apes and humans; if you deprive a human child of a content-rich environment, he too will not thrive.

The final section on will makes the essential point that there is free will through language, and so demonstrated in the apes as in humans. Language and symbolic layers are the embodiment of the intentional (free) making of a self, says Savage-Rumbaugh, exhibited by the bonobos, especially when they were moved from Georgia to Iowa and expressed their dissatisfaction and anxiety. Because of the ape free will articulated through language and enculturation, much could also be learned about improving human society. This section culminates in a discussion about Sue’s conference presentation and subsequently published paper where she includes the bonobos as co-authors. Many eyebrows were raised in the “scientific” community, but why not include them since Savage-Rumbaugh interviewed Kanzi, Panbanisha, and Nyota and they communicated about their unhappy move to the lab confines of Des Moines. The upshot is that Sue fears that because her work stopped in Des Moines under ACCI, the apes will languish as they are only seen as animals and not as persons.

I don’t know that I’d label this book as a research study per se; but, having said that, in the spirit of Montaigne it reflects an ocean of leaning and knowledge from two exceptional thinkers meditating on what it means to be a human ape – from consciousness to free will. There is a timeline appendix, along with notes and an index. The book is engaging and accessible, and I highly recommended it for anyone interested in animal studies or the debate about ape personhood. On a more personal note, there’s even something sad about this story as I consider the fate and future of these ape persons, and others so situated, in facilities that do not respect the type of rich encultured rearing shown by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh.

- Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D., Professor of English/Interdisciplinary Studies, St. Francis College, N.Y. Author of, recently: Making Mind (2014); Evolution and Human Culture (2016); Art and Adaptability (2018). Editor, ASEBL Journal and blog.

copyright©2019 by Gregory F. Tague – all rights reserved

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Fighting for Ape Rights


Dear Colleagues and Friends:

I am pleased to announce the publication of the January 2019 issue of the ASEBL Journal. Guest co-editor is comparative psychologist Christine Webb, Ph.D., at Harvard University, with editorial assistance from St. Francis College student Angelica Schell.

Here’s what’s in this timely and important issue.

An anchor essay by Professor Shawn Thompson, “Supporting Ape Rights: Finding the Right Fit Between Science and the Law.”

This is followed by comments from philosophers and scientists, including:  Gary L. Shapiro, Nicolas Delon, Elise Huchard, Zipporah Weisberg, Carlo Alvaro, Peter Woodford, Dustin Hellberg, Jennifer Vonk, Edwin J.C. van Leeuwen and Lysanne Snijders, Leif Cocks.

The issue concludes with a response to the comments by Professor Thompson.

ASEBL Journal has consistently blended interdisciplinary approaches in the following instances: competitive altruism in Beowulf (v. 9, January 2013), cultural traditions from an anthropological perspective in Romeo and Juliet (v. 11.1, January 2015), art and evolution (v. 11.2, April 2015), the cultural evolution of attitudes about homosexuality (v. 12, February 2016), traditonal ethical codes as a puzzle to evolutionary theory (v. 12, February 2016), morality and biology (v. 13, January 2018), and great ape personhood (v 14, January 2019).

Continuing in this effort to cross disciplinary boundaries, it is anticipated that an upcoming issue will focus on consciousness, but there is no open call for papers at this point. 

Here is the journal blog, www.asebl.blogspot.com


Sincerely, Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D., editor 

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