Sunday, September 29, 2019


























Moral Sense Colloquium IV

Moral Sense Colloquium IV, Saturday, 28 September 2019, St. Francis College

Details HERE 

Welcome

Vegan Lunch

Songs of Story Men performers
Vaneshran Arumugam (left) and Emmanuel Castis (right)

Opening Remarks by the President of St. Francis College,
Dr. Miguel Martinez-Saenz

Grad Student Panel One on Cross-Cultural Morality,
with Dr. SungHun Kim and Dr. Kristy Biolsi (not pictured)

Panel Two: Clayton Shoppa (far left), Carlo Alvaro (left),
and Jeff Sebo (far right)

Dinner at Eight post Performance

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Can Animals Be Persons? - Book Review by Carlo Alvaro


Review of Mark Rowlands, Can Animals Be Persons? Oxford University Press. ISBN: 978-0190846039. Hardcover, $29.95 U.S. 232 pages.

Seven years after the provocative Can Animals Be Moral?, Mark Rowlands comes back with another unorthodox position: many animals are persons. In Can Animals Be Persons? Rowlands does a great job showing that whether animals can be persons is no more puzzling a question than whether humans are persons. What is a person anyway? “What is a person?” is not the sort of question that can be answered by simply appealing to a dictionary definition of the terms in question. Nor can one appeal to common sense. While the book presents highly sophisticated and dense argumentation, Rowlands manages to make the reader comfortable and enjoy the ride. One thing that is evident is that Rowlands had lots of fun writing this book. No doubt, Can Animal Be Persons? advances our understanding of animal minds and gives new life to the field of animal ethics. If this book does not make you see that animals are persons, I do not know what will.

In the first chapter, Rowlands begins by showing the ambiguities regarding the notion of personhood. The first ambiguity has to do with the fact that the term ‘person’ has at least three senses: legal, moral, and metaphysical. As Rowlands notes, legally speaking, corporations, organizations, and various objects are recognized as persons. Yet, the law does not consider animals as persons. In fact, the prevalent view among philosophers and scientists is that animals are not persons. In the past, women, slaves, children, Native Americans, and others were not regarded as persons. Nowadays, they are, and the debate has shifted toward animals. Typically, the argument that excluded animals from being legal persons can be expressed with the slogan, “no rights without responsibilities.” However, many individuals, such as marginal cases (the senile, infants, individuals with severe mental disabilities), are recognized as legal persons despite their not being able to think about legal principles and without their having legal responsibilities. It would seem a double standard, therefore, to exclude animals forthright on the basis of the no-rights-without-responsibilities argument.

Whether animals can be moral persons is a question analogous to the legal question. Namely, the argument against it is that to be a moral person, one must understand morality, must be capable of making moral judgments, and have moral responsibilities. Here Rowlands points out that many humans lack those capabilities and yet we do not want to say that they are not moral persons. If this is not good enough, you may take a copy of Can Animals Be Moral? And see for yourself how Rowlands defends this thesis.

The most challenging question, thus, is whether animals can be metaphysical persons. By metaphysical person, Rowlands simply means an individual who has intentionality, is self-conscious, has a language, has emotion, and many other characteristics that are taken to describe a person. Rowlands’ strategy is to try to identify certain mental characteristics that only persons possess and then determine whether animals possess such characteristics by virtue of which they qualify as persons in the metaphysical sense.

Drawing from different philosophers, Rowlands comes up with four conditions that one must satisfy to be a person:

1. Being conscious.
2. Being able to learn, solve problems, and reason.
3. Being self conscious or self-aware.
4. Being able to recognize other persons as such.

The first condition is the easiest to satisfy. Rowlands points out that besides being commonsensical that animals are conscious, there is an ever-growing body of scientific evidence that such is the case. The second is not difficult to satisfy either. For, many animals learn, reason, and solve problems. Rowlands discusses the ways in which animals can engage in causal and logical reasoning in chapter 5. Self-awareness is a tricky one, which is discussed in chapter 6.

The fourth requirement is discussed in terms of having the capacity to communicate, which many animals possess. Thus the question of whether animals can be persons is broken down into four questions: (1) Can animals be conscious? (2) Can animals engage in reasoning? (3) Can animals be self-aware, and (4) Can animals recognize others as persons?

The question of animal personhood, then, hinges on the (old) question of mind. The assumption is that minds are hidden from us. Thus, if we want to determine whether there are minds, the way that scientists and philosophers go about figuring this out is in terms of an inferentialist approach. One can infer other minds by using an analogical inference, that is, I have a mind, and since others are like me in many respects, it follows that others have minds. This is a non-starter for Rowlands, who suggests that an analogical inference is not a very helpful method for determining other human minds, and by the same token it must also be unhelpful for determining other animal minds. Another inference is to the best explanation. According to this type of inference, I can legitimately infer from the behavior of other humans that they have a mind. However, even if this type of inference works for other human minds, then it would have to work for other animal minds. The best explanation of animals’ behavior, language, and social life, is that they have a mind. Ultimately, Rowlands argues that the inferentialist solution of the problem of human minds does not work. 

We have, according to Rowlands, a direct experience of other human minds and a complete certainty of this fact, and our empirical evidence of other human minds is more certain than our inferences. The position that Rowlands endorses with respect to other minds is a direct perception view, something he borrows from Wittgenstein, who believed that “The human body is the best picture of the human soul” (Philosophical Investigations, Part II, p. 178). The direct perception view that Rowlands employs is a very interesting one and has three steps. First he introduces a distinction between seeing and seeing that; second is a distinction between formal and functional descriptions of behavior; third he argues that functional descriptions of behavior are disguised psychological descriptions. These three steps combined lead to the conclusion that “we can often see the mental states of animals” (p. 38).

Rowlands illustrates the distinction between seeing and seeing that by giving an example of a tornado. Typically one might say that he has seen a tornado. To be precise, it is not the tornado itself that is being seen, but rather its effects, i.e., rotating objects, dirt, water, and so on. Regarding behavior, it is not always possible to tell the nature of a behavior simply by looking at it; nevertheless, the behavior is visible, just like a tornado is visible. In other words, a behavior can be functionally described.

Functionalism is a theory of mind that argues that the mind can be explained in terms of its function regardless of the shape, form, or material composition of a being. (This is the best I can do in a sentence. For more information see the article “Functionalism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/functism/.)  Rowlands employs functionalism to explain the behavior of animals, arguing that functional descriptions are none other than “disguised mental or psychological descriptions” (p. 41). It is the way we take the world to be that explains our behavior. In other words, the functional descriptions of the behavior of animals are not psychologically neutral; rather, they reveal cognitive attitudes of a being, in this case animals. Using Rowlands’ example, when a dog performs a play bow to initiate play, we cannot see that the dog is initiating play but we can see the dog doing it – that is, we see psychological states of the dog. As Rowlands puts it, then, “If we want any sort of illuminating science of animal behavior, we should acknowledge that our primary access to the minds of animals is not through inference but through perception” (p. 46). This, Rowlands makes clear, is not a solution to other human or animal minds, but rather dissolution.

Still the skeptic may object that while humans are conscious, animals are not. Rowlands explains that there are three strong arguments to establish the existence of phenomenal consciousness in animals. One is an evolutionary argument that considering the enormous evolutionary continuity between humans and animals, it would be very unlikely that only humans were phenomenally conscious. The second is that animals exhibit an acceptable behavioral index of phenomenal consciousness. In other words, the behavior of animals clearly indicates that they have mental contents. The third is that animals have the same neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substances as humans required for having conscious experience.  

Rowlands proffers some interesting arguments and illustrations to show that observing the behavior makes it plain that “animals have beliefs, desires, and other content-involving states” (p. 82). We know this because explanations of their behaviors typically work. Rowlands here presents an argument to counter the Davidson-Stich objection that mental contents are, as it were, anchored to us. Rowlands shows that even though we may not know the specific contents of an animal’s desires and beliefs, we can explain the behavior of an animal in terms of beliefs and desires. The point is that we can explain the behavior of animals using mental contents that they may not entertain as long as such contents are related to the contents that they do entertain. To give Rowlands’ example, when his son was only two years old, he would light up at the sight of a squirrel, or squirrel activities, by uttering the word “squirrel!” However, at that age, a child does not have an accurate notion of squirrels as warm-blooded mammals that eat nuts, and so on. We have no precise idea of what a two-year-old child believes about squirrels and seeing squirrel activities.

Nevertheless, we can explain such a behavior by saying that the child believes that there is a squirrel, up in the tree for example. Explaining the behavior of a child (or an animal) by attributing a mental content that the child (or animal) cannot have is legitimate, Rowland explains, as long as the explanation satisfies two requirements: (1) the truth of the content used in the explanation guarantees the truth of the content he entertains; and (2) the content used in the explanation shares narrow content with the content that the child (or animal) entertains.

Rowlands continues whittling away the notion that only human beings are persons by discussing the capacity of animals for causal and logical reasoning. He gives many examples of animals that understand causal relations. It is interesting to note that these animals are not only the good ole and oft-cited great apes. Even smaller animals such as birds are capable of causal reasoning. Rowlands mentions crows understanding that if they drop pebbles into a container with water, the water rises as more pebbles are dropped into the container, and understand that it is not the same for containers of sand or sawdust. Also, birds and other animals are capable of creating and using tools. I can think of beavers building a dams – beat that! Furthermore, he considers logical reasoning. I do not think that these are distinct, though Rowlands presents them as such. I don’t think they are because in order to reason causally, one, by definition, reasons logically. Perhaps the distinction here should be between inductive reasoning (A will lead or cause B) and deductive reasoning (B necessarily follows from A). I found this chapter disappointing, not because the chapter is bad or uninformative, but rather because, in my view, it is necessary to give arguments to show that animals can reason logically and causally – they clearly are. Now this does not mean, and Rowlands makes it clear, that animals can be logicians. In other words, it is not necessary that animals understand Aristotle, Venn Diagrams, the law of excluded middle, and other formal rules of logic in order to reason logically. The fact is that they do and they show it.

So far, Rowlands has shown that animals are conscious and engage in causal and logical reasoning. In the remaining chapters he argues that animals are self-aware, and that they recognize others as persons. The issue of self-awareness is central to Rowlands’ overall argument. In fact he devotes five chapters to it. The argument looks something like an extension of Locke’s conception of personhood. Essentially Locke argues that a person is a thinking being that considers itself the same being enduring in time and in different places. Following this rationale, Rowlands makes a distinction between two forms of self-awareness: one is intentional and the other non-intentional or, as Rowlands labels it, pre-intentional (p. 125). What’s the difference? In a nutshell, functional, adult human beings possess intentional self-awareness. This form of self-awareness requires metacognition, i.e., thinking about thinking or, “when I perceive, I am aware of perceiving” (p. 117). Rowlands suggests that the intentional model of self-awareness is phenomenologically implausible because, accordingly, whenever I perceive, I would have to have a higher-order awareness that has as its object my perceiving or thinking. (This, by the way, could lead to an infinite regress.)

However, this is not, in fact, the case. Most of the time, when I perceive I do not perceive myself perceiving. As Rowlands puts it, “Most of the times I simply get on with perceiving things or thinking things” (p. 117). This mode of self-awareness, pre-intentional, Rowlands argues, is essential in the possession of intentional self-awareness.

Chapter 9 is a very technical and dense discussion to the effect that being a person requires mental unity. I cannot possibly do justice to such a sophisticated argument. The conclusion, however, is that “the only version of self-awareness that could confer unity on a mental life is pre-intentional self-awareness” (p. 175). It follows that many animals’ mental lives are unified. And if having a unified mental life is essential to personhood, then many animals can be persons. Pre-intentional awareness does not require metacognition, but involves being aware of an object, episode or process as a certain thing or way. This requires that a subject could have certain expectations or anticipation regarding how the appearance of change occurs with respect to bodily and environmental contingencies. For example, if I see an object as a book (Rowlands’ example), it is because I understand that the appearance presented to me will change depending on certain circumstances and contingencies, i.e., the book rotates or falls off the desk, etc.  

The last two chapters are, respectively, about other-awareness and personhood, and how it matters why animals are persons. Regarding awareness of others, Rowlands relies on the principles developed in the previous chapters, which show that one can be pre-intentionally aware. That is, since it is possible to be pre-intentionally aware of oneself, then it is also possible to be pre-intentionally aware of others. Other awareness is the fourth condition necessary for personhood. It is the ability to recognize others as persons. According to Rowlands, pre-intentional other-awareness is “the mirror image of pre-intentional self-awareness” (p. 192). Many animals, according to Rowlands have the basic capacity to distinguish things that have a mind and things that don’t. Therefore, many animals are persons. In other words, animals are individuals that possess consciousness, cognition, self-awareness, other-awareness, and have a unified mental life – that is, the basic ingredients of what makes up a person.

Rowlands ends the book with a very short moral conclusion: it is time to open our eyes and accept the fact that many animals are persons. Which ones? Well, that’s an empirical question. Most animals, especially those that people normally eat, are living creatures with whom one can communicate cognitively and emotionally and find out about their needs and wishes. It is not hard to understand animals’ body language. Rowlands conclusion reminds me a lot of the feminist-care approach in animal ethics. (See Josephine Donovan and Carol J. Adams, The Feminist Care Tradition in Animal Ethics, Columbia University Press, 2007). Josephine Donovan, for example, suggests that humans should pay attention to the needs of animals by connecting with them, by listening to them, and learning about their opinions. This experience can make us realize that we have marginalized animals and treated them as property and as food. Sometimes in philosophy we make things more complicated than they have to be. The message that I get from Rowlands is that the question of our relationship with animals is very simple: pay attention to the way animals behave. They are persons. They deserve to be treated as such.

- Carlo Alvaro, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at New York City Technical College and is the author of Ethical Veganism, Virtue Ethics, and the Great Soul (2019).

Copyright©2019 by Carlo Alvaro – All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Ethical Veganism

Editorial Note: Cross posting from our sister Bibliotekos site the story of an
ethical vegan, philosopher Carlo Alvaro; this might be of interest to ASEBL followers.  The profile draws in part from Alvaro's book, Ethical Veganism, Virtue Ethics, and the Great Soul (Lexington Books, 2019).

Click HERE to go to the profile.

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.