Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Culture and the Human Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Biology and Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright c. Gregory F. Tague 2017 All Rights Reserved

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Moral Sense Colloquium III

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

Registration with Dr. Dell


Registration bags

Dr. Alison Dell

Panel One: Dugan, Nolan, Freeman, and Hoque

Dr. David C. Lahti


Attendees in the Afternoon

Dr. Robert Trivers

Panel Two: Sparks, Shoppa, and Garrera-Tolbert

Dr. Christopher Jensen

Panel Three: Kim, Goodman, Jensen, and Godoy

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Inborn Knowledge - Book Review

Colin McGinn. Inborn Knowledge: The Mystery Within. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015. 9780262029391. 152 pages. $32U.S. Hardcover.

Colin McGinn’s book Inborn Knowledge offers a succinct and easy-to-read introduction to what evolutionary psychologists have known for quite some time: innate concepts are inherited over generations and knowledge is not re-learned anew with each individual. I would not, however, classify McGinn’s book as science, much less as evolutionary or cognitive science. He writes as a philosopher for philosophers, and that’s where the great value of his book lies. Philosophers who might resist evolutionary approaches to the human mind will find comfort in McGinn’s lucid and organized style, discovering that, contrary to what preconceived notions they might have, biological evolution does not equate to determinism nor does it eliminate free will and individuality. To a large extent, McGinn sets out in this very short work to delineate how the brain can help to explain the mind.

The key question concerns the provenance of ideas. From early on, McGinn makes clear that his argument will demonstrate how we are born with ideas, a nativist approach, and that we do not simply acquire ideas from objects, an empiricist approach. I suppose it’s worth noting that an evolutionist might quibble with parts of McGinn’s title, once his claim is staked. It might not be wholly fair or accurate to say that we are born with knowledge per se, and certainly from a biological perspective any innate capacities for applying concepts from within the mind to the outside word is not really a mystery. While McGinn knows his subject, from both the philosophical and evolutionary sides,  I notice that his bibliography is very light, leans more to philosophy, and includes Jerry Fodor and Noam Chomsky, not known as mighty defenders of evolutionary approaches where continuities are shared among human beings, great apes, and other primates. But based on my reading of McGinn’s book, he has absorbed and is able to transmit much scientific thinking not necessarily represented in his bibliography.

Nativists, or those who see ideas as internal, include Plato, Descartes, and Leibniz. There is an innate, inner nature. Empiricists, or those who see ideas as external, include Aristotle, Aquinas, and especially, Locke. The mind is, according to Locke’s famous dictum, a tabula rasa or blank slate onto which sensations from objects inscribe ideas. Not surprisingly, McGinn spends much time discussing Locke, from beginning to end, who insists that all of our knowledge is founded in experience, in our observation of items external to us. For Locke, the source of ideas comes from things, from the objects themselves that create subjective impressions.

McGinn makes a further subtle distinction between internal and external empiricism. For the internal empiricist, ideas do not depend so much on external causes but more on our subjective impressions. McGinn says that Hume might fit into this category. For the external empiricist, however, ideas indeed stem direct from physical things. For Locke, external objects generate impressions and ideas on the mind. Therefore everything ideational and all qualities come down to physical objects. Our interaction with things is what creates our impressions and ideas. A Cartesian nativist would say ideas are innate – put there by God. Others might say that ideas derive externally not from objects but from what others tell us.

There could be combinations of impression/idea-nativism and idea/impression-empiricism, raising questions about whether innate ideas are (or not) from external impressions. Locke is a proponent of both ideas and impressions as rooted in objects. Hume sees impressions as originating from within the mind. If impressions are internal, and if ideas come from impressions, then ideas too are internal, notes McGinn. Empiricists would say, however, that simple and not complex ideas come from the senses. All of this reminds me of how Emerson says nature is to soul as seal is to print. But while Emerson is transcendental, Locke is mechanistic. For Locke, there is no mystery in how ideas are formed. For the nativist, senses help evoke what is innate; sense does not simply manufacture ideas.

McGinn offers easy examples to follow, but he spends much time on color, a secondary quality, and the view is a bit anthropocentric. A chimpanzee does not know the difference between what we call yellow and black, only that ripe fruit looks a certain way. We don’t need any linguistic labels to know that a color is different from one we’ve seen before. Understanding is inborn. As the philosopher Schopenhauer says, perception is the product of understanding, not sensation. The primate brain knows to avoid putrid looking food resources. McGinn also talks about where geometric ideas come from and whether one can have the idea of a triangle by seeing only a straight line. An empiricist says no but a nativist says yes. I might add that we consider how Homo habilis created stone tools. A simple idea can become more complex in mind without external stimuli, since the mind is a maker. Just as there is a straight edge, if one can mentally see a straight edge in a round stone, the mind has created the tool before it is physically manufactured.

And of course Australopithecines prior to Homo may have made tools, so the idea was floating around literally and physically. As only a philosopher can do, McGinn has a long riff about a brain in a vat and what it’s capable of or not. But brains did not evolve to be in vats but in bodies in the world. Of course McGinn knows this; his argument is against ideas stemming only empirically, for he says that a brain in a vat can be stimulated to have impressions and to generate ideas. Not until page twenty does McGinn use the word gene, as a source of ideas, and he does not utter the word evolution or refer to Darwin until pages thirty six and thirty eight.

I can understand what McGinn says about a purely mental life of ideas as not necessarily deriving from the physicality of things, but we evolved to live in and interact with a world of objects, other persons, and events. Many of our ideas are about things; most of our ideas are about people. McGinn appears to denigrate ideas coming via social empiricism, but we evolved to be in large groups. We imitate and learn from others as an adaptive shortcut. If we tried to have all ideas about everything on our own we’d not survive. But McGinn seems to focus his anti-empiricist criticism on linguistic learning. Yet in our evolved past, seen too in other species, there is no need for grammatical language to interact, perceive, and have ideas. See, for example, early work done by Wolfgang Köhler and Robert Yerkes who conducted experiments with great apes. He says, for instance, “Concepts are detachable from...extraneous conditions” (21). Okay, maybe so, but that might be abstracting a bit too much from our evolved capacities and abilities. While we can be philosophical, we did not evolve to be philosophers. We use ideas to explain things. Using ideas to explain other ideas is a much more recent development, no doubt.

McGinn finds a contradiction in Locke. Ideas come from objects themselves but yet secondary qualities like color are projected onto an object from within the subjective storehouse of the mind. So how, according to Locke could the mind be a blank slate if it has the inborn ability to color the world? McGinn says impressions of primary and secondary qualities cannot be separated, though Locke does so.

McGinn supports Chomsky and how the mind already has the elements to enable language, but we know Chomsky presents a human uniqueness angle. McGinn’s point is how stimuli are not potent enough in themselves, in spite of what empiricists say, to generate ideas. Descartes, he notes, was at least correct to say how the world is made of scattered bits of information that our mind assembles. In other words, Locke is wrong to say ideas move wholesale from objects to minds. McGinn does acknowledge that each species processes the world differently according to its biological requirements, but no species copies the external world as idea into the brain.

Concerning the empiricist position, McGinn rightly asks how we move from the particular to the universal. How does the empiricist account for abstract ideas? How do we generate large, general ideas from small and particular things? Empiricists cannot account for such general ideas, only particular. The empiricist claims that the mind has an ability to abstract, but that would be innate. McGinn tells us how Locke did not believe animals capable of mentally abstracting, but that leaves open the problem of why infants do in fact have ideas, to say nothing of the continuity between us and apes. One cannot say that particulars give rise to impressions and that the mind later abstracts because of the particular. The mind can abstract, innately, on its own.

Empiricists seem to say that the furnishings of consciousness, not the actual mind itself, come from perceptible particulars in the world. Consider how from birth all species have intent and agency. Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallat, in The Ancient Origins of Consciousness (MIT 2016), have recently demonstrated that sensory consciousness is widespread across species and evolutionarily very old. Species evolve to fit into a niche and so have different ways of perceiving the world. A fish on the bottom of the ocean need not see and so is blind. A bat that swoops in darkness needs echolocation in spite of blindness. Species evolve behaviors linked to a consciousness of the environment. McGinn’s point, no secret to biologists, is that different species’ responses prove their minds are not blank at birth. But instead of adaptation he uses the odd expression original endowment. The mind is conscious from birth, and so blank-mind empiricists cannot account for instincts and drives. In many ways, also not necessarily a new thought, consciousness across species is cognitive and the mind is inherently working towards physical and social survival, not on instincts alone. McGinn wonders why species do not inter-mate (36). That is the subject of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. But McGinn understands that there are species specific and cross species cognitive ideas about actions built into animal minds.

Darwin comes into McGinn’s picture in terms of inheritance, and there is quite a nice précis, including some comments about the adapted mind, beginning on page thirty eight. I do believe, though, that McGinn should have cued his readers much sooner, perhaps in his Preface, to his evolutionary leanings. Simply by using, in a philosophical way, the word nativist in the first thirty five pages is misleading. McGinn’s affirmation of biology could have been better foreshadowed. That the book makes an essentially scientific claim means some of its grounding ideas could have been cataloged sooner. Nods to Descartes and others might confuse readers into thinking there is, in fact, creative evolution.

The pillars of Darwin’s natural selection are variation, competition, and inheritance. There is no spiritus mundi, no élan vital, and nothing mysterious. McGinn spends a little time on variation when he talks about individuality, ignores competition, but does cover inheritance. Locke and Hume think consciousness but not its content is innate; contents are acquired and accumulate. Knowledge can vary across cultures over time but there is an innate mental structure for cultural knowledge. Some knowledge is acquired and becomes a memory. There is other knowledge we are born with, such as the concepts of addition and subtraction.  The nature of mind is that it is both innate and acquired: the external environment of objects, places, and events only stimulates the mind to form impressions. Why should we be surprised to find intelligence, emotions, and sentience in other animals?

At this point in his discussion McGinn claims that nativism is unintelligible and a mystery (60-61). But it is not. On his bibliography, while he includes Pinker, he cites The Language Instinct but not How the Mind Works. Without going down the list, there are a number of cognitive or evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists who could have been marshaled to demonstrate how this is not a mystery. Granted the author says, early on, he does not want to write a heavily researched book, but credible backing would have helped his claims about why knowledge is innate and how this is physically and evolutionarily so. I suppose, though, one of the virtues of McGinn’s book is its simple directness.

Essentially, McGinn is circumventing the so-called hard problem. Certainly, how do consciousness and thought arise from molecules? That too has been addressed by, among others, Feinberg and Mallat. By using the word mystery McGinn is making somewhat supernatural a natural process that has evolved over time, much as the complexity of the eye has evolved from a simple photoreceptor cell. Like his delay to invoke evolution, this language undercuts his central argument. We know apes have ideas of things. Chimpanzees and orangutans will try to figure out how something mechanical works. Creationists make a special case for human uniqueness, so how then to explain theory of mind and intelligence of apes. Why would God have made a chimpanzee as smart as a four-year-old child? McGinn relies here on Chomsky who claims human uniqueness in terms of language, but meantime apes can use and understand our sign language, so say nothing about their own sophisticated forms of bodily and vocal communication.

And why would the inheritance of ideas, according to McGinn, be any more mysterious? Consider how mating preferences that require mentality get passed on. It is not only instinctual but cultural, seen too in the generational evolution of bird songs. He says that “Thinking is not an organic process...”(65). But has not that been his whole argument, the organic nature of the mind? Thinking and consciousness are organic, because when one dies they stop. McGinn might be looking for answers not so much in gene coding but in gene switching, so-called junk DNA. So while we are ninety-nine percent similar to chimpanzees genetically, there is a massive amount of switching genes that accounts, perhaps, for our significant differences. This does not make us special, only different in how the ecological niche we have filled is much larger and required new forms of gene expression. In others words, it’s not a supernatural mystery. There really is no mind/body problem, as he suggests (70) since the mind is part of the body, almost as one. The brain in the vat is still embodied – eighty five billion neural cells and a trillion or so neural connections are as one body.

McGinn’s book is a valuable primer for philosophers who are interested in non-metaphysical theories about the mind. Because of its small size and limited scope, there is much not covered, including mutation, drift, and sexual or social selection. There is no mention of cultural evolution, also an important component related to primate evolution. There are many hominid and hominin species that have not survived. This does not give us or chimpanzees special status. On average, Neanderthals had brains larger than ours. Adaptations are a matter of selection pressures. At some point near the end of the book McGinn talks about human nature, but such terminology can be problematic. We have not been so created, with a human nature. Rather, we have evolved, and have survived over other species like ours, in a way that seems to make us appear to have a human nature. While there are continuities across species, there is also something distinct about a species. We human beings are a composite of multiple dimensions of evolution that have channeled adaptations from all our preceding primate ancestors and organisms before them.

Towards the end of the book McGinn suggests an important point that needs more emphasis in today’s culture.  Many great ideas in human history are completely external but have become manifest through innate, inherited parts, what Michael Tomasello would call the ratchet effect. Scientific thinking, then, is not wholly objective but contains at least a soupçon of innate ideas. Just as we need philosophers like McGinn to shed scientific light on philosophy, we need scientists to acknowledge how some big ideas come from within, contrary to a purely scientific method. That is, there is a certain amount of creativity and imagination involved in scientific thinking. McGinn handily covers this by noting how we are “born referring” (88). Reference is built into us (or at least the ability) and not dependent on external stimulus. We can make complex ideas from basic, innate ideas. And in reverse, as McGinn proves, an able writer can render complex ideas through history understandable.

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

Copyright©2016 Gregory F. Tague – All Rights Reserved

Published courtesy of the Consciousness, Literature and the Arts journal, Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, editor

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Passion, Logic, and Thinking

Pretending and Lying: The Nature of Humankind and Rhetorical Theory Choices

Alexandra Glynn

Working Paper October 2016

When Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrects-Tyteca begin their New Rhetoric, they assume that people do not argue about the obvious. Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca make the case that the scientific and intellectual revolutions of the Enlightenment have brought about a situation in which facts reign, and the reign of facts has spread out to most of the sciences and most of the departments in the universities, and therefore, why argue? One needs to only assert facts. “What is important to the partisans of the experimental and inductive sciences is not so much the necessity of propositions as their truth, their conformity with facts” (2, italics in original). Now I take Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca to mean the realm of science more than the realm of ideology but they do mean both. Basically, they are saying that since Descartes, non-mathematical/formal logic reasoning and argumentation have been pushed further and further away from the public discussions. You could almost say that what someone who is not in an obviously scientific/mathematical discipline (a hard science) is encouraged to do to win rhetorically is to scentificize/mathematemetize, get categorized as a fact discipline and thereby never have to argue anything. One in such a position only needs to assert facts. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca take issue with this overwhelming reign of “facts” and see a place for non-mathematical/formal logic reasoning and argumentation, because our thought processes do not make the distinction between passion and formal logic, or imagination and evidence, that the post-Cartesian world-view suggests they do.

Now I would not disagree with Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca’s description of our current situation and the reasons for it. For they say, “It is the idea of self-evidence as characteristic of reason, which we must assail, if we are to make place for theory of argumentation that will acknowledge the use of reason in directing our own actions and influencing those of others. Self-evidence is conceived both as a force to which every normal mind must yield and as a sign of the truth of that which imposes itself because it is self-evident” (3, italics in original). I only would like to emphasize that Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca assume normal minds yield to self-evident truths. This might be true, for the most part, in science, and I lay the hard sciences aside and devote myself exclusively to the realm of ideology. And it may be true that even in ideological realms normal minds yield to self-evident truths. However, do they confess them? There may be a great gulf between what is thought in the mind and what is spoken as self-evident truth. Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca go on, “the object of the theory of argumentation is the study of the discursive techniques allowing us to induce or to increase the mind’s adherence to the theses presented for its assent” (4, italics in original).

In other words, I accept that Descartes is acceptable to take in terms of his discussion of self-evidence. I only argue that Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca are leaving something out—the element of deceit. If people do adhere to self-evident truths, but they do not like to admit them to themselves, then argumentation and rhetoric are not about trying to increase any adherence to a thesis. Argumentation and rhetoric assume that in the realm of ideology, the major theses are already adhered to on some level in each person. However, people do not articulate them. They speak other ideologies other than the ones that they know to be true. People hold these “solid beliefs” that are “admitted without proof [and] very often not even made explicit” (8), but they do not admit them. To believe is not the same as to teach.

Poets and novelists have a reputation as truth-tellers precisely because they assert truths that are self-evident but that people do not necessarily like to confess. Indeed, the more self-evident and deeply held the truth, the less likely people are to want to confess it, in many cases, especially ideologically charged cases. People like to hide.

One truth-teller, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote a whole book on the topic, we might say. For in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it is said of one of the main characters, Gabriel John Utterson, in the second line of the novel that “something eminently human beaconed from his eye” (1). So the lawyer Utterson is characterized as human. But very shortly after this, when we find out about the evil act that Mr. Hyde committed, Mr. Enfield says “I saw that Sawbones turned sick and white with the desire to kill [Hyde]. I knew what was in his mind, just as he knew what was in mine; and killing being out of the question, we did the next best” (3). You begin to be suspicious of yourself when you read this, that you are human, you are Hyde. But we all don’t like to talk about this, as Mr. Enfield says, we also say, “I feel very strongly about putting questions; it partakes too much of the style of the day of judgment. You start a question, and it’s like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of a hill; and away the stone goes, starting others; and presently some bland old bird (the last you would have thought of) is knocked on the head in his own back garden, and the family have to change their name. no, sir, I make it a rule of mine: the more it looks like Queer Street, the less I ask” (4).

We all may have a “volume of some dry divinity” on our reading desks (6), but we, like Utterson, are human. And therefore when Hyde is described as that “human Juggernaut” that hurt a child (8), we are all also possibly that kind of human, not necessarily the Utterson kind, if there is such a kind. For of Utterson we find that it can be to him as it was for Hyde that “lo! there would stand by his side a figure to whom power was given, and even at that dead hour, he must rise and do its bidding” (8). We, like Utterson, care about and are in touch with our “fellow creatures” (28), in good times and bad because we are both Jekyll and Hyde.

Throughout the book the characters struggle with whether or not they should call Mr Hyde human. For example it says “God bless me, the man seems hardly human! Something troglodytic, shall we say?” (10). Hyde is described as trampling “with ape-like fury” (15). He cries out “like a rat” (30). He jumps “like a monkey” (32). He is said to have “ape-like spite” (54). Hyde is called “it” but then they say they heard “it weeping” and “weeping like a woman or a lost soul” (32).

So the fact remains, Mr. Hyde is Mr. Jekyll. And Mr. Hyde is likely to be human, and so is Mr. Utterson, and therefore we are likely also to be Mr. Hyde, if we are human, whether we wish to think of ourselves as Gabriel John Utterson or Dr. Jekyll. Utterson describes Dr. Jekyll in sympathetic terms because it is familiar to himself, and to all of us, “[Jekyll] was wild when he was young; a long while ago…Ah, it must be that; the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace; punishment coming pede claudo, years after memory has forgotten and self-love condoned the fault” (11). Now the book seems to imply that “the majority of men” are a little higher than Hyde, (42), that the “vast majority of my fellows” would choose to do the right thing, not the wrong thing, in most cases (49). But by whatever percentage, Hyde is there.

The book, we can say, is in places religious in its allusions. For example, it says, “if ever I read Satan’s signature upon a face” (10). Jekyll also in one place quotes Apostle Paul, saying “I am the chief of sinners” (23; 1 Timothy 1:15). But the book tries to understand man in a way that is beyond religion, in a sort of natural law way. The book talks about “man’s dual nature” in almost a Freudian sense, saying they “contended in the field of my consciousness” (43). But in this context there is again the allusion to Paul’s “war among my members” (42, Romans 7). And in another case there is the reference to Daniel; Jekyll says, “This inexplicable incident, this reversal of my previous experience, seemed, like the Babylonian finger on the wall, to be spelling out the letters of my judgement” (48). I would call the book ideological in its truth-telling.

So, why are poets truth-tellers? Because they will tell truths that others, we regular people, who like to hide, do not wish to tell. This obviously has implications for rhetoric and the teaching of rhetoric. To go back to Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca,

It is to be observed that where rational self-evidence comes into play, the adherence of the mind seems to be suspended to a compelling truth, and no role is played by the processes of argumentation. The individual, with his freedom of deliberation and of choice, defers to the constraining force of reason, which takes from him all possibility of doubt. Thus, maximally efficacious rhetoric, in the case of a universal audience, is rhetoric employing nothing but logical proofs (32).

But what if the individual is not doubting, what if he is submitting to the logical proofs, or the assertions of what is self-evident, but he will not admit them? This makes the role of rhetoric not to persuade but to gain a confession. It strikes me in this 500 year anniversary of the Reformation to notice that Martin Luther had this kind of view of rhetoric’s role. And Luther is “the man about whom more has been written than any other western figure of the Common Era except Jesus Christ” (Leroux 1-2). And Luther, in The Bondage of the Will, repeatedly claims that Erasmus, his opponent, actually agrees with him, Luther, but will not admit it. Luther says right in the second paragraph, “I thought it outrageous [for you, Erasmus] to convey material of so low a quality in the trappings of such rare eloquence; it is like using gold or silver dishes to carry garden rubbish or dung. You seem to have had more than an inkling of this yourself, for you were reluctant to undertake the task of writing; because, I suppose, your conscience warned you that, whatever literary resources you might bring with you into the fray, you would not be able to impose on me, but I should see through all your meretricious verbiage to the vile stuff beneath” (Luther 63). And again, “But, as I said, let the words go; for the moment, I acquit your heart; but you must write no more in this strain. Fear the Spirit of God, who searches the reins and heart, and is not deceived by stupid speeches. I say this in order that from now on you may stop accusing our side of obstinacy and stubbornness. By so doing, you merely let us see that in your heart…” (Luther 70). In other words, Luther asserts that Erasmus thinks one thing but says another. Erasmus pretends. Indeed, Luther uses this very word: “This bombshell knocks ‘free-will’ flat, and utterly shatters it; so that those who want to assert it must either deny my bombshell, or pretend not to notice it…” (Luther 80). And it isn’t just Erasmus, but all the people who disagree with Luther, who are pretending. “But those who wished to seem wise argued themselves out of it till their hearts grew dark and they became fools, as Rom 1 says (vv 21-22), and denied, or pretended not to know, things which the poets, and the common people, and even their own consciences held as being most familiar, most certain, and most true” (Luther 83).
As the above quote from Luther marks, there are truths that people know but argue against. And if you agree with me that this is the case, then you must also agree with me that there is a problem in teaching rhetoric as “persuasion” or telling students to write a paper that “grabs the reader’s attention” in order to convince them of a truth that they do not know. To do rhetoric is, as poets know, to tell truths to people in ways that remind them and stick with them and haunt them.
Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca say, “The very nature of deliberation and argumentation is opposed to necessity and self-evidence, since no one deliberates where the solution is necessary or argues against what is self-evident” (1). I don’t think so. I think more like Locke,
It is evident how much men love to deceive and be deceived, since rhetoric, that powerful instrument of error and deceit, has its established professors, is publicly taught, and has always been had in great reputation: and I doubt not but it will be thought great boldness, if not brutality, in me to have said thus much against it. Eloquence, like the fair sex, has too prevailing beauties in it to suffer itself ever to be spoken against. And it is in vain to find fault with those arts of deceiving, wherein men find pleasure to be deceived” (Locke 827).
If the discipline of rhetoric is in tatters because people who use rhetoric on audiences so often do so deceitfully, then why don’t we not only question the rhetorician but the audience? If the rhetoricians are liars, why are the audiences always characterized as so pure? Why aren’t they liars too?

Aristotle said in his Rhetoric, “that which is true and better is naturally always easier to prove and more likely to persuade” (13. Book 1.12). Indeed. Aristotle also said in “On Sophistical Refutations” that,

Furthermore, you should seek for paradoxes in men’s wishes and professed opinions. For they do not wish the same things as they declare that they wish, but they give utterance to the most becoming sentiments, whereas they desire what they think is to their interest. They declare, for example, that a noble death ought to be preferred to a pleasurable life and honorable poverty to discreditable wealth; but their wishes are the opposite of their words ([172b] Loeb 71).

Indeed. And one only need to go to our criminal justice systems and notice that almost all incarcerated criminals claim that they are not guilty. Or at least, that they are Dr. Jekyll and that Mr. Hyde did it. But the vast majority of them are truly guilty. And so the persuasion is not to get them to learn the truth, but to get a confession of it.


Aristotle. “On Sophistical Refutations [4th century BC],” in On Sophistical Refutations, On Coming-to-be and Passing Away, On the Cosmos. E. S. Forster (transl 1955) Loeb 1955. Pp 11-155.
Aristotle. Rhetoric [4th century BC]. John H Freese (transl 1939). Loeb 2006.
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- Alexandra Glynn lives in Minnesota. She has a Master's in Old Testament Theology and a Master's in English Literature.