Re: reading a book

From: Scott Chase (
Date: Tue 26 Apr 2005 - 22:56:37 GMT

  • Next message: Scott Chase: "Re: reading a book"

    --- Chris Taylor <> wrote:

    > Hi.
    > Kate Distin wrote:
    > > Chris Taylor wrote:
    > >
    > >> Okay so this is linked to my vague point about
    > imagination: Is it
    > >> simply the case that this ability to
    > recontextualise a pattern, and to
    > >> exploit serendipitous accidents (either in the
    > world, or internally)
    > >> is much more advanced in us, but no different in
    > kind; or is there more?
    > >>
    > >> Is it the ability to deconstruct and recombine
    > disparate parts that is
    > >> the key (fish genes in tomato iyswim), or can
    > 'lower' forms do that
    > >> too, but again to a less advanced (=speedy?)
    > degree?
    > >>
    > >> Maybe we can think of 'living' ~memes as
    > 'beginning' in a similar way
    > >> to the kinds of piggybacking genetic elements
    > that exploit the copying
    > >> machinery of the nucleus (something that is still
    > really poorly
    > >> understood actually, as we can't really get stuck
    > in until we know how
    > >> genomes work). For instance a simple one Keith
    > touched on is bird song
    > >> -- for some passerines, the more songs you know,
    > the better
    > >> (reproductively speaking). This is I'd assume an
    > indicator that (1)
    > >> your brain works better than okay, which is a
    > good telltale for
    > >> genetic fitness and (2) you are a cluey lil'
    > bugger that has lived
    > >> long enough to pick up lots of tunes (and other
    > behaviours?). But what
    > >> of the songs themselves? They are alive by a
    > >> Shannon/Bianchi+Hamann-style definition...
    > >>
    > >> Cheers, Chris.
    > >>
    > >>
    > >
    > > I have two separate (and slightly conflicting)
    > intuitions about this.
    > > The first is that the apparent continuum between
    > human and non-human
    > > culture implies to me that the specifically human
    > abilities are more
    > > advanced rather than very different in kind.
    > >
    > > But on the other hand there *does* appear to me to
    > be a difference in
    > > kind: the metarepresentational instinct is not
    > apparent in any other
    > > species. I've suggested that it emerged on the
    > back of the language
    > > instinct - although it ironically freed us from
    > being tied only to
    > > natural languages, enabling us also to construct
    > alternative
    > > representational systems (of written notation,
    > etc.).
    > Do macaques (or whatever they were) wash anything
    > else? Do our pecking
    > birds peck anything else? (etc. etc.) Somebody wheel
    > out the hardcore
    > ethologists from somewhere...
    > Would that blur the boundary even more?
    Some stuff I've read recently has given me the impression that the macaque potato washing and chimps using sticks to fish termites out examples aren't all they're cracked up to be in comparison with the way human culture is transmitted and perhaps understood by those doing the transmitting. Humans can conceptualize to a far greater degree than other mammals, if other great apes can be thought of as truly conceptualizing. I still think tool usage in chimps is impressive, though, but limited in comparison to humans. This isn't me being speciesist, because human cultural development aside, I've got no qualms classifying us as another species of chimp or at least keeping chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans as hominids. Taxonomically we are similar enough, but cultural attributes are a key character that sets us apart within the hominid umbrella.

    I think much can be said for the notion that in humans the process of evolution has become self-aware (which I think is something that both Teilhard and Julian Huxley were saying). That's kinda profound, but what other species has developed the concept of evolution via selection as an explanation for its existence as well as the rest of life? What other species has taken Skinnerian superstition via arbitrary reinforcement scheduling to the degree we have, developing animistic and theistic concepts to explain origins, processes and objects found in the environment? What other species could have a member named Skinner that would look at behaviorist models for superstition or a Dawkins with viral models for religion?

    I wouldn't go as far as Huxley in giving humans a designation of Psychozoa, but there's some serious emergent order that sets us apart from other great apes, although this is probably a major difference in degree, not kind. Cumulative adaptions via transmitted culture might be the key. Yet genetically and physically we aren't too different from chimps and bonobos at least. Think of all the hominid fossils that would have to be renamed to reflect our taxonomic similarity to other great apes. We are apes with cell phones.


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