Re: Review of "The Selfish Meme" part II

From: Scott Chase (
Date: Sat 25 Jun 2005 - 18:38:09 GMT

  • Next message: Kenneth Van Oost: "A Review of ' The Selfish Meme '"

    --- Ray Recchia <> wrote:
    [this is an exchange between Kate and Ray on metapresentation wrt non-humans]
    > >>This is all well and good, but I think that author
    > Kate Distin goes too
    > >>far when she claims that humans are the only ones
    > capable of
    > >>meta-representations.
    > >
    > >See above for what I claim as (very probably)
    > unique to humans.
    > >
    > >>By way of example, I offer Alex the grey parrot,
    > studied for over twenty
    > >>years by Irene Maxine Pepperberg and summarized by
    > her in "The Alex
    > >>Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of
    > Grey Parrots", a 400
    > >>page work published in 1999. Pepperberg's
    > experiments have been very
    > >>thorough, and it is clear from them that Alex
    > understands the concepts of
    > >>"color", "number", "shape". "material" and
    > "different". So for example
    > >>given a tray with two different colored objects on
    > it, Alex will identify
    > >>that the difference between them is "color", as
    > opposed to "shape" or
    > >>"material". Given a tray with a number of objects
    > on it and asked
    > >>questions, Alex will report how many of each shape
    > and each color, and
    > >>will total all of the objects.
    > >>Similar studies were conducted with chimpanzees,
    > dolphins, and pigeons.
    > >>Animals such as these live in complex environments
    > where the tasks of
    > >>daily living demand complex thinking. Being able
    > to recognize different
    > >>colored objects and draw conclusions from
    > experiences with those objects
    > >>is likely an important skill for a parrot.
    > >
    > >I have no problem with any of these examples.
    > Indeed I have personal
    > >experience of rather terrifying German Shepherd dog
    > who used to attack
    > >certain people only (but always) when they were
    > wearing yellow. As a
    > >member of this exclusive circle myself, the example
    > is burned in my memory.
    > >
    > >But, see above, "yellow" is a representation, not a
    > >meta-representation. What I claim as special to
    > humans is our ability not
    > >just to identify a range of objects as yellow or
    > round or wooden, but to
    > >think about those ways of identifying objects, and
    > ask questions at a
    > >whole different level. Questions like: "I wonder
    > how the dog represented
    > >this colour that I call 'yellow'? Did he see it as
    > I see it - one colour
    > >amongst many that I can also identify - or did he
    > not really 'represent'
    > >it, as such? Was there, rather, something about
    > the way that this colour
    > >impacted upon his brain (damaged by abuse that he
    > had suffered as a puppy,
    > >as it happens) which deranged him temporarily?"
    > Questions like: "What is
    > >the French for 'yellow'?" or "What is the
    > wavelength range of the colour
    > >that I call 'yellow', and is this the same
    > wavelength range as the colour
    > >that you call 'jaune'?". Questions like "I wonder
    > why the colour yellow
    > >is associated with cowardice?"
    > >
    > >I'm guessing that Alex would have struggled with
    > these questions.
    > Alex would of course have a had a bit of trouble
    > recognizing French, but
    > then so would I. He does though engage in
    > self-reflection. When left
    > alone, he babbles to himself, combining the words he
    > has in to different
    > combinations.
    > I still think that you are underestimating the
    > reasoning capacity of
    > animals. Let me give you another example: a rhesus
    > monkey was observed
    > trying to climb a tree with very thorny bark. The
    > monkey found some leaves
    > and wrapped them around its feet, and then made its
    > climb. Clearly, the
    > monkey was doing some pretty complicated thinking
    > there.
    Maybe non-humans have some limited capacity to meta-represent. I dunno. Possibly a pod of dolphins that just encountered a shark could engage in a little metadiscussion later about the encounter as to whom did the right thing or not. Or maybe a dolphin would be metarepresenting if it were to insult another dolphin by likening them to a shark (in dolphinese of course). The insulter would be transfering the concept of shark over to another dimension by using it as a means of dissing the insultee.

    As for parrots, they can use our language and perhaps make basic associations between words and what they represent, but to what degree can they form abstractions based upon these concepts? Could a parrot draw an analogy between a treat it likes and a human it is fond of and say "You are like a tasty treat."?

    Going to an extreme, Stephen Gould has an apt quote from Karl Ernst von Baer in his classic evo-devo tome
    _Ontogeny and Phylogeny_ (pbk ed, page 54). von Baer is reflecting on what it would be like if birds turned the tables on humans and wrote a textbook in a recapitulionist framework. von Baer said (quoted in Gould):

    [bq] "Let us only imagine that birds had studied their own development and that it was they in turn who investigated the structure of the adult mammal and of man. Wouldn't their physiological textbooks teach the following? "Those four and two-legged animals bear many resemblances to embryos, for their cranial bones are separated, and they have no beak, just as we do in the first five or six days of incubation; their extremities are all very much alike, as ours are for about the same period; there is not a single true feather on their body, rather only thin feather-shafts, so that we, as fledglings in the nest, are more advanced than they shall ever be...And these mammals that cannot find their own food for such a long time after their birth, that can never rise freely from the earth, want to consider themselves more highly organized than we?"" [eq]

    It's an ironic quote perhaps because von Baer is cutting our human arrogance down to size, letting the birds (or parrots) speak as if they are reflecting
    (meta-representing?) from their perceived position at the pinnacle of animal life, but I'm using it as an example of what birds probably cannot do, understand biology to the point where they can reflect on ontogeny and phylogeny and their position within this framework in comparison to humans. Notice especially the comparison betwwen humans and birds wrt
    "feather-shafts" in the quote of von Baer above. The ability to make such comparisons, whether they be analogies or homologies indicating common descent, is metarepesentational, I think (but Kate can correct me on this).

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