Apes with big brains: what makes us human? | NewStatesman w/ Polish translation

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Superficially we humans have much in common with other species – but no other species makes cars, computers, and combine harvesters.

Click here for Polish translation or see end of article.

Click here for German translation.

Human beings are animals. We aren’t plants and we aren’t bacteria, we are animals. Among animals we are apes, specifically African apes. The other African apes – chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas – are closer cousins to us than they are to the Asian apes: orang-utans and gibbons.

So, one way to understand what makes us human is to ask: “What makes us different from the other apes, and from the rest of the animal kingdom?” What makes us special? For instance, unlike all the other apes, we walk on two legs and this frees our hands to do all kinds of things that other apes can’t do. And (perhaps the two are connected) we have much bigger brains than the other apes.

There’s another way to interpret the question “What makes us human?” which I won’t be dealing with, although it is important. What makes ushumane? What are the qualities that we admire and aspire to: qualities that make us human as opposed to brutish?

We have big brains. Other species are marked out by other qualities. Swifts and albatrosses are spectacularly good at flying, dogs and rhinoceroses at smelling, bats at hearing, moles, aardvarks and wombats at digging. Human beings are not good at any of those things. But we do have very big brains; we are good at thinking, remembering, calculating, imagining, speaking. Other species can communicate, but no other species has true language with open-ended grammar. No other species has literature, music, art, mathematics or science. No other species makes books, or complicated machines such as cars, computers and combine harvesters. No other species devotes substantial lengths of time to pursuits that don’t contribute directly to survival or reproduction.

__________________________________________________________

Co czyni nas ludźmi?

Tłumaczenie: Małgorzata Koraszewska

Powierzchownie rzecz biorąc my, ludzie, mamy wiele wspólnego z innymi gatunkami – ale żaden inny gatunek nie robi samochodów, komputerów i kombajnów.  

Istoty ludzkie są zwierzętami. Nie jesteśmy roślinami i nie jesteśmy bakteriami, jesteśmy zwierzętami. Wśród zwierząt jesteśmy małpami człekokształtnymi, a konkretnie afrykańskimi małpami człekokształtnymi. Inne afrykańskie małpy człekokształtne – szympansy, bonobo i goryle – są bliższymi kuzynami nas niż azjatyckich małp człekokształtnych: orangutanów i gibbonów.

 

Tak więc jednym sposobem zrozumienia, co właściwie czyni nas ludźmi, jest pytanie: „Co czyni nas różnymi od innych małp człekokształtnych i od całej reszty królestwa zwierząt?” Co czyni nas wyjątkowymi? Na przykład, w odróżnieniu od wszystkich małp człekokształtnych chodzimy na dwóch nogach i to uwalnia nam ręce do robienia najrozmaitszych rzeczy, których małpy nie robią. A także (być może te dwie sprawy są powiązane) mamy mózgi większe niż inne małpy człekokształtne.

Czytaj dalej

Written By: Richard Dawkins
continue to source article at newstatesman.com

54 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Richard, it’s debatable whether religion started after farming, but I’m really struggling with your implication that WAR commenced after some humans started farming! I would be very grateful if you would clarify.
    I have bought and read all your books since the 70′s and given copies away, in particular TGD and TMOR, and I would have said, far be it from me to presume to contradict you, but I have been convinced, eg by The Better Angels of Our Nature, that war predates farming by tens or probably hundreds of thousands of years. All the best J

    • In reply to #2 by jerrysail62:

      Dear Richard, it’s debatable whether religion started after farming, but I’m really struggling with your implication that WAR commenced after some humans started farming! I would be very grateful if you would clarify.
      I have bought and read all your books since the 70′s and given copies away, in p…

      Hopefully Richard will give what would be a far better answer but I always thought that organized warfare did originate after farming and I don’t recall Pinker saying anything different in Better Angels. Did you have a specific quote in mind from his book?

      It’s oversimplifying things I’m sure but essentially before farming humans didn’t have the extra resources or organization required for war. Of course if you include nomadic tribes going on raiding parties against each other that goes back further as you say but I think Dawkins had in mind more organized warfare.

  2. Dawkins makes some unwarranted claims based on some unsupported assumptions about art in this article.

    Once you understand that “art” is anything that compels an aesthetic experience in the receiver, then it becomes impossible to say that animals have no art. Certainly, they may not create artworks as humans do, but that doesn’t mean that animals do not experience the inexplicable beauty of sunsets, flowers, other animals, etc.

    Anyone who has ever gathered seashells on a beach, in admiration of their beauty, can easily understand that “raw” art exists in nature, ready to deliver “art” experience to anyone open to the feeling. Art that people make (formalized art) works the same way as natural (raw) art.

    • In reply to #4 by McCourt:

      Dawkins makes some unwarranted claims based on some unsupported assumptions about art in this article.

      Once you understand that “art” is anything that compels an aesthetic experience in the receiver, then it becomes impossible to say that animals have no art. Certainly, they may not create artworks…

      You should read this article: Richard Dawkins: Gaps in the Mind

      What he is saying is that no other animal uses language or creates art and music the way humans do. That is not to say there won’t be vestiges of communication and expression in other animals. It would be amazing if there were some human trait that turned out to be a completely unique adaptation that didn’t have precursors in earlier humans and other animals as well.

      Also, you are confusing a moral evaluation with a statement of scientific fact. It’s a scientific fact that no animal uses language the way humans do. It’s a moral judgement (and IMO an incorrect one) to go from that fact to say animals don’t experience beauty or joy the way humans do. One which Dawkins didn’t claim in the article and from his other writings I doubt he would agree with.

      • In reply to #6 by Red Dog:

        In reply to #4 by McCourt:

        Dawkins makes some unwarranted claims based on some unsupported assumptions about art in this article.

        Once you understand that “art” is anything that compels an aesthetic experience in the receiver, then it becomes impossible to say that animals have no art. Certainly,…

        You’re confused. I did not disagree with Dawkins on his comments about LANGUAGE. Read it again.

        • In reply to #35 by McCourt:

          In reply to #6 by Red Dog:

          In reply to #4 by McCourt:

          Dawkins makes some unwarranted claims based on some unsupported assumptions about art in this article.

          Once you understand that “art” is anything that compels an aesthetic experience in the receiver, then it becomes impossible to say that anim…

          I said:

          “What he [Dawkins] is saying is that no other animal uses language or creates art and music the way humans do”

          So fine, then just remove Language from that sentence and everything I said still holds. Also, I don’t think you can really exclude talking about language if you want to have a scientific discussion of art and music. They aren’t the same thing of course, but you can’t talk about our ability to create art and music without also discussing how we use language.

          Have you read Gaps in the Mind yet?

        • In reply to #35 by McCourt:
          In reply to #4 by McCourt:
          >

          My last reply was a bit abrupt so I want to say a bit more. Let’s forget about language completely. I don’t really think we could if we were trying to have a serious discussion about art and music and human cognition but for the sake of argument let’s set language completely aside.

          I think your basic claim that

          Dawkins makes some unwarranted claims based on some unsupported assumptions about art in this article.
          Once you understand that “art” is anything that compels an aesthetic experience in the receiver, then it becomes impossible to say that animals have no art.

          Is wrong because I don’t think Dawkins is saying that. He’s not saying that other animals have NO capability for art and music just that when it comes to humans we obviously have special capabilities in that area. For Dawkins it’s no different than finding some bird that builds a very complex nest or understanding the complex dance of bees that communicates directional information in a unique way.

          If Dawkins said “the way bees use dance to communicate information is unusual in the animal kingdom and deserving of additional study” it wouldn’t be a reasonable reply to say “oh yeah but humans and other animals dance so there is nothing special about bees” It may be, in fact I think you are probably right it most likely is true that other animals have some form of art and music. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something unusual and worth studying about the way humans use art and music.

          • In reply to #38 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #35 by McCourt:
            In reply to #4 by McCourt:
            I think your basic claim that

            Dawkins makes some unwarranted claims based on some unsupported assumptions about art in this article. Once you understand that "art" is anything that compels an aesthetic experience in the receiver, then it becomes impossible to say that animals have no art.
            

            Is wrong because I don’t think Dawkins is saying that.

            What on earth are you going on about? Have you even read the piece by Dawkins in the New Statesman, linked above, yet? You don’t think Dawkins is saying something that is IN THE ARTICLE HE WROTE?

            None of your responses to me have even remotely touched on the point I was making. Please stop.

          • In reply to #42 by McCourt:

            In reply to #38 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #35 by McCourt:
            In reply to #4 by McCourt:
            I think your basic claim that

            Dawkins makes some unwarranted claims based on some unsupported assumptions about art in this article. Once you understand that “art” is anything that compels an aesthetic experience i…

            Yes, I have read the article which is why I said you should read Gaps in the Mind. My point is that you are making something discrete that is continuous. That you are saying that some vestiges of art could be found in other animals and I agree that is probably true and I think Dawkins would agree as well. And saying that doesn’t contradict anything Dawkins says in this article.

            And saying that there is something scientifically interesting about how humans use art and music does not say that humans are somehow metaphysically or ethically superior or better to other animals. It’s just an interesting scientific fact that is a good starting point for more research.

            Again it’s like the bee dance. You can say “the bee dance is unique in nature” and that doesn’t mean that no other animals dance.

          • In reply to #42 by McCourt:

            What on earth are you going on about? Have you even read the piece by Dawkins in the New Statesman, linked above, yet? You don’t think Dawkins is saying something that is IN THE ARTICLE HE WROTE?

            I realize this is beating a dead horse by now but I couldn’t resist one more point. I was re-reading Dawkins excellent book The Extended Phenotype this morning and I came across this (p. 62) which reminded me of this discussion:

            K Nelson once gave a talk at a conference entitled “Is bird song music? Well, then is it language? Well, then what is it?” Perhaps bird song is more akin to hypnotic persuasion, or as a form of drugging…

            What follows is a very interesting discussion on the difference between coercion vs. communication. But the things that struck me relevant to this discussion were:

            1) As I would have predicted (and contrary to what you seemed to be saying) Dawkins didn’t say “Of course it’s not music what a silly idea, only humans make music!”

            2) The question of language inevitably crops up when you try to have a scientific discussion of art and music in the context of biology.

  3. … we humans have much in common with other species – but no other species makes cars, computers, and combine harvesters.

    Or nuclear weapons, nerve agents and Neighbours.

    A clever species, aren’t we?

    • In reply to #5 by Mark Ribbands:

      … we humans have much in common with other species – but no other species makes cars, computers, and combine harvesters.

      Or nuclear weapons, nerve agents and Neighbours.

      A clever species, aren’t we?

      Uh, wots your point?
      Are you saying because we are capable of astonishingly destructive acts that it negates all of the amazingly (good) things humans have done? Do you only accept things that are 100% perfect? We don’t (usually!) throw out babies that aren’t perfect, do we?

      • In reply to #45 by KRKBAB:

        In reply to #5 by Mark Ribbands:

        … we humans have much in common with other species – but no other species makes cars, computers, and combine harvesters.

        Or nuclear weapons, nerve agents and Neighbours.

        A clever species, aren’t we?

        Uh, wots your point?

        I can’t speak for him, but I think that it’s worth having a sense of shame and an awareness of the potential for hubris. That is, let’s not get too full of ourselves. OTOH, it’s vital that we have visions of many better futures of varying apparent practicality.

  4. In reply to Red Dog #3
    Thank you for you answer, I don’t have any books to hand, but the word ‘war’ does not exclude pre-agricultural humans.
    Have you read “The Better Angels..”?
    There is no need to defend RD’s every sentence to the bitter end you know, we all have a sloppy moment now and again!

    • In reply to #7 by jerrysail62:

      In reply to Red Dog #3
      Thank you for you answer, I don’t have any books to hand, but the word ‘war’ does not exclude pre-agricultural humans.
      Have you read “The Better Angels..”?
      There is no need to defend RD’s every sentence to the bitter end you know, we all have a sloppy moment now and agai…

      Yes, I’ve read Better Angels. I tried searching through it on my computer for “war” but the word occurs so often that didn’t help much, but in that quick look I didn’t see anything that supported your position.

      I criticize Dawkins whenever I think he is in error (e.g. on an article about Meme theory) Sometimes he even responds back: Richard Dawkins on memes see comments 1-6.

      I just don’t think your criticism is valid, I think you are just using the word “war” differently from the way he was using it and the way most anthropologists or evolutionary psychologists like Pinker typically do.

  5. It is probably no accident that our brain started swelling like an evolutionary balloon after our hands were freed from the burden of walking and could concentrate on carrying food or manipulating tools.

    Richard,

    Do you think that bipedalism was the major hurdle that evolution had to clear to develop human levels of intelligence? Perhaps I’m biased as a software engineer, but my intuition is that the main obstacle may have been the complexity of software required.

    While other animals admittedly show some learning, as you point out in your article humans alone make books, cars and computers. It seems to me that this unique flexibility of behaviour must have come at a huge price. Presumably we had to evolve novel, sophisticated neural mechanisms that could police the genetic costs and benefits of our actions in real time?

    • In reply to #10 by bw99:

      It is probably no accident that our brain started swelling like an evolutionary balloon after our hands were freed from the burden of walking and could concentrate on carrying food or manipulating tools.

      Richard,

      Do you think that bipedalism was the major hurdle that evolution had to clear to deve…

      I hope Richard answers but I doubt he thinks it’s all about walking upright either. When you think about it, there are obviously many issues associated with language and abstract thought: recursion, infinite expressions, rules of inference, etc. Also, those things demonstrate a high degree of uniformity across cultures, as far as I know for example there aren’t some languages that handle arbitrary nesting of clauses and some that don’t, they all do it.

      I’m actually reading a paper right now called Natural Language and Natural Selection by Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom that goes into these issues in depth and presents the arguments why (contrary to what people like S. Gould claimed) language ability is almost certainly one or more adaptations driven by natural selection.

      • In reply to #11 by Red Dog:

        I doubt he thinks it’s all about walking upright either. When you think about it, there are obviously many issues associated with language and abstract thought

        I think we’re talking at cross purposes. I agree that there were many important adaptations after bipedalism. I’m not doubting that at all.

        My point is a more subtle one about how difficult it was for evolution to ‘find’ each of those adaptations. In a given population, we might expect adaptation A to arise in an average of 1000 generations, whereas adaptation B may take an average of 100,000 generations to arise. For example, the eye has notoriously evolved convergently many times, but it looks like human-level intelligence has evolved only once.

        There are many reasons for these differences, for example what selection pressures are operating – moles are unlikely to evolve advanced eyes. But one key reason for the how easily evolution can ‘find’ an adaptation must be the complexity of that adaptation. The more complex the adaptation, the more mutations required and the less likely evolution is to find the narrow trail uphill that leads to it, especially when you bear in mind that all intermediates must be reproductively more successful than their competitors.

        When Richard says “It is probably no accident that our brain started swelling like an evolutionary balloon after our hands were freed”, that suggests to me that perhaps he views intelligence as fairly ‘easy’ to find once we have free hands. From my experience of trying to replicate human intelligence in computer software, my gut feeling is that there were likely to have been some software adaptations relating to intelligence that were very ‘hard’ for evolution to find. I am curious if he agrees and if so, what he thinks these ‘difficult’ adaptations might have been.

        • In reply to #17 by bw99:

          In reply to #11 by Red Dog:

          I doubt he thinks it’s all about walking upright either. When you think about it, there are obviously many issues associated with language and abstract thought

          I think we’re talking at cross purposes. I agree that there were many important adaptations after bipedalism….

          You might be interested in that paper by Pinker I linked to in another comment. He goes into some of those issues, for example was language just one highly improbable mutation or was it a bunch of smaller gradual mutations. I find the intellectual history of this issue really interesting. For example, I never liked Stephen J. Gould but I wasn’t sure why, at the time I didn’t know enough biology to evaluate what he said about Spandrels, etc. but he just seemed kind of pompous. From that paper and other writings I now realize I was totally right to dislike him, the amount of nonsense he has spewed on this topic and the “non overlapping magisteria” is truly epic. I also find it fascinating how much people in the “soft sciences” have resisted “intrusion” by people with an evolutionary background like Pinker (and Chomsky before him although Chomsky and Pinker also disagree on some issues, he goes into it in the paper).

  6. What makes us different is our superior intellect what makes us human is our genes

    It sounds simple because it is all this vague talk of intelligence, tool use, language, art and morality as defining what a human is, is unnecessary and erroneous.

    • In reply to #13 by AmbientMorality:

      What makes us different is our superior intellect what makes us human is our genes

      It sounds simple because it is all this vague talk of intelligence, tool use, language, art and morality as defining what a human is, is unnecessary and erroneous.

      So you think all these issues have already been solved? That there are no puzzles as to HOW language evolved? E.g., was it one adaptation or many? Was the adaptation initially for communication or abstract thinking? If you say the adaptation was for communication then who did the first human to have the adaptation communicate with?

      There are countless unsolved problems here and the only way to solve them if you believe in science is to use talk (hopefully not vague) about intelligence, tool use, language, etc.

  7. In reply to #12 by aroundtown:

    I pulled my previous post since it displayed my general displeasure as regards the human condition generally, I seem to have inherited that trait in common with George Carlin. I did want to comment on the post though. I do wonder what those hominids of the past might have displayed as pertains to…

    One thing I’ve never understood is why people insist on wringing their hands and gnashing their teeth about how unusual and ironic it is that our superior intelligence (or whatever you want to call our ability for language and other things that exceeds what other animals can do) somehow didn’t result in a paradise of perfect well being but instead created all sorts of new problems. As if that is surprising or somehow it reflects some inherent moral flaw in humans.

    It’s not surprising to me at all on the contrary it is perfectly what we would expect and what my guess is we will find happened on other planets with intelligent life if we ever find them.

    We evolved our intelligence over billions of years. In those billions of years the ecosystem that we live in got to a point where things were highly balanced and stable. Not because nature is somehow inherently good but just because that is the way we expect evolution to work. And when one species develops a capability that makes it a super predator, able to dominate all other life on the planet we would also expect that this will cause chaos and will disrupt all those nice stable balanced ecosystems. Which is what is happening.

    The reaction shouldn’t be “oh this just shows how evil/immoral/stupid humanity is” but rather this was expected and we better understand it and get off our butts and start doing something about it. I hate that kind of “oh humans are so evil compared to wonderful mother nature” hippy crap because besides being hippy crap (no offense to hippies, some of my best friends…) it’s defeating. It’s what the climate change deniers want is for us to shake our heads and give up on the chance of doing something because after all humans are so bad what can we expect and we should just leave it up to God which I’m sure most people would agree is also crap.

  8. I can’t help but feel that double standards are being used here. By Mr Dawkins own words there is not a lot of evidence that humans were much smarter than other apes today. He believes they had language, and he’s not alone in that, but he does not have good evidence. This looks like benefit of hindsight thinking.

    To actually demonstrate this, and measure the level of ‘specialness’ we’d need to try damn hard to teach culture to other species, like apes, dolphins, and elephants. And then see how hard we can push them. We’ve only just started to do that, and in only half arsed ways to far. Attempting to teach them human culture isn’t really the best way of going about that….

    • In reply to #16 by ANTIcarrot:

      I can’t help but feel that double standards are being used here. By Mr Dawkins own words there is not a lot of evidence that humans were much smarter than other apes today.

      Where did he say that? He mentioned things like cars, computers, combine harvesters, that seems to me like a “lot of evidence”.

      He believes they had language, and he’s not alone in that, but he does not have good evidence.

      He has lots of good evidence. He just didn’t go into all of it here and a lot of it isn’t in his particular field but if you read any of Pinker’s books for example there is overwhelming evidence of how different humans are from other animals in regard to language.

      This looks like benefit of hindsight

      You could kind of say that about any evolutionary analysis.

      To actually demonstrate this, and measure the level of ‘specialness’ we’d need to try damn hard to teach culture to other species, like apes, dolphins, and elephants. And then see how hard we can push them. We’ve only just started to do that,

      If you were writing in the 1970′s that would be true but it isn’t now. In the 70′s there were all sorts of experiments where people adopted primates and tried to teach them sign language. Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would be Human is a great book and movie on the topic. The idea was that the reason primates don’t use language the way humans do was because they couldn’t make the vocalizations so teach them American Sign Language (ASL). ASL is a language in the formal sense just as English and other natural languages. The evidence was that none of the primates learned actual grammar. They learned how to make signs and string them together to make requests and declarations but they didn’t learn grammar.

      And since then there has been a lot of work on the topic. As a responsible scientist Dawkins is careful not to claim too much because the whole field of human cognition is so new. But all of the people working in the field that I have any respect for such as Pinker take it as a given that there is one or more adaptations that enabled language and that are unique to humans. Here is a paper Pinker wrote on the topic:

      Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom: Language and Natural Selection

      • In reply to #18 by Red Dog:

        >

        Very interesting link. Thanks. I join with you in disliking Gould. I am also not a Chomsky enthusiast either….and yet…. I think the brain growth hypothesis for creating at least a capacity for grammar (if not its form) may yet have its day. I wrote you a post in the thread linked to in #23 here latest theory

        • In reply to #24 by phil rimmer:

          In reply to #18 by Red Dog:
          Very interesting link. Thanks. I join with you in disliking Gould. I am also not a Chomsky enthusiast either….and yet…. I think the brain growth hypothesis for creating at least a capacity for grammar (if not its form) may yet have its day. I wrote you a post in th…

          I just noticed you requested some links to the Chomsky videos I mentioned in that other thread. Here they are:

          Chomsky vs. Skinner

          That one is more for historical interest but if you are interested in the history of psychology I think it’s fascinating. I always try to say good things about Skinner because — even though I think he was clearly wrong about a lot of things — I also think he was sometimes unfairly maligned as a fascist and I think he also did some excellent work and if nothing else he rescued American psychology from Freudianism which was a step in the right direction. But man oh man I never realized what a little prick he was. Just listen to him in that video (it’s a collection of clips from Chomsky and Skinner). It’s outrageous the things he says about Chomsky, he boasts about not reading Chomsky’s very substantive critique of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior book. He just makes snide little personal attacks on Chomsky that aren’t even clever let alone relevant to the issues. He really comes off as smug and very unscientific in those videos. It’s one of the many things I like about Chomsky. He never sinks to the gutter even though people who criticize him frequently do, he always sticks to the issues and the facts.

          But as I said that one is just historical interest, here are the videos I referred to in my comment. None of these are political, all purely about Linguistics, psychology, etc.

          Chomsky: What is Language and Why Does it Matter?

          Noam Chomsky – “The machine, the ghost, and the limits of understanding

          Noam Chomsky: Language and Beyond Three Problems

          • In reply to #25 by Red Dog:

            Thanks Red Dog. I’ll be checking out your links tomorrow evening.

            Skinner did important early work, but I’d heard he wasn’t the nicest of chaps and his behaviourist arguments against linguistic nativism are wretched, whereas Chomsky has always struck me as civilised and his arguments against the behaviourist position rather good. I’m not surprised the confrontation brought out the worst in Skinner.

            My disappointment in Chomsky has always been that he never seemed to keep up with the pointers becoming available from neuroscience, not that his prodigious analytical work wasn’t valuable.

            Are you an out and out nativist?

          • In reply to #26 by phil rimmer:

            My disappointment in Chomsky has always been that he never seemed to keep up with the pointers becoming available from neuroscience, not that his prodigious analytical work wasn’t valuable.

            I’m not sure which pointers from neuroscience you are talking about but in general I agree with Chomsky’s position on neuroscience and I think Pinker does as well. I think Chomsky would say something like while neuroscience is unquestionably relevant and deserving more study, the idea that we are going to be able to completely or even mostly understand complex behaviors such as language (or logic, set theory, math, intentional reasoning, etc.) ONLY or even primarily by studying neuroscience is wrong. Someone else made a similar comment somewhere on the site recently, where he raised the analogy between MS Word and the CPU of the computer.

            If you were trying to re-engineer the design (the systems, sub-systems, logic, etc.) of an application like MS Word there is no way you would do that by taking a core dump of the RAM in the computer from microsecond to microsecond. The conceptual gap between machine code and bits and the abstractions (objects, rules, high level programming languages like Java or C++) that the designers of Word used are just too big.

            I think Chomsky (and Pinker, Dennett, and others in the evo-psych and cognitive science camp) would argue the same applies in language. We need to study language at higher levels of abstraction than just neurons, which is what Chomsky does, e.g. by trying to develop formalisms (things like X-Bar theory) that account for the formal nature of language and correspond to the way humans actually use language. One we find such formalisms then we can work down to figure out how they are represented in neurons.

            BTW, I realize this kind of work never goes in one direction. So as people develop things like X Bar theory they also need to be informed about advances in neourbiology. For example, if some Linguistic theory postulates something we know would be virtually impossible to implement with neurons that is evidence the theory is not true.

            Are you an out and out nativist?

            I assume you mean from a Linguistic standpoint not political. I never like labels but to the extent I understand what Nativism in Linguistics means: that there is some underlying mechanism or module (which we can call Universal Grammar) that all humans must have. And that learning language is a mapping from the specific rules of a natural language to the UG then yes I am a Nativist.

            I think Chomsky and Pinker would say that the evidence is just overwhelming for Nativism in the form I’ve expressed it above. There is of course a lot more to language but from the data we have on how people learn and use language (and data such as the way identical twins raised apart are virtually identical on language skills) that Nativism of some form is a virtual certainty. As certain as anything can be in a field as new as cognitive science.

  9. I begun to worry that not only fast cultural innovation is a significant part of our humanity as innovation spreads worldwide “easily”, but what concerns me is why don´t values such as human rights spread so widely as technology for instances (shall we consider culture from a materialitic point of view and “spirutual” ?(kind of a heideggerian diference).

    From a “spiritual” point of view “science is not only a body of knowledge, but a way of thinking too” as Carl Sagan put it. I value not only cultural innovation(of course), but the “spiritual” part of cultural values as an important characteristic that defines us as humans and hope we can really become more humane from this point of view and more aware of our humanity too (do we need to learn about our human condition too to become more aware of it?).

    • In reply to #19 by maria melo:

      I begun to worry that not only fast cultural innovation is a significant part of our humanity as innovation spreads worldwide “easily”, but what concerns me is why don´t values such as human rights spread so widely as technology for instances (shall we consider culture from a materialitic point of v…

      Innovations such as technology and machinery are quite different than innovative concepts like human rights. For the most part technology fits in with our evolutionary drives. We can eat, sleep, and have more and better sex thanks to technology. So it’s natural that humans will embrace and disseminate technology just as it’s natural we will end up over eating if we aren’t careful since our bodies evolved for environments where famine was a much bigger survival risk than diabetes.

      Concepts such as human rights, feminism, peace, etc. are more difficult because to some extent they go against some of our natural drives. Saying that doesn’t mean that we can’t overcome these drives, we do that all the time, you could argue that is what society is for, what Hobbes called the Leviathan, to stop us from resorting to our tribal natures.

      One of the things I loved about Pinker’s last book Better Angels is he does a good job of making the case that we shouldn’t be as hopeless in this area as we sometimes are. That when you look at where we were a few thousand or even a few hundred years ago we’ve made incredible progress.

  10. Humans are intelligent – but so are other animals, intelligence alone doesn’t make humans supreme, We walk on two legs, but we have done that for millions of years while not being so supreme for most of that time, We have language, but every other species communicates to each other with some kind of sound, colour or chemical language…..So what makes us supreme…Our Social cohesion, manipulation of our environment and our control of fire (energy) also on a personal level our control of tricky and flowing Emotions…Most carnivores kill without emotion….but humans adopted carnivorous behaviour as a secondary lifestyle choice….that decision conflicts with our genetic inheritance and emotional stance as passive vegetarians and sensitive naked apes…..we do have some conscience about killing animals etc…..Finally Humans are conscious …but so are many higher mammals…though humans have the ability to reach out beyond their consciousness, beyond their language and imagine concepts, create images of dreams and visionary ideas and narratives. That could be the difference between humans and other animals. Humans are maybe already evolving towards a new higher bio consciousness.. we communicate by conceptual ideas like written script and images that no other animal is party to…

  11. For me the key to human intelligence is the creation of the opportunity for cultural firmware to be implanted in the first few years of life. Freeing hands to be brilliant tools may well be a trigger for brain growth, brains after all evolved entirely to facilitate movement. The latest theory about the possible effects of brain growth on brain structures implicates evolutionary and early childhood brain growth in the process of exuberant synaptogenisis. This simple mechanism may or may not prove to account for this period of wild over provision of brain interconnections, but it is an elegant and productive hypothesis and exuberant synaptogenesis certainly happens (And it is also unique at this level amongst primates.) . This process of rapid connection making has run its course by age two or so and, as the synaptogenesis peters out, a rising process of pruning these excessive links begins with ferocious rapidity tailing off in different areas of the brain at different times pre and post puberty. The argument goes that the pruning is directed in great part by environmental and therefore cultural stimulus. The unusual levels of late wiring humans are subject to (along with other collaborating processes. Can’t put my usual Victoria Horner link in here. Its gone.) facilitates culture and cultural machines, like the thinking tools of language, logic and mathematics. These formal modes of thought exist in an evolutionary type environment of their own and given the unlimited reproduction of them can evolve and refine in utility and adapt with great rapidity.

    Our intelligence is in no small part due to these cultural machines. Our inventive capacity takes these reason and logic sharpening tools and adds to them a metaphorical capacity that may also have been greatly enhanced by this period of explosive brain growth, which led to a great cross coupling of brain regions. Processes observed by one region may stimulate another. (Going forward or up is good. Falling down or back is bad.) Language is rich in metaphor and levers itself into abstract concepts as a result.

    40,000BC is significant for one other thing than just the flourishing of art. According to Caspari and Lee’s analysis in 2004 grandparents flourished rapidly around that time. Before that period old folk probably perished through being unable to fend for themselves. Over a short period they suddenly became 400% more numerous perhaps by becoming useful. It has always been my contention that this is a strong indicator of a rich language becoming available at that time, facilitating the transmission of accumulated wisdom (and probably later nonsense ,when you had run out of new wisdom) in exchange for food. The need for childcare works its way into that scenario quite well also. Its also significant that our unwired brain infants (and then over-wired but unrefined) are uniquely helpless compared with other primates. Extended childcare requirements are now met by the articulate and well fed old.

  12. Sorry if someone have noticed that I quote this often;

    (cultural transmission)

    “INTELLIGENCE
    AND REASONING
    _
    Some believe that science is of recent
    origin, others that it is as old as the
    world. The former affirm that its tech¬
    niques were taught by “initiation” and
    go so far as to maintain that every
    technique was revealed and implanted
    by a particular prophet. But there are
    others who think that man discovers
    techniques with the help of Intelligence
    and that it is reasoning which enables
    the mind to acquire understanding . . .
    When one discovers, by reasoning, a
    law or principle, one must proceed from
    the general to the particular. At the
    same time, experiment and reflection
    allow us to compare one thing with
    another and so obtain knowledge in
    detail…
    Time is limitless and successive
    generations traverse only stages. Each
    passes on its heritage to the next,
    which develops and enriches it. That
    is the true metempsychosis, not the
    soul, which simply passes from one
    body to another.
    Bibliography of the Works
    of al-Razi”_

    Al-Biruni

    So even more important than hindu religion and it´s reicarnation of souls into bodies is cultural transmission or ” the true metempsychosis”, this seems very significative to me.

    We seem to be always on giants shoulders, not that the average people is perhaps too intelligent, and yes, it would not be possible to achieve “cultural progress” in one generation.

    “Concepts such as human rights, feminism, peace, etc. are more difficult because to some extent they go against some of our natural drives.”

    “natural drives” it seems a trap concept.

    Could it be that only “superficially “we humans have much in common with other species”, aren´t we superficially good at cultural transmission too, even among our own human fellows ?

    • In reply to #27 by maria melo:

      “natural drives” it seems a trap concept.

      When it comes to science I think the only “trap concept” is the concept of a “trap concept”. (Sorry to people who have heard me say the following many times in the past) Science needs to go where the theories and data take us. The real “trap concepts” aren’t the science but the way that stupid people (racists, sexists, homophobes, etc.) may misinterpret them. And stupid people shouldn’t be a barrier to good science. Stupid people will do stupid things no matter what.

      Pinker goes into this quite a bit in some of his books. Saying that men have certain tendencies from nature to want to dominate, for patriarchy, etc. doesn’t mean any of that stuff is correct. It’s exactly the same as saying that nature gives us certain tendencies to over eat sugar and fat. That doesn’t mean that the thing to do is to just give up and go eat all the sugar and fat you want, it means you use that information to better inform your own personal choices and the policies of society to bring about a society that has the moral positions we value such as justice and feminism (at least those are some of my values).

  13. Not always I can push the button “reply”.
    Previous comment: You are probably right, patriarchy maybe “natural” for masculine gender, but is the oppsite tendency of female towards feminism “anti-natural” ?

    • In reply to #34 by maria melo:

      Not always I can push the button “reply”.
      Previous comment: You are probably right, patriarchy maybe “natural” for masculine gender, but is the oppsite tendency of female towards feminism “anti-natural” ?

      My point is that worrying about some feature if it’s “natural” or not is a waste of time. Actually, I just realized I was saying something earlier that seems like it contradicts that so I better say a bit more.

      Trying to understand human psychology is a legitimate goal of science. As we do that we should never use arguments like the following: “Concept X could be misinterpreted to support social policy Y and we all know Y is evil so we better stop considering X as a legitimate scientific theory” An example would be sociobiology is X and Eugenics and Racism are Y.

      And when it comes to social policy claiming that a particular social norm is or isn’t “natural” is IMO a waste of time. It doesn’t matter because lots of things are “natural” (e.g. rape) that we clearly don’t consider moral.

      So to answer your question, from what I know I don’t think Feminism is somehow “not natural”. I think you can make a case looking at the way women support each other in tribal cultures that a lot of feminism is natural. But the bigger point is that I don’t think we should care either way. Even if someone came up with a very strong theory that showed tribal women were always barefoot, pregnant, and standing by their men it wouldn’t change my core value that men and women should be treated equally and that women should never be prohibited from having some responsibility solely because of their gender.

  14. Did not enjoy this article much. Statements about human beings being “very special” sounds very populist and do not help to promote a bit of humility in the world about our humble place in the biosphere and utter dependance. I recall reading sections of Richard’s books (cannot remember which one) making the point that there is nothing special about humans and the ability of bats to catch insects using sonar in pitch darkness is just as amazing as anything we can do. And linking our specialness to Art and Literature is as bad as linking Religion to Morality (IMO).
    Art is one of those things (like Religion) that cannot be criticized and claims special powers. I have spent many hours studying classical guitar and love to read so hope I am not a philistine but I really think the role and power of Art is much overrated. It is OK but cannot think of any Art experience that really effected my life very much well nothing compared to a to the empowerment I have got from a good non-fiction experience anyway. Hate to criticize Mr Dawkins but as you can probably guess I dislike human exceptional-ism almost as much as religious superstitions so this is my natural reaction to human beings being “very special”.

  15. There is a matter about evolution that I can’t find a satisfactory explanation. It is the concept of adaptation. How exactly a species adapts to environmental change? What is the process (mechanism) which enables genes to change the form of a body part or develop a new one? For example, how is an “eye” first developed? how a leg turns to a fin? How genes get the message from environment? Does somebody know?

    • In reply to #44 by YesUCan:

      There is a matter about evolution that I can’t find a satisfactory explanation. It is the concept of adaptation. How exactly a species adapts to environmental change? What is the process (mechanism) which enables genes to change the form of a body part or develop a new one? For example, how is an…

      Genes don’t “get messages” from the environment in that sense. So it’s not like you have a giraffe that needs to get food on higher branches and somehow the giraffe signals it’s genes so that the next baby it has has a longer neck.

      Instead there are random errors in copying genes. Most of those errors make the organism less likely to survive and so those changes don’t last. But once in a while a change happens that is for the better. The organism that has that mutated gene reproduces more than other organisms that don’t and soon the mutation becomes the new normal for that species.

      So in the Giraffe example there will be various mutations, a giraffe with a shorter neck, a giraffe with no spots, a giraffe with a longer neck. The first two mutations won’t be as succesful as the existing giraffes so their change won’t last. But the last mutation will be a bit more successful and will have more babies than other giraffes. Her children will also be more successful and leave her more grand children with longer necks and so on and eventually all the giraffes have longer necks.

      If you are thinking “not very efficient” or “it must take forever to get to something as complex as an eye that way” you are correct. That’s why it takes millions of years for complex organisms to evolve. Dawkins has some good discussion of this in his book Climbing Mount Improbable.

      • In reply to #46 by Red Dog:

        Natural selection is very logical and stands as an undisputable fact. When and where environment becomes unfavorable for some species, they go extinct. Also, sometimes a disbalance between a predator and prey may cause a species to disappear. Thus, extinction (natural selection) explains existence and destruction of species.

        However, if we take evolution as a continuous change, evolution theory brings forward mutations, which are random in nature. This point is controversial.

        First, we see species (like the horse: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Horseevolution.png) that evolve in a long time (30-50 million years), yet changes in their phenotype show in a sense a direction. It doesn’t look like some random changes are happening. My inference is that there may be natural evolutionary law(s) taking the organism to different or progressive states. If a species doesn’t go extinct it may continue along a possible path under stable ecological conditions.

        Second, evolutionary process takes a long time. Again, I’d like to repeat my view that I put forward in another discussion: If we look at the evolution of the horse, we see a gradual change in about 50 million years. I would expect such a long period from human evolution. When we examine evolutionary changes in human ancestry, we see fast and remarkable physical transformation, leave alone evolution of human intelligence. In the last 1 million years literally ape turns to human. Pretty fast.. There should be some explanation. I believe there should be a general law governing the length of time required for evolutionary processes to increase complexity of the life form. Time dimension of evolution doesn’t seem very compatible with mutations. (Of course if mutations are errors that occur randomly).

        As a result, I believe natural selection explains existence and destruction of species but doesn’t help explain continous changes of species. Perhaps mutation is not random but a slow natural process and responsible for the evolution of organisms.

        • In reply to #49 by YesUCan:
          Mutations are random. Changes are not because survival is not. You don’t seem to understand the basics which you could read about instead of asking for explanations here. Also, you seemed to be obsessed with apes changing to humans so quickly, but horses taking so long to change gradually. But I don’t think you get that we are apes and really not very different from our closest cousins at all. I’m sure a horse would think like you if it could. Back to the kiddie table.

        • In reply to #49 by YesUCan:
          My inference is that there may be natural evolutionary law(s) taking the organism to different or progressive states….Perhaps mutation is not random but a slow natural process …

          You mean “Goddidit” ?

        • In reply to #49 by YesUCan:

          I believe there should be a general law governing the length of time required for evolutionary processes to increase complexity of the life form.

          This is a very contentious point of view! Sometimes evolution is quick (e.g. The pepper moth), sometimes it’s slow. It just depends on the type of threat presented and the advantage conferred by a particular mutation. It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ type of situation as there are many variables.

  16. In reply to Yesucan,

    Its easy to look at the animal kingdom and figure out what other species do humans resemble, we look more like monkeys than we do elephants but we look even more like apes than monkeys yet us mammals, monkeys apes and elephants look nothing like fish but we all share a common ancestry we have changed our appearance over billions of years to suit our environment, scientists use DNA analysis to categorize species and build a “family tree” that basically begins with microscopic sized simple life form at the start and more and more complex life forms are shown further down the tree.

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