Want to spook your trick-or-treaters tonight? NASA has you covered. The space agency has put together the ultimate Halloween playlist, a compilation of creepy sounds picked up as radio emissions from satellites and spacecraft instruments throughout the universe, Space.com reports. Squealing howls, unnerving staccato pulses, and the eerie rush of ghostly winds will give your candy seekers wide eyes, raised arm hair, and a ratcheted heart rate. Take a listen, if you dare.
I kind of wish that such a ridiculous beast actually existed – rather charming, even if preposterous.
Remains of various extinct elephants were known by Europeans for centuries, but were generally interpreted, based on biblical accounts, as the remains of legendary creatures such as behemoths or giants. It was also theorised that they were remains of modern elephants that had been brought to Europe during the Roman Republic, for example the war elephants of Hannibal and Pyrrhus of Epirus, or animals that had wandered north. The first woolly mammoth remains studied by European scientists were examined by Hans Sloane in 1728 and consisted of fossilised teeth and tusks from Siberia. Sloane was the first to recognise that the remains belonged to elephants.
Sloane turned to another biblical explanation for the presence of elephants in the Arctic, asserting that they had been buried during the Great Flood, and that Siberia had previously been tropical prior to a drastic climate change. Others interpreted Sloane’s conclusion slightly differently, arguing the flood had carried elephants from the Tropics to the Arctic. Sloane’s paper was based on travellers’ descriptions and a few scattered bones collected in Siberia and Britain. He discussed the question of whether or not the remains were from elephants, but drew no conclusions. In 1738, the German zoologist Johann Philipp Breyne argued that mammoth fossils represented some kind of elephant. He could not explain why a tropical animal would be found in such a cold area as Siberia, and suggested that they might have been transported there by the Great Flood. In 1796, the French anatomist Georges Cuvier was the first to identify the woolly mammoth remains not as modern elephants transported to the Arctic, but as an entirely new species. He argued this species had gone extinct and no longer existed, a concept that was not widely accepted at the time.
When excavated, this mammoth was almost intact and retained skin, muscles, and innards. It was found in 1900 at the Berezovka River, a tributary of the Kolyma.
see also: http://www.donsmaps.com/bcmammoth.html
Mummified Steppe Bison from 43,000 ya during a warm period, Kenai Peninsula. Displayed at University of Alaska Museum of the North
An excellent example of the geosciences applied to controversial questions concerning evolution of hominids. Awe-inspiring!
Messinian age and savannah environment of the possible hominin Graecopithecus from Europe
Dating fossil hominids and reconstructing their environments is critically important for understanding human evolution. Here we date the potentially oldest hominin, Graecopithecus freybergi from Europe and constrain the environmental conditions under which it thrived. For the Graecopithecus-bearing Pikermi Formation of Attica/Greece, a saline aeolian dust deposit of North African (Sahara) provenance, we obtain an age of 7.37–7.11 Ma, which is coeval with a dramatic cooling in the Mediterranean region at the Tortonian-Messinian transition. Palaeobotanic proxies demonstrate C4-grass dominated wooded grassland-to-woodland habitats of a savannah biome for the Pikermi Formation. Faunal turnover at the Tortonian-Messinian transition led to the spread of new mammalian taxa along with Graecopithecus into Europe. The type mandible of G. freybergi from Pyrgos (7.175 Ma) and the single tooth (7.24 Ma) from Azmaka (Bulgaria) represent the first hominids of Messinian age from continental Europe. Our results suggest that major splits in the hominid family occurred outside Africa.
For “objections to” the notion that the origin of “humankind” could have taken place outside Africa:
Note: The insistence of an “either Europe (or Asia) or Africa” as the “home” of humankind is so social typically irrational. Silly! It’s not like archaic apes had a map of the continents with political-geographic boundaries printed on it, with instructions like, “Evolution is forbidden to occur on both sides of this body of water; no fair “living in the vicinity of” (in the region surrounding this feature). Not recognizing “socially designated” boundaries will confound and disturb future neurotypicals and cause bizarre arguments.”
Female Aspergers are often described as “Chameleon-like” in the propensity to take on the psychic and behavioral aspects of a social environment in order to (at least temporarily) hide in plain sight. This supposedly accounts for the common undiagnosed-state of female Aspies.
This is a gross misunderstanding of what Chameleons actually “do.”
Male Chameleons change to bright colors (red-yellow) to stand out against a natural green-brown environment. They are “showing off” in a mating display or other communication.
This obviously is not a correct analogy to the real or imaginary attempt by some female Aspergers to blend into the social scene.
Camouflage in it’s active form in Homo sapiens is a male specialty.
Modern humans have developed camouflage predominantly as a predatory strategy in military actions or in hunting. A vast (and extremely serious) subculture exists that promotes and supplies camo gear for use by civilians and professionals. Business is booming!
Camouflage has become a cult fashion bonanza: Pepto-Pink is mandatory for girls, which defeats the function of camouflage, unless one is trapped in the Pink Hell of American female fashion.
So what are Asperger females doing to survive Neurotypical Social Hell?
(Do you really think that we would tell anyone?)
There are quite a few people who are so desperate for attention that they fake serious illness or claim to have been victims of crime or abuse. Some people set up foundations or charities whose heart tugging sales pitches are inventive lies and spend the donations on themselves. Hackers cause millions in damage, for the high of secret power. There are powerful people who exhibit high risk behavior because they believe themselves to be exempt from common morality, and if caught, are thoroughly pleased by the negative press. American culture has always been oriented to attention at any cost: humiliation, danger, stunts and scandal, public displays of ignorance, prejudice and hate. In fact, one could look at the history of civilization as one vast parade of attention-getting behavior.
Everyone wants attention in one form or another, except Asperger types. I’m going out on a limb here, but I think this dislike of attention is basic to “who we are.” It seems normal to me to avoid random attention, but I also know how odd our lack of attention-seeking seems to social typical humans. In fact, we are often accused of being egocentric for a lack of egocentricity: it’s astounding. Many of the states of being human that are supposedly admired – honesty, self-sufficiency, intelligence, thoughtfulness, ability to focus on work, a practical approach to justice and egalitarianism – are in truth values despised by social typical people.
How can this be so? Because the highest value in society is to be noticed, not for anything in particular, but for being someone who is noticed by droves of fans. It is the “noticing” that is important in and of itself. “Being noticed” can be quantified – the number of hits on a photo or video: the content is irrelevant, but the numbers count. The internet and smart phones have not caused the phenomenon of craving attention. These are gadgets that have unleashed embarrassing behavior. It’s become a life-threatening tragedy to not be noticed.
So why are Asperger individuals so damn unsocial? We want people to notice our work and to pay attention when we succeed at producing something of value.
If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town. And they shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear of it and fear.
The Bible is a pathological human-hating document that advocates unbelievable levels of brutality and injustice. Where do people think child abuse comes from?
The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open. (Hosea 13:16)
Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. (1 Samuel 15:3)
Human self-domestication – the development of an idea
Charles Darwin was the first to systematically examine biological changes in species under artificial breeding conditions. Even though he did not refer to the question of human self-domestication in his two volumes on Variations of Animals and Plants under Domestication , Darwin proposed clear definitional criteria for the process of domestication. He emphasized (1) that the domestication of animals is more than taming, (2) that it represents a goal-oriented process for human purposes, (3) that the variability of physical and ‘mental’ characteristics is greater in domesticated species than in their wild ancestors, including the occurrence of dwarfism and gigantism, (4) that the behavioural plasticity and educability of domesticated species is greater, and (5) that the brain size of domesticated animals is smaller than that of their wild ancestors’.
In spite of these unequivocal definitional criteria, Darwin was remarkably vague regarding the possibility that humans could have undergone domestication. In The Decent of Man , he wrote the following (the most critical phrases are highlighted in italics by the author): “It is, nevertheless, an error to speak of man, even if we look only to the conditions to which he has been exposed, as ‘far more domesticated’ (Blumenbach 1865) than any other animal. … In another and much more important respect, man differs widely from any strictly domesticated animal; for his breeding has never long been controlled, (this is not true! The social hierarchy is a reproductive selection machine!) either by methodical or unconscious selection. No race or body of men has been so completely subjugated by other men, as that certain individuals should be preserved, and thus unconsciously selected, from somehow excelling in utility to their masters. Nor have certain male and female individuals been intentionally picked out and matched, except in the well known case of the Prussian grenadiers;” (p. 29) … By contrast, in another paragraph Darwin stated: “We might, therefore, expect that civilized men, who in one sense are highly domesticated, would be more prolific than wild men. It is also probable that the increased fertility of civilised nations would become, as with our domestic animals, an inherited character …” (p. 45–46). (Darwin was a man of his time and class; likely oblivious to de facto social selection. People married and reproduced within their “proper place” on the pyramid.
With respect to brain size Darwin argued, however, that in contrast to domesticated animals the human brain and skull has increased over time. Nevertheless, in the chapter on human races, Darwin reiterates that “man in many respects may be compared with those animals which have long been domesticated, …” (p. 178); and later: “With man no such question can arise, for he cannot be said to have been domesticated at any particular period” (p. 183). And finally: “With our domestic animals a new race can readily be formed by carefully matching the varying offspring from a single pair, or even from a single individual possessing some new character; but most of our races have been formed, not intentionally from selected pair, but unconsciously by the preservation of many individuals which have varied, however slightly, in some useful or desired manner” (p. 188). In summary, although Darwin did not hold a clear position concerning the possibility that domestication could have taken place in homo sapiens, he pointed to the fact that no scientific proof in favour of such a hypothesis existed, particularly, due to a lack of goal-directedness or conscious selection of traits. However, he also made clear that humans might share some characteristics typical of domesticated animals such as increased fertility.
In the biological literature following Darwin, the term “domestication” became increasingly poorly defined. The criterion of intentional and goal-directed selection, which according to Darwin’s definition was critical for domestication, was largely replaced, at least with respect to humans, by the equation of culture and civilisation with domestication. (One example of intentional goal directedness: The Harem – females selected for social position, connection to allies or subjugated nations, tameness and beauty and continually replenished with youthful baby producers. A broad “blood” base (genetic pool) was available: a veritable farm for producing “top males” for the continuation of a dynasty.
An extensive evaluation of the topic was put forward by Eugen Fischer in his essay on Die Rassenmerkmale des Menschen als Domestikationserscheinungen (“The racial characteristics of man as a result of domestication”, 1914) . A couple of years later, Fischer became known for his publication of Grundriß der menschlichen Erblichkeitslehre und Rassenhygiene (“Outline of human genetics and racial hygiene”), which he edited together with Erwin Baur and Fritz Lenz in 1921 ; all authors later became leading authorities in Nazi eugenics and supported the legalisation of sterilisation and dismantling of welfare institutions to reinstitute the laws of natural selection .
( A prime human conceit that has ravaged the planet: we are so intelligent that our blunders-efforts at reshaping natural processes and entire ecologies are de facto improvements on nature. WE ARE NOT THAT SMART!)
In his essay on the domestication of man, Fischer suggested that domestication should be defined as a condition in which “the nutrition and reproduction has been influenced over a number of generations by humans” (author’s translation). In line with these greatly relaxed definitional criteria of domestication, Fischer reasoned that humankind should be considered domesticated from the beginning of its existence. (We were never wild animals?) Fischer considered racial differences to be the result of domestication, because “almost all characteristics of human races could be found in domesticated animals, except for the low variability of the external ear and the lack of dappling of the skin or hair.” Interestingly, Fischer regarded blond hair, blue eyes, and bright skin colour of Europeans as signs of domestication-induced partial albinism, as well as, dwarfism and gigantism in some populations, racial differences concerning the disposition for obesity, temperament, character and intelligence. Even “the permanent female breast indicates domestication much like the udder of domesticated cattle” (author’s translation) . However, the point that “Aryans” should be carriers of outstanding signs of domestication was apparently overlooked, a point to which I will return in the discussion. Remarkably, however, the very same attitude towards domestication and racial hygiene including support of sterilisation was also found in leading Jewish scientists such as Richard Goldschmidt, who was Professor at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Biology in Berlin-Dahlem . Goldschmidt argued that the abandonment of natural selection and “radical extermination of the unfit” (Goldschmidt, 1933, pp. 214; author’s translation) ought to be replaced by positive and negative eugenic measures (apparently, Goldschmidt later realised that the Nazi regime held an even more radical position regarding eugenics and was expatriated by the Nazis in 1935; he was appointed Professor of Genetics and Cytology at Berkeley, CA). Even anthropologist Franz Boas, who was not a racist and strongly opposed the Nazi regime, described curly hair, variation in stature and increasing or decreasing pigmentation of the skin as signs of human domestication, but was inconclusive about how much environmental and genetic factors contributed to these variations . Thus, although Fischer and colleagues may, to a certain degree, have had an opportunistic interest in mixing scientific ideas with political claims, the association of acknowledging the self-domestication hypothesis with eugenic consequences during the 1930s was not only an issue for racist scientists. (The misconception / mixing of non-scientific social, political, and religious beliefs has not disappeared in psychology. Biological sources are sought for justification of discrimination. These prejudices do not negate the possibility of domestication, but unfortunately, have made it a “shady” subject for study. The same problem taints psychology and its support and contributions to American Eugenics movement.)
In the 1920s, another, entirely independent biological concept was adopted from embryology to explain human self-domestication. The Dutch anatomist Louis Bolk (1926)  postulated that adult humans would resemble juvenile apes, and that the retention of juvenile characteristics of the ancestral species into adulthood of the descendant, referred to as “foetalisation” or “neoteny”, could be associated with the process of domestication. For example, the zoologist Max Hilzheimer (1926/1927) argued that “the recent European should be considered the most progressively domesticated form whereas Neanderthals were much less juvenilised” (author’s translation) due to the more pronounced retention of juvenile traits in anatomically modern humans compared to Neanderthals (at that time, it was not known that Neanderthals were not ancestral to anatomically modern humans) . The parallel drawn between domestication and neoteny is interesting in light of the currently resurrected debate about human self-domestication (see below).
In the 1940s Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz’ published some speculations on the relation of human psychological capacities to the process of domestication. In his article Durch Domestikation verursachte Störungen arteigenen Verhaltens (“Domestication-induced disorders of species-typical behaviour”, published in 1940) Lorenz reiterated parallels between the living conditions of civilised inhabitants of metropolitan areas with domesticated animals, which he thought indicated signs of degeneration . (The assumption of “degeneration” damaged scientific research.)
Lorenz proposed that the intensity and frequency of instinctual patterns of behaviour were altered under these conditions, leading to a hypertrophy of some instincts due to a lowered releasing threshold and to a functional disruption of species-typical behaviours. Beside the alleged domestication-associated morphological features in human beings, such as shortening of the extremities and of the base of the skull, atony of the muscles, and obesity, which he later subsumed under the term ‘Verhausschweinung’ (a term hard to translate that roughly compares the physical appearance of human beings with domesticated pigs), Lorenz described a domestication-associated diminished social sensitivity and a functional disruption of love, marriage, and the “copulation drive”. Apart from his appallingly coarse language, which conformed to the writing style of that time, Lorenz did not refrain from discussing racial hygienic consequences such as the “extermination of ethically inferior people.” Moreover, and from our perspective today virtually ridiculous, Lorenz proposed a positive selection for Anständigkeit (decency) and for the physical ideal of the ancient Greek. (As modern western “civilized” and Christian people, we applaud ourselves for having high ethical and moral standards, but what is the underlying goal of military, economic, and cultural invasion by any nation? It’s murder, rape and pillage – virtual extinction of peoples and cultures – on a massive industrial scale. “Democratization=Domestication” How many so-called primitive tribal people, religious minorities, and any “outgroup” that is labeled enemy, or any enemy at all is “cleansed” of its heritage, values beliefs and practices by military, social and corporate actions? Civilian casualties, millions of displaced refugees – hypocritically disguised as the inevitable consequence of the mysterious “fog of war.”)
By contrast, in his chapter on Psychologie und Stammesgeschichte (“psychology and epistemology”, first published in 1943)  Lorenz took over Arnold Gehlen’s idea that human beings were specialised in being non-specialised. Gehlen had acknowledged Bolk’s and Hilzheimer’s hypotheses as scientific proofs for his thesis of man as “Mängelwesen” (“deficient being”). Following Gehlen, Lorenz highlighted man’s lack of physiological specialisation while rejecting the hypothesis of deficiency. In contrast to his earlier exclusively negative approval, Lorenz now accepted the hypothesis of domestication-associated neoteny, which accounted for the positively asserted human “Weltoffenheit” (“cosmopolitanism”) and persisting explorative behaviour. This was new, since he now ascribed to neoteny a variety of human behavioural and psychological features in addition to his physical characteristics. Even in his later writings, however, Lorenz stuck to his culturally pessimistic attitude, while partially backing off from his writings during the Nazi regime.
Since the 1960s, both the foetalisation and the domestication hypotheses concerning humans have been refuted by various scientists. Starck (1962), for example, criticised that Bolk’s hypothesis had been so broadly accepted simply because the many problems of explaining human evolution could be resolved with apparent ease. According to Starck, hairlessness and the reduction of pigmentation of the skin (a geographic phenomen due to varying solar radiation) were more reliably explained by chance mutations rather than by foetalisation. Moreover, the retention of juvenile characters (i.e. neoteny) did not sufficiently explain the increased variation of traits under domestication . In addition, Herre and Roehrs (1971) rejected the human self-domestication hypothesis for its lack of goal-directedness and artificial selection of traits; nor was there evidence for a “wild” ancestral human species from which a domesticated homo sapiens should have derived. They further argued that a reduction of instinctual patterns of behaviour in human beings could also better be explained by a more sophisticated cortical control rather than domestication . (Objections based on the lack of scientific evidence at the time and the resistance to Homo sapiens the animal.)
As with many scientific ideas, these hypothesis of human self-domestication has recently been revived as a possible explanation of changes of human physical traits since the late Pleistocene changes include the reduction of body size and decrease in skeletal robusticity, modifications in cranial and dental features including reduction in cranial capacity, shortening of the facial region of the skull and maleruption of teeth, and reduction in sexual dimorphism. In contrast to earlier biological writings, other domestication-associated features observed in animals such as an increased variation in skin colour, increasing fat storage, earlier sexual maturation and activity, and reduction in motor activity are not discussed with respect to human self-domestication in recent accounts . It is indeed plausible to assume that these changes could have taken place due to the creation of an artificially protective environment after humans adopted a more sedentary lifestyle in the Neolithic period, thereby relaxing natural selection pressures. (But! selection pressures changed and increased due to selection by a new urban and dietary environment that required behavioral and reproductive adaptation. Reproduction became controlled by social customs, class barriers to reproduction partners, and selection of females for tameness.)
Similarly, the idea that foetalisation and domestication could be related has recently been highlighted in a seminal paper comparing anatomical features and behaviour of apes and humans . The authors argue that changes in social structures of early humans, compared to our closest living relatives, the chimpanzee, could have favoured the selection against aggression, and that such selection was accompanied by a reduction of sexual dimorphism in humans and the retention of juvenile characteristics in body shape and behaviour. Interestingly, a parallel development has been proposed in the bonobo, which displays more neotenic physical features and is much less aggressive compared to the common chimpanzee .
From a biological perspective the greatest dispute with regard to physical changes in anatomically modern humans akin to domestication pertains to a slight but measurable decline of brain volume from around 1,400 cm3 to roughly 1,300 cm3, which could be interpreted in further support of the human self-domestication hypothesis. However, this decline in stature was accompanied by a reduction in body size such that the allometric brain-body relation remains unchanged . In contrast to humans, domesticated animals show a large disproportionate decline of brain size by up to 30%, especially of the sensory perceptual centres, compared to their wild ancestral species, yet no such pronounced decline has convincingly been demonstrated in any human population.
We have a huge stumbling block in the investigation of self-domestication in humans: Which “human” is our wild ancestor?
Part 3 next…
How Animals Think
A new look at what humans can learn from nonhuman minds
By Frans de Waal / Norton
For 2,000 years, there was an intuitive, elegant, compelling picture of how the world worked. It was called “the ladder of nature.” In the canonical version, God was at the top, followed by angels, who were followed by humans. Then came the animals, starting with noble wild beasts and descending to domestic animals and insects. Human animals followed the scheme, too. Women ranked lower than men, and children were beneath them. The ladder of nature was a scientific picture, but it was also a moral and political one. It was only natural that creatures higher up would have dominion over those lower down. (This view remains dominant in American thinking: “The Great Chain of Being” is still with us and underlies social reality)
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection delivered a serious blow to this conception. (Unless one denies evolution) Natural selection is a blind historical process, stripped of moral hierarchy. A cockroach is just as well adapted to its environment as I am to mine. In fact, the bug may be better adapted—cockroaches have been around a lot longer than humans have, and may well survive after we are gone. But the very word evolution can imply a progression—New Agers talk about becoming “more evolved”—and in the 19th century, it was still common to translate evolutionary ideas into ladder-of-nature terms.
Modern biological science has in principle rejected the ladder of nature. But the intuitive picture is still powerful. In particular, the idea that children and nonhuman animals are lesser beings has been surprisingly persistent. Even scientists often act as if children and animals are defective adult humans, defined by the abilities we have and they don’t. Neuroscientists, for example, sometimes compare brain-damaged adults to children and animals.
We always should have been suspicious of this picture, but now we have no excuse for continuing with it. In the past 30 years, research has explored the distinctive ways in which children as well as animals think, and the discoveries deal the coup de grâce to the ladder of nature. (Not in psychology!)The primatologist Frans de Waal has been at the forefront of the animal research, and its most important public voice.
In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, he makes a passionate and convincing case for the sophistication of nonhuman minds.
De Waal outlines both the exciting new results and the troubled history of the field. The study of animal minds was long divided between what are sometimes called “scoffers” and “boosters.” Scoffers refused to acknowledge that animals could think at all: Behaviorism—the idea that scientists shouldn’t talk about minds, only about stimuli and responses—stuck around in animal research long after it had been discredited in the rest of psychology. (Are you kidding? “Black Box” psychology is alive and well, especially in American education!) Boosters often relied on anecdotes and anthropomorphism instead of experiments. De Waal notes that there isn’t even a good general name for the new field of research. Animal cognition ignores the fact that humans are animals too. De Waal argues for evolutionary cognition instead.
Psychologists often assume that there is a special cognitive ability—a psychological secret sauce—that makes humans different from other animals. The list of candidates is long: tool use, cultural transmission, the ability to imagine the future or to understand other minds, and so on. But every one of these abilities shows up in at least some other species in at least some form. De Waal points out various examples, and there are many more. New Caledonian crows make elaborate tools, shaping branches into pointed, barbed termite-extraction devices. A few Japanese macaques learned to wash sweet potatoes and even to dip them in the sea to make them more salty, and passed that technique on to subsequent generations. Western scrub jays “cache”—they hide food for later use—and studies have shown that they anticipate what they will need in the future, rather than acting on what they need now.
From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that these human abilities also appear in other species. After all, the whole point of natural selection is that small variations among existing organisms can eventually give rise to new species. Our hands and hips and those of our primate relatives gradually diverged from the hands and hips of common ancestors. It’s not that we miraculously grew hands and hips and other animals didn’t. So why would we alone possess some distinctive cognitive skill that no other species has in any form?
De Waal explicitly rejects the idea that there is some hierarchy of cognitive abilities. (Thank-you!) Nevertheless, an implicit tension in his book shows just how seductive the ladder-of-nature view remains. Simply saying that the “lower” creatures share abilities with creatures once considered more advanced still suggests something like a ladder—it’s just that chimps or crows or children are higher up than we thought. So the summary of the research ends up being: We used to think that only adult humans could use tools/participate in culture/imagine the future/understand other minds, but actually chimpanzees/crows/toddlers can too. Much of de Waal’s book has this flavor, though I can’t really blame him, since developmental psychologists like me have been guilty of the same rhetoric.
As de Waal recognizes, a better way to think about other creatures would be to ask ourselves how different species have developed different kinds of minds to solve different adaptive problems. (And – How “different humans” have done, and continue to do, the same!) Surely the important question is not whether an octopus or a crow can do the same things a human can, but how those animals solve the cognitive problems they face, like how to imitate the sea floor or make a tool with their beak. Children and chimps and crows and octopuses are ultimately so interesting not because they are mini-mes, but because they are aliens—not because they are smart like us, but because they are smart in ways we haven’t even considered. All children, for example, pretend with a zeal that seems positively crazy; if we saw a grown-up act like every 3-year-old does, we would get him to check his meds. (WOW! Nasty comment!)
Sometimes studying those alien ways of knowing can illuminate adult-human cognition. Children’s pretend play may help us understand our adult taste for fiction. De Waal’s research provides another compelling example. We human beings tend to think that our social relationships are rooted in our perceptions, beliefs, and desires, and our understanding of the perceptions, beliefs, and desires of others—what psychologists call our “theory of mind.” (And yet horrible behavior toward other humans and animals demonstrates that AT BEST, this “mind-reading” simply makes humans better social manipulators and predators) human behavior our In the ’80s and ’90s, developmental psychologists, including me, showed that preschoolers and even infants understand minds apart from their own. But it was hard to show that other animals did the same. “Theory of mind” became a candidate for the special, uniquely human trick. (A social conceit)
Yet de Waal’s studies show that chimps possess a remarkably developed political intelligence—they are profoundly interested in figuring out social relationships such as status and alliances. (A primatologist friend told me that even before they could stand, the baby chimps he studied would use dominance displays to try to intimidate one another.) It turns out, as de Waal describes, that chimps do infer something about what other chimps see. But experimental studies also suggest that this happens only in a competitive political context. The evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare and his colleagues gave a subordinate chimp a choice between pieces of food that a dominant chimp had seen hidden and other pieces it had not seen hidden. The subordinate chimp, who watched all the hiding, stayed away from the food the dominant chimp had seen, but took the food it hadn’t seen. (A typical anecdotal factoid that proves nothing)
Anyone who has gone to an academic conference will recognize that we, too, are profoundly political creatures. We may say that we sign up because we’re eager to find out what our fellow Homo sapiens think, but we’re just as interested in who’s on top and where the alliances lie. Many of the political judgments we make there don’t have much to do with our theory of mind. We may defer to a celebrity-academic silverback even if we have no respect for his ideas. In Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bennet cares how people think, while Lady Catherine cares only about how powerful they are, but both characters are equally smart and equally human.
The challenge of studying creatures that are so different from us is to get into their heads.
Of course, we know that humans are political, but we still often assume that our political actions come from thinking about beliefs and desires. Even in election season we assume that voters figure out who will enact the policies they want, and we’re surprised when it turns out that they care more about who belongs to their group or who is the top dog. The chimps may give us an insight into a kind of sophisticated and abstract social cognition that is very different from theory of mind—an intuitive sociology rather than an intuitive psychology.
Until recently, however, there wasn’t much research into how humans develop and deploy this kind of political knowledge—a domain where other animals may be more cognitively attuned than we are. It may be that we understand the social world in terms of dominance and alliance, like chimps, but we’re just not usually as politically motivated as they are. (Obsession with social status is so pervasive, that it DISRUPTS neurotypical ability to function!) Instead of asking whether we have a better everyday theory of mind, we might wonder whether they have a better everyday theory of politics.
Thinking seriously about evolutionary cognition may also help us stop looking for a single magic ingredient that explains how human intelligence emerged. De Waal’s book inevitably raises a puzzling question. After all, I’m a modern adult human being, writing this essay surrounded by furniture, books, computers, art, and music—I really do live in a world that is profoundly different from the world of the most brilliant of bonobos. If primates have the same cognitive capacities we do, where do those differences come from?
The old evolutionary-psychology movement argued that we had very specific “modules,” special mental devices, that other primates didn’t have. But it’s far likelier that humans and other primates started out with relatively minor variations in more-general endowments and that those variations have been amplified over the millennia by feedback processes. For example, small initial differences in what biologists call “life history” can have big cumulative effects. Humans have a much longer childhood than other primates do. Young chimps gather as much food as they consume by the time they’re 5. Even in forager societies, human kids don’t do that until they’re 15. This makes being a human parent especially demanding. But it also gives human children much more time to learn—in particular, to learn from the previous generation. (If that generation is “messed up” to the point of incompetence, the advantage disappears and disaster results – which is what we see in the U.S. today). Other animals can absorb culture from their forebears too, like those macaques with their proto-Pringle salty potatoes. But they may have less opportunity and motivation to exercise these abilities than we do.
Even if the differences between us and our nearest animal relatives are quantitative rather than qualitative—a matter of dialing up some cognitive capacities and downplaying others—they can have a dramatic impact overall. A small variation in how much you rely on theory of mind to understand others as opposed to relying on a theory of status and alliances can exert a large influence in the long run of biological and cultural evolution.
Finally, de Waal’s book prompts some interesting questions about how emotion and reason mix in the scientific enterprise. The quest to understand the minds of animals and children has been a remarkable scientific success story. It inevitably has a moral, and even political, dimension as well. The challenge of studying creatures that are so different from us is to get into their heads, to imagine what it is like to be a bat or a bonobo or a baby. A tremendous amount of sheer scientific ingenuity is required to figure out how to ask animals or children what they think in their language instead of in ours.
At the same time, it also helps to have a sympathy for the creatures you study, a feeling that is not far removed from love. And this sympathy is bound to lead to indignation when those creatures are dismissed or diminished. That response certainly seems justified when you consider the havoc that the ladder-of-nature picture has wrought on the “lower” creatures. (Just ask ASD and Asperger children how devastating this lack of “empathy” on the part of the “helping, caring fixing” industry is.)
But does love lead us to the most-profound insights about another being, or the most-profound illusions? Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Catherine would have differed on that too, and despite all our theory-of-mind brilliance, (sorry – that’s ridiculous optimism) we humans have yet to figure out when love enlightens and when it leads us astray. So we keep these emotions under wraps in our scientific papers, for good reason. Still, popular books are different, and both sympathy and indignation are in abundant supply in de Waal’s.
Perhaps the combination of scientific research and moral sentiment can point us to a different metaphor for our place in nature. Instead of a ladder, we could invoke the 19th-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt’s web of life. We humans aren’t precariously balanced on the top rung looking down at the rest. (Tell that to all those EuroAmerican males who dictate socio-economic-scientific terms of “humans who count”) It’s more scientifically accurate, and more morally appealing, to say that we are just one strand in an intricate network of living things.
About the Author
Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and an affiliate professor of philosophy at UC Berkeley.
I congratulate myself on becoming mature and gently old, on surmounting difficulty; understanding my fate, and letting up, letting go, but truth is, I’m a liar who has pushed the past away, across the border of my small world. Protected by miles of badland emptiness, a curtain of silence has dropped around me; the outside world doesn’t exist except at set frequencies along the electromagnetic spectrum; television, the radio, the internet, and down deep, that’s the way I want it. I crawled to this place, breathing, and no more. I walked and walked the hills, each step forcing a breath, like a respirator powered by my feet hitting the ground. If I had quit walking I would have died.
A wildlife rescue takes injured raccoons, snakes, and birds and once fixed or repaired, returns them to the wild, whatever that means. But some birds will not be birds again, living with wings broken, bent to sickening angles, improper geometry, hopping, not flying: broken into submission. Dogs travel to new homes, to live skittish, nerve-wracked, terrified, and distrustful lives; barking, scratching, insane human lives. Some animals go crazy, like a chimpanzee wrecked by cruelty, by its forced employment in labs or zoos or circuses, tortured by people whose job it is to twist and maim other beings without conscience or regret; psychologists, cosmetics-makers. Children are disobedient rats. Women redden their lips with monkey blood.
What suffering creatures know, when subjected to human perversion, every minute of their existence, is that even if they were to be set free – they will never be free.
An old soul of a chimpanzee discovers grass, a tree, air and sky, for the first time: old, too old – just a breath of what might have been, too late, and we congratulate our compassion.
I have created my own rescue a shelter; it is very pretty, very quiet location somewhere outside of time, outside of America, my house old, pre-me, built long before I was born. Other children played in the dirt, grown by Wyoming, shaped by wind, yellow dust in their lungs, cool air sinking from summer storms, building character. There is a character that I play; the old lady on the block who gardens, tends beauty, at arms reach, under my feet, a profusion of living things tangled, overgrown, so unlike the powdery banded desert. People like my yard and my face, but they don’t know that I’m an injured animal, wings broken and limping toward the wild. Salvation is instinctual, but sanity is earned by walking, walking the world away.