On becoming human
I have shamelessly stolen the title of this post from Tomasello’s new book: on becoming human. You will have gathered from the picture at the top that this is about the evolution of humans. Us. Or, as my professor puts it, “how chimp-style communication developed into human discourse”. Why? Well, it is all in the family:
I told you about my adventures with my research groups in an earlier post. Now I want to tell you what I am learning. I will resist the temptation to tell you how much there is to read or how I felt obliged to to draw up a project charter as a structuring aid (if you do decide to visit the links, do click open all the boxes). So with that out of the way 🙂 let go for some new, well, new to me, ideas.
Because I tend to think outside-in when I am trying to make sense of something, I needed to immerse myself in the current literature about human evolution. No way I have time to read all those big books, so I have I been listening to them. Audiobooks are wonderful. I listen to them as I walk to the office, when cooking, when not being able to sleep, when waiting for the lift, when walking from one end of the office to the other (10 minutes), well, you get the idea.
These books were great. You must read them too. Seriously. Here is the list:
- Jared Diamond – the Third Chimpanzee
- Yuval Noah Harari – Homo Sapiens
- Yuval Noah Harari – Homo Deus
- Dimitra Papagianni and Michael A. Morse – The Neanderthals Rediscovered: How Modern Science Is Rewriting Their Story
- Silvana Condemi and Francois Savatier – A Pocket History of Human Evolution: How We Became Sapiens
- Cecilia Heyes – Cognitive gadgets
- Michael Tomasello – Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny
Well, perhaps not all. But do not miss out on the first three. Husband is smiling at this, I am sure. Because the first three books he received from me as a present, years ago. At his request, I might add. I never even looked at them. Until I devoured them last month.
So, armed with all this background I dived into the project. For the first couple of weeks I kept trying to find the beginning of an answer to the project’s question (chimp-style communication -> human conversation), but after a while it became clear that the professor wanted us to look at real data. Lots of data. We looked at over a hundred examples of “normative” animal behaviour. “Normative” is when the animal(s) in question appear to have strong expectations of what other animals should do or not do. Not just chimpanzees, but also bonobo’s, whales, dolphins, and orcas. As an example, look at this one by Frans de Waal. It is about how one monkey reacts to a piece of cucumber whereas the other one gets a grape (monkeys love sweet fruit).
Convinced the monkey is angry about being treated unfairly? Frans de Waal is. I was too, at first. But on reflection, it is not so clear what we see here. It may well be a simple case of the monkey seeing there are grapes to be had and wanting them; then expressing its frustration at not getting any. I forget who said it, but the researchers in this field are either Believers (animals are like humans) or Party Poopers (don’t believe anything until you have to). Frans de Waal is a Believer. Being a philosopher (well, a budding one), I am supposed to by a Party Pooper. Tomasello (see the beginning of this post) is a Party Pooper. According to him, chimps are wonderful animals who only think of themselves. Me, myself and I. They regard other chimps as social tools. There is no sense of “we”.
Actually, my research group found other evidence that supports this view. Empathy is correlated with low social status in chimps, but with high social status in bonobos. Interestingly, chimps have a patriarchal social structure, whereas bonobos have a matriarchy. Do we see any parallels with our own world? I would say that we humans are very chimp-like in this respect!
Tomasello is also a psychologist. Which, according to my professor, is a problem, because Tomasello keeps reading intentions into behaviour (human or animal) that are just not there. He may well be right. As I remember from my earlier studies, psychologists always attribute more importance to differences between individuals than, say, sociologists. And you find what you are looking for (expectancy bias). Still, Tomasello found that chimps cannot “share attention”. They can both look at the same thing, but they cannot look at it together.
My research group has come to a similar conclusion. Chimps are clever and social creatures. Did you know? They live long (50 years), in large groups (up to 70 animals) with a strong social hierarchy. They solve puzzles and do some forward planning. They use meaningful gestures, some of which other great apes also use. You can look these gestures up in the Great Ape Dictionary. Chimps even go hunting together. But their behaviour appears largely one-directional, from “me” to the world. They either use imperatives (groom me, play with me, have sex with me), or they broadcast (I am here). There does not appear to be any sense of “we”.
I am fascinated by this sense of “we” that according to Tomasello is an essential building block for cognition. If you do not “share” a world with someone, you will never understand the difference between subjective-objective views. Or that one word of gesture may have different meanings for different people or in different circumstances. You will also not expect the other to share your world. So you will never build a view, an idea, a project or a story together. Tomasello convincingly shows how human babies learn these things within the first year of their life, whereas the chimp never gets beyond simple gaze-following (to look where another is looking), and even that takes several years.
Assuming my professor is right, this “we” is not: shared intentions, beliefs etc. But surely it can be something hard-wired, i.e. neurological? Or social? He says, social. Maybe it is a matter of chimps not being interested in others. In which case the bonobos, who are much friendlier, should do much better. I will look for research on this. Anyway, all this to give you an impression of what I have been doing in this project. If you like, you can have a look at our work in progress. It is all here, until the end of the year at least.
Having seen how very important this “we” appears to be to human cognition (and from there, to everything human), I got thinking. How is it ever going to work with humans in the new digital world? Aren’t we turning back to the chimp world, by speaking our imperatives or broadcasts into digispace? It does not seem an improvement at all.
There were other things to learn. For instance, how difficult it is to determine whether any behaviour is “intentional”. You get a feeling that is it deliberate, but after that it may be instinctive, emotional, intentional, conditioned – we learned to give up on assigning motives. Probably just as well, because we would always be in danger of assigning human-like behaviour to animals.
Also, wonderful stories from the animals themselves. They all show amazing ritualistic behaviour around their dead, caring for them, defending them, even washing them. Dolphin mothers showing their babies how to hunt with bubbles. Whales singing to each other. Orcas rescuing a human. Chimps grooming and sharing food. And then me, searching for the origins of language. Somehow I think it might take a while 🙂