The past two months I spent writing and waiting. Writing papers, and waiting for my grades. I just did not want to post anything before knowing if my labouring led to anything at all. As you might remember from previous posts, hard work does not necessarily get me a good grade, particularly not with my own professor who is very critical. But this time, the work paid off. Two ‘9’ s – I was over the moon. These are not just for the papers, but the overall grade for the course- of which the papers are a major part.
“Evolution of language” paper
My paper on “naive normativity” is publishable, my professor said, if shortened. It would have to be, it was over 12.000 words (supposed to be 5.000 so it got a little out of hand). Apparently I might hand it in as a Master’s thesis, because it fits the requirements. Then, if I switched to the regular MA course, I would already be finished. But I won’t do that. I am enjoying myself, and I feel there is still so much more to learn before I can start on my PhD with any kind of confidence.
I won’t post the whole paper here, because the professor wants to talk to me about it, and I am not sure what his plans are. So I will just post the abstract below, that will give you an idea what is is about. All about chimps, of course. Did I mention I was deliriously happy when I received the feedback for this paper? I am beginning to think this adventure – the old bag back to uni – may go well. I intend to go on writing papers until I am at least hundred years old. Anyway, first things first.
Abstract of “Naive Normativity”
Kristin Andrews’ theory of naïve normativity invites us to take a fresh look at normative behaviour. She proposes a minimal definition of social norms and underlying cognitive abilities, which does not rely on mind-reading and may be applied to humans and animals alike. The first part of this paper explains her theory. The second part addresses the question on how to assess supporting evidence. In the third part, evidence that Andrews puts forward in support of specific candidate animal social norms, is reviewed. Inconsistent or irrelevant evidence is laid aside; the remainder is reviewed based on the criteria established in part two. Some candidate animal social norms pass. Most do not. The paper concludes with recommendations for further research.
Methods and Skills – position paper
I told you about my struggles with this before. I wrote a paper on metaphors early in autumn which I had hoped would be the final version. I had put so much work into it! But it turned out that the professor disagreed with me on the contents. Privately I feel that the problem was not with the contents but that I had taken on too much, combined with my professor not being quite-up-to-date on the topic. It did not help that he is so incredibly knowledgeable about everything else;he must be used to being right all the time. What we call, in my other life, an expert judgement – always extreme. This expert judgement also got me very high grades on other papers in the course, so I must not grumble. Anyway, I turned the metaphor paper into a play and made it humourous – and it worked, after submitting a second draft.. You can read it here. It is quite safe, not so heavy. You may enjoy it.
If you read it, you will come across Anna Majofski. She is inspired on the great-grandmother of my great-grandmother, who was a daughter of Theo Majofski who was an important Dutch actor some centuries ago. None of the acting or musical talent found its way into my genes! Still, it is an interesting heritage. My great-grandmother was chucked out of her chique family on account of her becoming pregnant by the local carpenter . My grandmother did not care to talk about this – pregnancy before marriage, worse, sex outside your class, was considered a big shame at the time – so most details remained hidden until records became available on the internet for me to find. Anyway, I needed a character for my little play, so I picked her. Not a lot is known about her, so I felt free to credit her with all sorts of opinions. I hope it would have amused here. The play certainly amused my professor, and during two drafts I saw him coming around to my way of thinking. A little trick I learned at the office: if there is an argument with too many voices, stop arguing and give space to the voices. Through an animation, a film, a dialogue, or as in this case, a play.
This semester I have four seminars. A big one on folk psychology, which is part of Philosophy of Mind. I already know the lecturers from last year. They are great. And three slightly smaller ones, on Ethics for Artificial Intelligence, Computational Psycholinguistics, and Kant, Logic and Cognition. That last seminar is in Amsterdam, starts at the end of March; the other three are in Nijmegen, and started last week. Seminars from 10:30 until 17:15 without a break (well, we get small breaks during the lectures) – it is quite tiring. I wasn’t particularly rested, so when I finally rolled into the Cultuur cafe to have a pizza with Husband, I was exhausted. Also, I had stupidly worn new shoes and not thought about having to walk some distance between buildings. So my heels are rubbed raw. Fortunately I still had a full package of blister-plasters – at home. Been wearing them ever since. Hopefully my feet will heal up soon.
I also need to start writing my “state of the art” paper, which is the official preparation for my Master thesis. I think I might have to postpone it until the summer holidays, coz it is going very slowly. Never mind. There is no rush. I might complete the whole course in two years (as if I were a full time student), or perhaps take another half year. It does not matter. This first year has gone well. I am amazed at how much difference the course, and my return to university has made to me, and to my life. Whatever next 🙂
I will keep you posted on the new seminars and what I learn. It is my last 6 months doing seminars before I have to start my thesis. Exciting!
At X-mas, it came to me. Honestly. It must be because of this forced rest. My brains not being made to study 12 or more hours in a day. It is not voluntary, this rest, you understand; it is just happening. We go to bed a little later, wake up up a little later; go for a walk, meet up for coffee. Decorate the tree, watch a movie, wrap a present, prepare a new recipe, drop in on a neighbour. Study for a few hours. See the Amsterdam light festival from a canal boat at night. Prepare Xmas dinner – game one day, fish the next. Survive my own desserts – I so love limoncello. And gin with lemons. And X-mas presents.
So what came to me? You are going to find it boring, I am afraid, but I am quite excited about it. Just a little thing that I have understood, you see. I have been working on my social cognition paper, the one I did the chimp research project for and have been talking about in past posts. It is not an enormous paper – at least 5000 words ex referencing, so about 10 pages, although I will likely write a bit more. However, a paper like this is like doing embroidery: so many things to get right. I have mapped the whole thing out in my new toy called Atlas.TI (forever grateful for student software discounts). It really is a wonderful program, allowing you to code texts and then build mind-map-style networks out of codes and quotations, across however many documents you like. The only drawback is that you need a large screen. Of which I now have three(!) which interconnect, thanks to Husband’s technical skills. He is joking that I need a second row of screens, on top of the first one. Like a cockpit.
This paper is about finding the roots of social and moral behaviour – the word used in Philosophia is “normative”. I am looking at articles by Kristin Andrews, on animal cognition. Animal includes humans. I really like the way Kristin Andrews writes. She is amazingly clear and knowledgeable. I would like to think that I have found her research myself, but on second sight she is no stranger to great researchers I read articles and books by before, including my own professor. Anyway, what she says, is that the idea that humans are morally/socially superior creatures because we reason/think about our behaviour, is actually wrong. We don’t. We are very bad at mindreading or at predicting other people’s behaviour. What we do, is attribute beliefs and desires to ourselves and to others in an attempt to justify our behaviour. Resolve cognitive dissonance (you feel better if you think someone you love mistreated you for a reason because then you don’t have to throw him/her out). We do have mechanisms which make us follow norms, but these mechanisms are exactly the same as they are in other animals. It is all about in-out group recognition, group membership, following group norms if you want to belong; and sanction/restoration mechanism if a norm gets violated. It does not matter what the norm is about.
Now this may be a little hard to swallow. Which why I have posted a picture of a particularly attractive group at the top of this post. But seriously, in the past months I have seen (not literally!) enough instances of non-human normative behaviour to see this theory at work. For instance, female chimps who on migration to another tribe stop using efficient tools for nut-cracking and adopt less efficient tools. For a chimp, to relinquish easy access to food, that means a lot! It also makes evolutionary sense. Obviously humans have a great deal of learning taking place in the long years of childhood, but this is cultural learning and the development of cultural learning abilities. The underlying cognitive abilities appear to be similar across the animal kingdom, or at least in the great apes.
This theory has a number of very interesting implications. Such as (this is going to be a haphazard list):
- a moral/social issue between individuals who do not regard each other as belonging to the same group, cannot be resolved;
- there is no point in passing laws before the relevant norms are in place and accepted;
- you cannot change a group from the outside (there is something to think about for all those 3-years-in-one-job managers);
- the worst thing that society can do to itself is anonymity (internet, corporations, committees) because this dissolves group-membership.
If I look at my job-life through this lens, a number of issues light up. Some of the things I have done are absolutely spot on (like setting up a community of practice, uniting professionals), and some are absolutely useless (like explaining things to people who do not regard themselves as part of my community). Interesting. Still, I have to learn lots more before I can start to think what to do with these new found insights.
I will leave you with an anecdote. Husband and I decided to watch this film. At Xmas Eve. I thought I could take a night off 🙂 It was Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the original one. The subtitles were wrong, in Swedish or something. So we spent at least 10 minutes trying to get it right – until it finally became clear that this was the first joke. On us, yes. My own fault for becoming too serious. Although it is kind of amazing that Husband fell for it too, but we won’t tell anyone.
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 🙂
In my last post I promised you the story of the philosophy of language research project. Well, as you can tell from the featured image on the blog, I am out there, in the woods. Intentionally speaking (this is a joke which I will explain some other time). Anyway, some serious research is really happening out there because the research project is about the evolution of language. In a nutshell, how did language happen to us, and not to, say chimpanzees. Given that chimps only differ from us in 1.2% of our genes, how come they don’t talk? Because they cannot? Because they have nothing much to talk about? Because all the important things can be expressed without language? Because … well, use your imagination. That is what we students have to do. Apart from reading stacks of research. And doing “some good old-fashioned thinking” (the professor’s famous last words).
It is a wonderful project that speaks to the imagination and can be explained to normal people. Like my 85 year old neighbour who is the queen of our little neighbourhood. As she put it: “how nice that you are doing something I can understand!”… note the unspoken “I did not have a clue what you were on about before”. Well, yes. It is a change. Normally philosophy of language would not a popular choice as a conversation piece at parties, as I explained in this earlier post. But evolution of language really is a lot of fun. Even Husband is engrossed in Frans de Waal and his chimps. Can you imagine us sitting talking late at night about how chimps may or may not show normative behaviour? We do! There is me marking the pages for the examples he has found. I want him to read much more, but he is holding back for some reason 🙂
You might think, how come she is suddenly interested in evolution? I will have you know that I have always been interested in biology. And evolution. I will quickly bandy some proofs around. I took Biology at A-level. From a Welsh teacher, who fancied himself speaking English. Imagine me fresh out of Holland, trying to understand him. A nightmare. I got a C for Biology, which was my lowest grade but also the highest grade in Biology that year, and he came up to me, saying: how on earth did you get that? Emphasising the “you”. Well, it was not for his help in having his assistants sharpening my dissection knives without my knowing about it. When, during the examination, I tested the blade on my hand I bled profusely all over my dogfish and then I still had to separate out all the nerves.
Also, I went on a Biology marine field course in Wales which must have been the best course I took in my entire life. I remember how it felt strange to be back in a world where all the lines were straight. Anyway, this was when I was eighteen. Since then, my biology-exploits have restricted themselves to participation in National Geographic gene project. I have about 4% of Neanderthal genes, and at the time they said that was a lot. Perhaps I should have my genes re-tested, because I think they know much more about Neanderthals now.
It is useful to know a bit about biology and genetics when you do a project like this. Mendel is all a-b-c to me, as are double-helix DNA structures and stuff. But there is also such a thing as “philosophy of biology” and particularly “philosophy of evolution”. Had to look into those, because I needed to clarify all concepts I came across. Took me about a week, but now I know that concepts like “species” and “fitness for survival” are not the clear concepts I took them for.
I was going to tell you about what happened in my research project. Remember, I had to ask my professor to help me sort out my group? Well, I will not bore you with all the things an elderly student may say about a younger generation. It all happened. It was not as bad and it was worse. But the curious ingredient into the mix was me.
Image. There is me who know how to run a project. I have been a project and program manager, spending millions of tax-payers’ money on projects which were not entirely unsuccessful. There is also me who is an architect. I know how to translate complex concepts into projects; manage interfaces, scope creep, stakeholders, requirements, scenarios, dependencies, the lot. Including all the tools of the trade. Then there is the student me who, unlike most of the other students in my seminar, already knows some of the important concepts because I happened to take a seminar with the professor last year.
So what do I do in my new research group? Do I take charge, outline the work, divide the labour and make the group produce results? Ah no, nothing of the sort. Of course I suggest things. I make things. I organise. I read. I explain. But when my group mates want to go off on their own track, or are plainly uninterested, I just let it go. Because I don’t want to push. After all, they are the student and I am ? Yes, there is a thinking error there.
In the end, and much too late, I showed my professor what was happening, or rather, what I could not make happen. There was a simple but sensible solution. Just go to another group. As it turns out, the other group really wanted me to join. So, there is me camping out in the woods. The chimps are out there and waiting.