This is a line from Hamlet. Which I did not know about before I moved to England, coz I heard the Hair version first. Remember Hair? I suppose I am showing my age, but this was from a time when musicals were fresh and new and often provocative. I remember being mesmerised by the German version of “hair”. No idea why. Anyway, the Hair musical also does the “what a piece of work is man” as a song. It is here, if you want to listen to it. I now prefer the Hamlet version, which is here, No need to listen to all of it, just the bit after 50 seconds. This is the full quote:
This type of thinking has a name: anthropocentric. It is when we place the human on a pedestal at the top of Creation and say: wow-wow-wow. We humans are clearly made in God’s image, more clever, more adept, than any other living creature. It is also when we look at the rest of nature and judge it by our own standards, look at animals though the glasses of our human understanding or try to understand the universe in terms of intentions and rationality and whatever else we thought up to provide a flattering backstage to our performance as masters of the universe. As George Orwell put it in Seven Commandments of Animalism in Animal Farm: “Four legs good. Two legs better”.
I suppose you think I might be laying it on a bit thick. But I am not, really. In philosophy there has long been a sharp divide between creatures that think (us) and creatures that don’t (the rest), and it was assumed that the difference is somehow fundamental and significant. Humans think. Humans have language. Humans make tools. Humans create. Humans plan. These abilities are so fundamental to our self-image, we think they must be hard-wired, in our genes, transmitted through natural selection because these are the very characteristics that have put us in our position as overlords of creation. QED.
Right? Wrong. Or at the very least not self-evident. This is one of the issues that lies at the root of the so-called analytic-continental divide. You might remember an earlier post about this, when I explained I never knew about the so-called divide until I started this ReMa course. In England they firmly held to the belief that anything continental was, eh, continental. Like they had “intercontinental” phone booths, for calling from one continent (the UK) to another. That was 40 years ago, before anyone ever dreamt of Brexit. But I am digressing.
The man-as-superbeing story is a nice story, of course, comforting and safe. I was told it as a child by all the grown-ups, so it must be true. Probably, so were you. So why should it suddenly be all wrong? Well, think about it. The earth is about 4500 million years old, with single-cell organisms starting to emerge around 3500 million years ago. The first invertebrates appear around 700 million years, fishes at 500 million years and plants even later. The first mammals arrived around 200 million years ago. From these, we get primates, then great-apes and eventually humans. If you put these data on a 24-hour clock, you can see that we humans arrive in the last one-and-a-quarter minute.
So what? you may think. Well, it takes time for natural selection to work on genes. It has taken a very very long time for complex life forms to evolve. It is therefore very unlikely that human abilities appeared out of the blue, by lightning or some other external event. It is much more likely that our special cognitive abilities are built up from old stuff, from building blocks that we share with other forms of life. This is what Cecelia Heyes says. She is a philosopher-psychologist or psychologist-philosopher and she explains it all very well in her book “Cognitive gadgets”. I am a big fan. If you don’t want to read the whole book, read this article in Aeon.
For my thesis (yes, I am writing it), I am trying to connect up three theories on an evolutionary continuum:
- Enactivism, based on biological evolutionary theory, Di Paolo-style
- Cultural evolution, Cecilia Heyes style
- Pragmatist philosophy of language, Brandom-style
The idea is to recognise basic patterns to the emergence, use and development of cognitive abilities. Any pattern that exists as an evolutionary ground pattern, need not be explained at the human level. So let’s go down the evolutionary path and start at the bottom. With something really simple, like one-cell organisms.
The first problem that needs solving, is how to decide that when something is alive. Biological theory (well, the variety invented by Maturana back in the 1980s, which developed into enactivism) says that any living cell will keep itself alive in two opposite ways: by shutting itself away safely behind a membrane and by interacting with its environment (bacteria will move towards a source of sugar in the water). All living organisms switch between those two modes of isolation and interaction. This switching is regulated through active homeostasis.
Homeostasis involves having an extra process on top of the primary process which monitors the situation (compares it against a threshold) and responds when something needs doing. Your home thermostat is a good example. The idea of homeostasis is also hugely popular in the real world. Quality systems are inevitably based on (at least) double loop regulation. Little do they know that the concept was, well, I supposed not discovered, but formalised by Ashby in the 1940s. Now obviously thermostats and quality systems are not alive. Their homeostasis is not active, not self-regulating, not geared toward survival. It is not active. Active homeostasis causes the organism to take steps to stay alive, i.e. to regulate its isolation and interaction in such a way that not only will it survive now and today, but also tomorrow. Is this scientific? Well, yes, in the sense that it a very basic and clean formulation of what life is: striving to survive, to be free of the imminent danger of the internal system running down or the environment taking over, taking steps to ensure that survival.
The next question is about how organisms get involved with their environment and each other, and become adapted to that interaction. General systems theory offers a basic pattern for this, with a little tweaking: the idea of operational closure. A terrible term for something rather interesting: the living system will try to say alive by extending into the environment. This is done by moving its boundaries. Literally. The inside of the living organism consists of linked up processes (the black circles). You may think of it as the inside of a cell or a bacterium. Notice how the internal processes interconnect to form a whole: the total of connections between the linked processes constitutes its border. Also note how operational closure does not require a structural barrier with the environment: it is not organisational closure. Nor it is interactional closure, because the interconnecting processes of the organism may simultaneously interact with the environment. Now the organism may further extend its borders by drawing in another process, by connecting its in- and output to the existing connections. It is not difficult to see how operational closure, in combination with active homeostasis, will allow a group of cells work together and eventually specialise, and so on, into the evolution of that organism, simply by trial and error, and without recourse to genetic change. What I find interesting is that the identity of the living system is not fixed but fluid, indeed self-generated: by drawing in new processes (or abandoning them), the living system changes not just its structure but also its identity.What a wonderful modelling problem 🙂 I think the business architects in my day job would file for mass retirement if they knew.
The ideas of isolation/interaction, active homeostasis, operational closure and identity-generation are fundamental to what is called autopoietic enactivism, the first of three theories I am lining up. The important thing is that if a bacterium actively keeps itself alive through these basic biological patterns, there is no need to explain the why of this behaviour at every level of creation. Nor – and this is important – do we need to assume it requires consciousness or thought or intentions or any other specifically human machinery. We also do not need to ask how the bacterium knows how to respond to the outside world. It does not know. It merely tries to stay alive, i.e. keeps its processes below the robustness-threshold of its homeostasis by whatever means available to it. It is easy to see natural selection operating on the survival of the fittest bacterium.
With the emergence of more complex life forms – perhaps fitted with a nervous system – the history of successful interactions will start to become important, allowing for the formation of habits. This is the realm of ecological psychology, which says that organisms use their environment as scaffolding. Recognition of other life-forms as agents, i.e. as organisms striving to survive through interaction with the shared environment, new types of interaction become possible. Several organisms may interact to produce a group interaction. And from that, group habits. Again, it is easy to see natural selection operating on the survival of the group with the most successful habits. No human cleverness needed for that, either.
Boring? I find this stuff fascinating. It allows for another type of evolution with is not based on genetics alone, but on successful behaviour which is arrived at and extended into the future in some other, non-genetic way. Which sort of fits the data: the difference between our genes and the genes of chimps or bonobos is only 1.2%. Interestingly, there is a lot more genetic variation within chimps and bonobos than within humans: only 0.1% within humans. I would not be surprised if we killed off the most of the human genetic variants ourselves. A nasty piece of work, is Man. We probably threw the Neanderthals off the last cliff. Plus our other ‘siblings’. There is a bunch of new discoveries about our human predecessors. In the chart below you can see our brothers and sisters who did not make it.
This post is getting a bit long. I will write up the other two parts next time. I just want tell you about my tiny adventure with Continental philosophy and a French philosopher who causes my regular professors indigestion. I still had to get some ECs (European credits) and I decided on a Philosophy of Evolution course. I thought it might extend my knowledge, and expected it to be a bit like the research seminar for philosophy of language, which was (mainly) on chimpanzees. Well, it was not. It was Continental philosophy, centred around Stiegler, a French philosopher who died very recently. My lecturer is a big authority on him, so the seminar was worthwhile if only for that (he also publishes philosophical papers on shamans and the use of psychotics, so an old hippie, after my heart). Unfortunately “Stiegler and his Parisian Friends” as my supervising professor calls them, invoke impatience to the point of aggression in analytically-styled philosophers. Which I find amusing. I suppose that through my long years as a civil servant I have learned to stomach texts which are a lot more cumbersome than Stiegler’s. So I just smiled my way through (a lot of) them, and found some really useful insights. I also noticed that my lecturer was not up date on the ideas in philosophy of mind and language; just as the other (analytical) side was not. So I wrote my essay on combining ideas from both sides, I suppose as a sort of prelude to my thesis. I used the picture about the evolving chimp (above) in my essay, and had the text checked by both sides. It was well received, so I must have got it right. It is here, if you want to read it. I was allowed get out of a “group essay” – oh horror, remember my previous adventures with group work? Even if it does work out, I end up doing most or all of the work so I might as well do it on my own. But I was let off (pfft) and allowed to write an essay on my own, on the condition that I would stick to the word-limit. Which I did, with three words to spare 🙂 So the essay is not too long, but perhaps a bit technical. Judge for yourself if you are so inclined.
P.S. If you have any comments about the biological patterns I wrote up in this post, do let me know. I am wondering if explaining the ideas the way I do, is making any sense to normal people like yourselves. I have been trying it out on Husband, but he is finally beginning to object to the timing of my lengthy after-midnight brainwaves, so perhaps you want to help me out 🙂