Friday, December 30, 2011

The iron cage of preconception

We thought we'd let MT lay fallow today, in lazy anticipation of the turning of the year, when not many people are spending their time browsing blogs.  But now that we've seen this story on the BBC site we can't let it slide.  It's the report of an experiment that provides the missing link in the evolution of language.  Yes!  Can you believe it?. . . .
Researchers found that wild chimps that spotted a poisonous snake were more likely to make their "alert call" in the presence of a chimp that had not seen the threat.
This indicates that the animals "understand the mindset" of others.
The insight into the primates' remarkable intelligence will be published in the journal Current Biology.  How could Nature and Science, both hungry as they are for sensational stories, have missed this?
Matthew Cobb, professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, explained that "imagining what another individual is thinking" is a crucial part of human language. 
But, hold on. Didn't we learn just last week that corvids could do the same? Jays that see that they've been observed while hiding food later move it, because they apparently understand what the nearby jay is thinking, namely that when the hider leaves, he or she will get the hider's meal for free.

We are not criticizing this story itself, and indeed it seems both interesting and convincing. But how can there still be surprise at, or doubt about, the ability of animals other than ourselves to have sophisticated mental and social lives? Instead of trying to explain how, with their dullard brains, other species can do things we fancied that only our noble selves were up to, wouldn't an evolutionary perspective simply have expected this?

Chimp warning an uninformed mate
about danger (from the BBC).
Species other than ourselves are hatched into complex, variable, threatening as well as beckoning Nature. They have to perceive it, size it up, and decide how to manage their way through it. They have the same sense organs we have, using very similar genes and genetic pathways -- some, such as light-perceiving mechanisms even shared between clams and humans.

We can debate who has 'consciousness' til the proverbial cows come home, and we know that many don't want to credit that to any species but ourselves. That is a debatable, perhaps largely semantic, question, and humans are certainly very different from other species in this respect. How and why it's not as different as it seems is a matter for another post or series of posts. But the notion that individuals in other species can solve problems and size up things and respond to or communicate with each other should not be any sort of surprise, even if one might not be able in advance to predict all their instances or specifics.

This reflects a persistent human exceptionalism but, we think, something more profound about the very same human culture that manifests this surprise. It is that we are born into a culture that frames our world, and it is difficult to escape it. The worldviews of a culture put a kind of iron cage around individuals, making it difficult to appreciate, or even 'get' other cultures. This is a profound lesson of anthropology, though it seems to have been pretty much forgotten these days, with the prevalent opposition to notions of cultural relativism (that other cultures could be as true or valid ways to live as our own culture is).

We like to fancy that science is an objective pursuit that is above such subjective constraints. But scientists are inculcated with the same kind of conceptual cage. We call it 'theory'. It's long been recognized that it is difficult to get out of that cage, and in a sense it rarely happens (the term used for that is 'paradigm shift').

The conceptual cage of human exceptionalism is like that, we think. The humans-only view is a cage that makes us oblivious or resistant to knowledge that is actually freely available, because that knowledge seems to challenge ideas that are the root of too much of our theory and the research that theory leads to, and the careers that are built on it. This seems true even though evolution, which is at the heart of much of that theory, predicts connection as well as difference among species.

Whether chimps (or crows) could understand the New York Times is perhaps not at issue -- and we've got another post waiting in the wings about bird brains. Probably, they wouldn't want to--too many boring, self-interested stories about the trivial events in human society. Chimps (and crows) have other things to deal with, and they pass the news to each other in their own ways.

Have a very good New Year, everybody!

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