Thursday, March 3, 2016

Humans are master meaning generators

A hashtag in the sky above a school at dusk in southern Rhode Island.  
Was it put there intentionally? What does it mean?

For as long as we’ve been writing about exquisite Paleolithic cave paintings and carefully crafted Stone Age tools we’ve been debating their meanings.  And the debate carries on because meaning is difficult to interpret and that’s largely because “what does it mean?” is a loaded question.

“Meaning” is a hallmark of humanity and, as the thinking often goes, it is a unique aspect of Homo sapiens. No other species is discussing meaning with us. We’re alone here. So we’re supposed to be at least mildly shocked when we learn that Neanderthals decorated their bodies with eagle talons. And it’s supposed to be even harder to fathom that Neanderthals marked symbolic thinking on cave walls. But such is the implication of lines marked by Neanderthals in the shape of a hashtag at Gibraltar

source: "The Gibraltar Museum says scratched patterns found in the Gorham’s Cave, in Gibraltar, are believed to be more than 39,000 years old, dating back to the times of the Neanderthals. Credit: EPA/Stewart Finlayson"
This sort of meaningful behavior, combined with the fact that many of us are harboring parts of the Neanderthal genome, encourages us to stop seeing Neanderthals as separate from us. But another interpretation of the hashtag is one of mere doodling; its maker was not permanently and intentionally scarring the rock with meaning. These opposing perspectives on meaning, whether it’s there or not, clash when it comes to chimpanzee behavior as well.  

We’ve grown comfortable with the ever-lengthening list of chimpanzee tool use and tool-making skills that researchers are reporting back to us. But a newly published chimpanzee behavior has humans scratching their heads. Chimpanzees in West Africa fling stones at trees and hollow tree trunks. The stones pile up in and around the trees, looking like a human-made cairn (intentional landmark) in some cases.  Males are most often the throwers, pant-hooting as they go, which is a well-known score to various interludes of chimpanzee social behavior. 

source: "Mysterious stone piles under trees are the work of chimpanzees.© MPI-EVA PanAf/Chimbo Foundation"
Until now, chimp behaviors that employ nature’s raw materials—stones, logs, branches, twigs, leaves—have been easy to peg as being “for” a reason. They’re for cracking open nutritious nuts, for stabbing tasty bushbabies (small nocturnal primates), or for termite fishing. But throwing stones at trees has nothing to do with food. If these chimps do it for a reason then it’s a little more esoteric. 

Maybe they do it for pleasure, to let off steam, or to display, or maybe they do it because someone else did it. It may be all of those things at once, and maybe so much more. Maybe you’d call that ritual. Maybe you wouldn’t. Maybe you’d say that they do it because that’s what chimps do in those groups: they walk on their knuckles; they eat certain foods; they make certain sounds; they sleep in certain terms in certain trees; and they do certain things with rocks, like fling them in certain places. Maybe we could just say that this behavior is the way of certain chimpanzees, hardly more mystifying than other behaviors that we’ve come to expect of them.

For comparison, I have certain ways. There are piles of books near my desk. They pile up on tables and shelves. I could fling books on the floor but I don’t. I’m not against flinging them on the floor; it’s just not how things are usually done. I share this behavior with many other, but not all, humans in the presence of books, tables, and shelves.  Until I wrote this paragraph, I never gave it much thought, it’s not something that factors even remotely into how I see the world or my place in it, and yet the piling of books on tables and shelves is quite a conspicuous and, therefore, large part of my daily life.
So, why isn’t someone setting up a camera trap in my office and writing up “human accumulative book piling” in Nature? Because this type of behavior, whatever it means, is quintessentially human. No one could claim to discover it in a prestigious publication unless they discovered it in a nonhuman. And they did.

Normally what we do when we learn something new about chimpanzee behavior is we end up crossing one more thing off our list of uniquely human traits. “Man the tool-maker” was nixed decades ago. What should we cross off the list now with this new chimp discovery? Would it be “ritual” and by extension “meaning,” or would it be “piling up stuff”? About that Neanderthal hashtag, do we cross off “art” or “symbolism” and by extension “meaning,” or would we just cross off “doodling,” which holds a quite different meaning? Rather than crossing anything off our list, do we welcome Neanderthals into our kind so we can keep our monopoly on hashtags? Whatever we decide, case by case, trait by trait, we usually interpret our shrinking list of uniquely human traits to be clear demonstration that other animals are becoming more human-like the more we learn about the world.

That’s certainly one way to see it.  But there’s another, more existential, and therefore, arguably, more human way to look at that shrinking list of uniquely human traits: Humans are becoming less human-like the more we learn about the world.

#WhatDoesThatEvenMean #PantHoot #Hashtag #ThisIsMyCaveWall 


Ken Weiss said...

Hey, it must be genetic because right after I read your great post, Holly, I realized that I, too, have piles of books all over the place! The thing about earlier humans is that their books were inscribed on big stone tablets, that archeologists find all piled up underground in ancient sites, but such human-style rocks were too heavy for those primitive Neanders to throw at trees. So, being smart and (almost) human, they scratched hash-tags on rocks instead.

Chris Reynolds said...

There's a Chimp by a tree with a stone
And he thinks that it ought to be thrown.
Does he think it's a shrine?
Is it action benign?
Or perhaps a behaviour unknown?

Thanks for the useful link - I an researching the evolution of human intelligence and feel the only real difference between use and our chimp relatives is that we have discovered a powerful way of passing information from generation.