Re-reading 2.0

Reading some of Susanne Langer again after many years and continuing to learn. She notes a large difference between language/words and mathematics/numbers, specifically that words can and do change meaning with context and over time while numbers maintain the same value (meaning) independently of context and time. Numbers used as complex symbols in mystic thinking, e.g., the Kabbalah, are codes and function as presentational forms, not numerical signs. So the same old questions arise of animal analogues and distinctiveness in human evolution; what are the roots here?

I found a 2009 Scientific American article about some research showing quantitative thinking in birds and monkeys. Some wild robins watched researchers put mealworms in holes drilled in logs and then went to the holes with the most worms to eat them. If the researchers surreptitiously removed some placed in a hole, the robins continued to search the hole for more. Monkeys showed the ability to choose between two sets of objects differing in number for the one with fewer objects. They have also shown the ability to match the number of beats heard to the number of objects seen. I am sure such reports are becoming common as we find ways to test such abilities in other animals beside ourselves.

No one is claiming that these animals count or use numbers symbolically, though Langer reviews a good amount of anthropological research showing that many primitive, preindustrial societies have words for 1, 2, and ‘more’, while clearly they can manage mathematically with larger sums. What I found surprising and curious was her hypothesis as to how humans came to count.


I do not remember this at all from my reading years ago but I find it remarkable now.   She writes “the instrument of science is mathematics,” so that science could not flourish until the evolutionary appearance of “enumeration and calculation.” Further, mathematical “elements—similar units following each other in a series—are almost certainly  first presented in the visual and kinesthetic perception of our own bipedal steps, under control of older cerebral mechanisms. Their expression belongs to the legs and feet, whose functions are amongst the least intellectual of our voluntary behavioral acts.”   She goes on to explain that these same behavioral actions along with arms and hands compose rhythmic routines and subroutines, i.e., dance as an art form with special social relevance and transmitted inter-generationally as cultural memes as it were, so that counting and “fractions were danced for thousands of years without awareness of their relations to . . . steps.” With the advent of drumming the function of counting became centered in the hands (Mind v. III, pp. 209 and following).

This makes much sense to me. Remember my earlier post (2/16/14) of Bonobos can dance, e.g., they can keep the beat. And humans over a long history of gathering around fire and drum came to understand consciously, symbolically, the many rhythms to be found in the beat. Then from Pythagoras through other discoveries, e.g., of zero, to Newton and Leibniz (and beyond) science grew in its cultural roles. There is certainly more to find out here about these roots.

Chimps > Humans

At the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute an economist designed a contest  based upon game theory and had chimpanzees and humans play it (separately).  As best I can understand, two players each had their own computer screen and could choose either of two squares, right or left, blind to the other’s choice.  One player won when he or she matched the other and the other won when he or she mismatched the other.  An optimum performance is evidently found in the Nash equilibrium (Nash of the Nobel prize and the movie A Beautiful Mind).  In some trials the roles were switched or conditions changed.  The players played for a small reward and the  experiment was repeated in another country where the humans received a greater reward.  In all the trials the chimpanzees figured out the game more quickly and came closer to the Nash equilibrium than the humans.  Go Chimps.


Why so?  The researchers conjectured about several possible explanations but could not answer the question at this stage.  Chimps have excellent short term memories and they are very competitive.  Humans are more cooperative and rely on language to do so, so they may not be so immediately engaged in the task but thought/felt too much about it as they tried to figure it out.  The chimps were more familiar with the computer set up and the task, though the humans were assuredly competent here as well.  

Perhaps if the researchers tried this with bonobos, who are  very cooperative and less aggressive, maybe  the bonobos would perform closer to the humans.  Stay tuned:

Here is a bonobo volunteer.





Language roots 2.0: Streaming

How about a wild thought following up on my last post about the integration hypothesis of language’s origin that posits two ‘layers’ combined to produce human language, the expressive layer exemplified in bird song interacting with the lexical layer exemplified by the silver gibbon’s songs (as well as communication about the world by other mammals). If you understand these two layers as the result of structures changing in the evolutionary stream due to genetic shift, you can conjecture that the hemispheric development so different in birds and mammals reflects these two streams or layers. So how could they merge into one confluent stream?

        Image                            Image

         Their embryos develop quite differently. Bird embryos first form as masculine and then some are feminized by hormones. Their songs, mostly by males, function in mating and territorial behaviors. Mammalian embryos form as female and then some are masculinized by hormones. Their calls function in broader social behaviors, expressing emotions, organizing the group, and having some referential properties, e.g., specific calls for specific dangers. On the face of it, beginning with a female brain looks to have more advantages.


         Mammalian brains show more lateralization. This is in part because testosterone, the masculinizing hormone, slows the development of the left hemisphere (which plays a role into why males seem to develop more slowly and have more language disabilities). Mammalian brains, being at base female, show an essential proclivity for social interaction, especially through the empathic flow of relationships. Then, as the left side comes on line later, so to speak, the right side has developed its capabilities for the current moment and interaction leaving the left to process information displaced in time and space along with its inherent tendency to communicate. And without current referents evident in the ambient, lexical organization becomes very important. So, maybe here are the two streams, two roots of our linguistic abilities, developed and joined as sexual dimorphism effected embryological development. Just supposing.

Biological roots of language

Good news, roots fans, on two fronts, one a report to be discussed in another post of a game chimpanzees play better than humans, and this one, a report from linguists detailing the integration hypothesis, wherein human language evolved from two lines, primates and birds.


The integration hypothesis posits two features of animal communication which merged to produce the virtually unbounded creativity of human language.  First, the expressive layer derives from birdsong, thus the picture of a mocking bird, one of my favorites and frequenter of our farmyard, which sings a a great variety of songs, often copying other birds while also carrying on its own favorite triplets of various forms. This component is reflected in the melodic features of our language.  The second is the lexical layer, derived from primate communication, and is reflected in the semantic content of our language.  The researchers cite a primate on the endangered species list, the silver gibbon, that is unusual in that it sings, i.e., it has a complex repertoire of sung vocalizations (as opposed to regular calls, such as grunts, clicks, whistles, etc), as it communicates with its conspecifics, kin and familiars.


The researchers are not sure how these two evolutionary lines would have merged but their effort is to understand the antecedents of human language, which we can only do indirectly.  Certainly more research will be helpful.  For example, is the gibbon’s vocalization lateralized to the left hemisphere?  Birds, we know, have a distinctly different neurological pattern because their brains embryologically start as male and then some are feminized.  Mammalian embryos start out with female brains and then some are masculinized.  And of course, some of the changes result in variegated patterns.  

What makes this research so interesting is that much of the world denies any biological antecedents of human language; they cannot see any intermediate steps leading up to the remarkable generative capability we have.  However these scientists are looking with new eyes and finding much to see (and to hear).  Here is a link:                                                    

Re-reading 1.0

I have long enjoyed re-reading special books, mostly fiction but some philosophy and science. Two years ago I began reading some literary classics that I had not read in my youth and also to re-read some that I had. I find that I understand and appreciate these more now than 40 years ago, so I am even a bigger fan of re-reading. I also find how much I do and don’t remember very interesting. It has become a way of mining further precious material that can then be refined and shaped for deeper understanding.

I have come to a place in my journey to understand our biological roots where ancient times seem important. I reread Julian Jaynes 1976 book, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, and have started Susanne Langer’s Mind v. 3 from1982 (a future post). As I mentioned in a previous post I disagreed with Jaynes back when I read it the first time and I still do, but I also understand better some of the issues he is trying to address. I still think his focus is way too narrow but appreciate the level of scholarship he shows in marshaling his argument. His errors serve to initiate my learning.


Jaynes’ argument is that around 1000 BC humans learned to be conscious (as humans are, mentalizing, free will as opposed to instinct, meta-aware) with the corresponding abilities to figure things out and cope with stress without the gods’ direct and hallucinated guidance. This constituted a change from a bicameral mind, two hemispheres operating differently and independently, with the right hemisphere supporting the hallucinated command voices of the gods, to a more modern hemispheric organization, the right god side silent and the left human side talking its way through life with its puzzles and stressors. He gathers his data both from ancient texts, in part because writing played a role in this transformation to true consciousness and in part because that is the data we have directly reflecting the minds of the day, and from some of the neurological science from his own time.

Where to start with the critique? Better, where to end? Before 1000 BC when we became conscious per his hypothesis, humans developed drawing, burials, astronomy, agriculture, cooking, fermenting (beer and wine for the previous 6-10,000 years), metallurgy, statues, cities and large scale construction. Even more importantly, family structure had survived through clan and tribe organization into cities and social organization through civic governance. We had sat around the hearth fire for tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of years cooking and eating together and gazing into the coals, yet Jaynes asserts we were not conscious, could not mentalize, nor deal with stress or novelty without some command hallucination of gods because our intentional processes were inadequate (except that the right hemisphere is figuring out all these things through its god function). Talk about a dull Occam’s razor.

Jaynes also asserts that if consciousness were due to evolution and not learned, several phenomena could not be understood, e.g., hypnosis. “If one has a very definite biological notion of consciousness and that its origin is back in the evolution of the mammalian nervous systems, I cannot see how the phenomenon of hypnosis can be understood at all, not one speck of it”. Here is the problem, and I do not think this particular error is very interesting, because it is the same error humans have made for centuries: Ours is a special mind without basis or precursors in other animals. Of course ours is a special mind totally based in our biological evolution and we can only understand mental phenomena, including hypnosis, through these roots. Not that biological science can or will explain everything, but it does underlay everything.

If Jaynes’ book came out today, it would be taken up in the debate between believers and non-believers. He does not address the reality of god directly, just that god(s) is our own hallucination. Still he tries to retain the notion of our non-biological specialness through distinguishing our culture and learning from our biology. A categorical mistake. He does, however, raise elsewhere in his explication the issue of how far evolution carries us through the development of some structures/functions (manifesting laterality, long fiber bundles like the arcuate fasciculus, mirror neurons, facial recognition, empathy, language, or von Economo cells) that then become functionally reorganized and entrained to perform new functions.

I have more to say about this and will do so in another blog because this one is getting rather long. Rather than belabor my disagreements with Jaynes, I will report on my re-reading of Langer and her very biologically grounded approach. I end with this thought I came across last week:  Any intellectual endeavor of even some small integrity bears responsibility for making errors of an educational nature. To this I also aspire.

Father brains x2

News reports tell of a study by Israeli scientists on the changes in human brains as we parent.  They used mothers as a baseline sort of (unusual because much science focuses on males to a fault) and found two circuits were differentially active, one mediating an emotional response and influenced by the hormone, oxytocin, and the other a ‘mentalizing’ circuit that mediates the empathic assumption of another’s mind and then surmises what goes on inside there.  Mothers’ responses were primarily the former and fathers’ responses were more the latter.


Here is a picture of one of my favorite activities with my child or any child, the sharing of attention.  Initially, of course, the adult must actively attend to the child’s focus but later the child will actively attend to the adult’s.  And then they talk about it.  Deaf children and their parents have somewhat of a challenge here because to talk about the activity, they must shift to the hands and eyes to communicate, posing some interruption to the joint activity.  Still they are sharing attention and this arouses both emotional attachment and mindful attunement.

And here is a special feature of the Israeli study.  They included gay fathers who were the primary caregivers and found that they fell between the heterosexual mothers and fathers, more emotionally engaged than the males and more mindfully engaged than the females. It sort of gives new meaning to “swinging both ways.”

As a final aside Jaak Panksepp says that he taught his students that there were four sexes based upon whether they had male or female bodies and whether they had male or female brains.  Our embryological development is a rather magnificent occurence with astounding variability.  Someday I hope we appreciate the variety nature provides, and kudos to these Israeli scientists for their efforts at inclusivity.

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