A good study so why quibble?

Because it is fun and improves my mind.  Here is an excellent example of social praxis demonstrated in simians:  PLOSone has a report of another experimental studies designed to investigate whether great apes, e.g., chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans, can distinguish another’s ‘false beliefs’ and act upon that discernment to help them. The researchers used procedures adapted from human studies that demonstrated some understanding of another’s false beliefs at 18 months of age and good understanding by age 3 or 4 years old. The researchers were very diligent in their design and implementation in order to ensure validity and reliability; I will give only a bare outline before going on to deeper issues. You can read for yourself at: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0173793

The basic set-up is this: Actor A comes into the room and puts an object in box 1 and then leaves the room. Actor B comes into the room and switches the object to box 2 and then leaves. Actor A returns. Which box does he go to? The subject has watched this whole scenario knows the object is in box 2 but also, if socially cognizant, knows that actor A believes the object to be box 1. In some protocols the visual gaze preference is measured, i.e., how long the subject looks at agent 1, box 1 and box 2, the assumption of this measure of passive action being that gazing more at box 2 shows awareness of the false belief. A more robust protocol is for the subject to move and help actor A open the correct box. And indeed the results show that young humans and the great apes move to show actor A the true location of the object, trying to help by correcting the false belief. More on this in a bit.

The basic set-up is also modified so that after placing the object in box 1, actor A stays in the room and watches actor B come in and move the object to box 2. I really like this variant; it shows the ingeniousness of scientists in clarifying the data’s interpretation.. When actor A goes to box 1 and tries to open it, little humans and great apes try to help him open box 1, seeming then to understand that actor A knows where the object is but wants to open box 1 for some other purpose. In another variation, if actor A opens box 1 and looks puzzled at not finding what was desired, subjects helped focus on box 2 and so retrieve the object.


Now when was the last time you had your keys?

I think this is a great study along the lines Frans de Waal calls for to help us understand how smart other animals are, and I have some quibbles and want to think about further examples of distinguishing false beliefs from human cultural and symbolic behavior. My first quibble is that in the abstract the researchers state that their results demonstrate that this type of social cognition and understanding, which had been thought to be exclusively human, might now be found in other animals. “Great apes thus may possess at least some basic understanding that an agent’s actions are based on her beliefs about reality. Hence, such understanding might not be the exclusive province of the human species.” If you have followed this blog at all, you know what my challenge will be. What anthropodenialist (see 4/8/16 post on de Waal) and all too precious human assumed (do I detect a false belief there?) this was to be found in humans only? Not good, especially in this day and age when we understand that human evolution includes no discontinuities with our ancestors. Research like this is not really changing our view of who we are (or at least it shouldn’t be) but rather reveals how the biological roots of our humanity grew our species.

Secondly, here is perhaps an obviously semantic quibble: Why call this false ‘belief’ when a much better word would be ‘assumption’, thereby reserving the word ‘belief’ for some thought formed with less ties to sensory data? Consider two known features here, mirroring and the kinesic communication of intent (a basic form of empathy). Mirroring cells in at least the primate cortex are motor cells that fire when the animal sees another perform an action (see many posts here about this, especially my most popular post of all time on the arcuate fasciculus, mirror cells, and memes). In the experiments described above, the subject animal, be it human or great ape, would respond through mirroring to the reappearance of actor A when approaching a box. Further, some studies have suggested that mirror cells are sensitive to the other’s intention, e.g., seeing the other pick up a cup, different cells fire when the other is going to drink from it as opposed to doing some other unrelated task. So the subject animal needs only mirroring and basic empathy coupled with environmental object mapping (quite evident in the rat brain) to identify the false assumption; the impulse to help would be again a basic empathic action that forms the incipient base of social praxis. (Remember watching somebody struggle to do something and your impulse to grab the object and do it for them?) The mirroring system may go a long way in offering some understanding of this social cognition, and the assumption of continuity in the perceptual world along with communicated intent is a basic, so that belief is not really a construct needed to understand this.


I always thought god was a bonobo, and now you tell me . . .

What about the broader, deeper phenomena of detecting (and responding to) another’s perceived false beliefs, real beliefs about abstract matters rather than perceptual data? We humans, at least, seem to have a talent for apprising others of their false beliefs. You know, like someone just knows I am going to hell because of my false beliefs? Or an example of more consequence, people who deny scientific findings because why? The false beliefs of scientists, of course, thereby exposing their own false beliefs, also called ignorance, about the nature and process of science. So much of our world, the human Umvelt, is dominated by symbolic information displaced in time and space, abstracted from experience and formulated with, at times, great creative license, that finding agreement rather than parsing others’ mistakes might seem the challenge. That, of course, is a function of culture, however, and oh, wait, is that part and parcel of the scientific method, and I hasten to add, the basis of democracy? Now, about the emperor’s new clothes . . .

Racism creates racial boundaries, not vice versa

While it seems obvious that race is a biologically based concept, I now wonder if it is not even more a culturally derived one, analogous to sex and women confined to home and burka for their protection and reverence. So is race a meme, a cultural unit transmitted across generations? It is more complicated than that, I know given my last post about meme-weary, but consider these meme wannabes for your amusement: burning cross, white robe with pointy hat and mask or Confederate battle flag flown outside of a museum in contrast with the “I have a dream speech” and Black Lives Matter. And what about the photographs from the 60s civil rights work of Bull Connor’s attack dogs and fire hoses? All of these fit the definition, don’t they?

Going deeper, though, I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ autobiographical book Between the World and Me after seeing so many reviews about the power of its presentation and the passionate beauty of its writing. The reviews are pretty accurate in this regard so I heartily recommend reading this book. Early on he asserts that race (the concept of) is a result of racism (the attitude and belief) and not vice versa, as is often supposed. Wow! To frame it another way, race is more a cultural construct based on faulty biology, one engendered by most probably the sociobiological fear of the other. I think that our kinship feelings for our conspecifics is a powerful factor, one that I hope becomes ever more dominant through the burgeoning interconnectedness of global humanity. However, other factors such as territorial ‘ownership’, competition for mates and resources, and clan/tribal organization are also important features of our conspecific relations even as they constrain a more democratic, i.e., egalitarian and respectful, unification.

Consider the heinous example of King Leopold and the Belgian Congo in the 19th century. Using the age old technique of divide and conquer, the Belgians segregated the Hutu and Tutsis and set the two tribes against each other, building up a wall of ethnic prejudice and misinformation one against the other. Their respective leaders in the independent country of Rwanda played upon those differences to gain political power and that resulted in genocidal warfare around 1990. Ugh, humans! Their views of the other as distinct ethnically from themselves are not based upon their biology: they share their language, religion, and culture, they lived together peacefully enough for centuries before imperial colonization, and recent genetic tests confirm that they are the same population. Race is a tool of racists to gain power. To reinforce this notion, consider that when I lived in Japan I learned that many Japanese do not see any gulf between themselves and black people but they do see Koreans as a lower race, judging by their outspoken prejudices and evident attitude toward inter-marriage. This was, I was told, a remnant from the Japanese imperialism that culminated in WW2.

Another example of how race is a cultural construct used by imperialists can be found in Trevor Noah’s autobiographical book, Born A Crime, another excellent read. His mother was black and his father white and in apartheid South Africa the law prohibited their mating and that left his legal status in limbo. Further, his skin tone clearly showed that he was not black or white, so that walking with his mother or father would be to place them in legal jeopardy for breaking that law. That society had a category for ‘colored’, neither black nor white but he did not fit into that category for some reason. One theme of the book derives from his wandering the racial boundaries, not belonging to any one category yet living with them all. He was bright. His extended family helped him to learn many languages, another manifestation of ethnic categorization, and his mother insisted that he obtain the best education possible, which also marked him as different. While post apartheid laws reduced his legal jeopardy, they did little to solve his dilemmas about how to make his way through a varied and at times difficult racial landscape. It is a great read and helps to appreciate his arrival as host of “The Daily Show” and his distinctiveness as nurtured by his mother who was a force of nature.

The amount of variation among ‘races’ is miniscule when compared with variation among species and even there the variation between simians and us is only a few percent. Any one person in a multi-cultural society, i.e., not geographically isolated or politically segregated, includes genes from other races. Many of us include genes from the Neandertal and Denisovans, who are not even Homo sapiens. I think Ta-Nehisi Coates expressed a truth quite succinctly when he said race is a consequence of racism and not vice versa, a cultural construct the biological basis of which is distorted by those who seek power and control. Oh humans!

In my clinical work I learned that each person is a gem, some are rough and some finely cut, but all have different facets, only one (well, maybe two, not sure of quantity here really) of which is race. Our goal, assuming we pursue a just democracy and compassionate, non-exclusive conspecific relations, is to see each person whole, each gem in its totality, taking in as many facets as possible and always mindful that our perspective from without is constrained by what facets life and society have cut and polished for our viewing and that the whole within, as difficult as it might be to apprehend, is one of our own. Travel on.

Meme weary

Memes? I’m tired of ‘em, damned tired. Sure, I like the idea of memes, those cultural bits and bites encapsulating the commonly held cultural meaning that help a society to congeal or the shorthand for analogous experiences, e.g., the opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th or referring to the Holocaust to convey the horror of some men’s inhumanity. But I grow weary of the indiscriminate use of the term to mean almost any type of human cogitation that spreads (almost unavoidable in today’s electronic age). That lack of a coherent boundary or definition has been a criticism of the term from early on and I read that it also contributed to death of the Journal of Mimetics after a few years as scholars could not agree on anything about the term, surely making any theoretical development impossible. At this point I have to wonder that it took 6 years of journal articles before the academic community recognized its futility, though I am sure some denied their intellectual torpor as they pursued easy publication on a sexy topic. To be fair, Richard Dawkins, who originated the term, only wanted to give a term to cultural transmission, and only that. Perhaps neuroscience will be able to help us more in the future if we show enough integrity not blather away about it so now and work to understand what culture really is.

Why quibble now, you ask. I recently read James Gleick’s interesting book Information. He does a very good job presenting the beginnings of information theory as seen in the genius of Charles Babbage and especially Claude Shannon and an okay job of its subsequent development. I found his rendition of its extension into the biological sciences lacking and I really found his discussion of memes tedious, and, after thinking about culture and how it is biological, I became even more disenchanted with memes.

Consider what Gleick refers to as a meme: ideas that are passed on, i.e., replicate, such as religion (to be fair, Gleick follows Dawkins in this), musical tunes, catchphrases, images, in short any delimited packet of information that catches on to become an invariant form operating between minds, an invariant form of some complexity so that a simple idea is not a meme and a hula hoop is not a meme because it is not information. (Wait a minute, James, I thought one main thesis in this book was that everything was information?)

I did like his book overall and recommend it and I want to give it credit for stimulating me to re-examine this now tiresome concept of the ‘meme.’ The analogy between genetic transmission and cultural transmission is really not that deep; it is actually misleading as I think about it. A meme is generally taken to be a symbolic thing, and that entails a surface and deep structure. The opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th is fate knocking on the door, or at least that is the meme. But consider, please, that musical phrase in context, in the rest of the piece and then the incredible melodies in later movements and that memic symbolization of fate shrinks to insignificance; it is only a amusing hook with little purpose. Sure, the opening is much recognized, but then the deep structure of this amputated form is a short-circuited semantic memory obscuring the work’s remarkable artistic import. Just like another popular memic example, ‘jumping the shark’, the deep-surface relationship is at best shallow. We mistake the electronic image, which does indeed spread virally, as standing for culture and I think that is altogether a misconception. The current concept of meme is only conceivable in this age of electronic communication. Even the meme of Beethoven’s 5th opening bars depends upon sound recording.

Consider other views of what may be termed cultural transmission in the examples of emotional and pragmatic expression and social stigma. I am thinking here of cultures where emotional expression is inhibited, making members’ affect hard to read at times, or where expressions of grief are most properly loud keening as opposed to silent suffering. Some cultures find close physical proximity while conversing normal while others stipulate greater distance. Some eat only with the right hand. Some prohibit showing the soles of your shoes unless you want to instigate trouble with our disrespect. I see these as cultural practices with bare symbolic operations, if indeed any.

Consider also our culture’s stigma against those with mental illness, especially how hard it is to displace. For years as a psychologist I worked to disperse that stigma by presenting the data refuting misconceptions (yeah, I know, spitting into the wind), and I continue to admire those who work to mitigate that stigma and so enhance people’s willingness to seek early intervention or to hire without fear. Again, this is cultural but not memic, and this distinction reinforces further my impression that memes are actually all about our amusement, not our understanding of culture.

Genes control the generation of a somatic vehicle for their replication. Good enough. Memes control nothing; they convey vaguely defined notions. Genes spread through two tests, one is their coherence with the rest of the genome and the other is the adaptability of the somatic vehicle in the environment. Ideas and memes have some analogous properties here, but I think, at least as cultural units, memes are more a part of the environmental context as they are cultural vehicles carrying culture forth. Human societies are complex and operate in multiple symbolic and non-symbolic domains. Given this view, memes are wind driven ripples across the waves and tides of human culture; they are noticeable given the white froth of their peaks but dissipate soon enough while the cultural ocean rolls on.

I postpone the discussion of another cultural phenomenon that troubles us, that of race, and so until next time, travel on.



Oh, humans!

That is my daughter’s new expletive, “Oh, humans!” and I must say it is more apt now than ever. We humans have a marvelous capacity for opinions, a huge talent really for thinking up thoughts about things. I go to the gym and see on the TVs shows wherein people, more males in suits than females dressed for business, are giving their opinions about sports and the body politic; I put on my ipod and listen to music, which I think comes from a more important talent. I read editorials many days as much as for the quality of their prose and to glean an occasional fact or two incipient to the writer’s thinking as for finding out their opinion (humor is the draw, and passion too, of course passionate humor is best). As a clinical psychologist I was trained “to stay close to the data” in my interpretations and indeed I strove to do that; it was a true necessity when offering one’s opinion in court. Harder to do than what one might imagine.

So our talent for facts is real but not huge.   Our capacity for fact-finding is very important and relies on special efforts to avoid false opinions, you know, like the scientific method. Even there, however, facts are difficult to find. Indeed, a scientific fact is presumed to be true only so far as it goes, i.e., the need for replication and determining the probability of falsification always frames a scientific fact as an educated statement open to correction. At the University of Virginia a project to replicate many of the robust findings of psychology has found their task to be fraught with difficulty. In their search for the Higgs boson, which is important because it indicates the presence of the Higgs field that we will probably never wander except in our mathematical imagination, physicists worked until they found some facts, i.e., data, with a probability of falsification of less than 1 in 3.5 million, what is referred to as 5-sigma.

Opinion is easier than fact-finding, like swimming is easier than building a boat. Of course, swimming feels more personally muscular but a boat will take us farther, and that is an important pragmatic and ontological difference. With more education of a sort that encourages critical thinking, fact-finding, and regard for the ancient attitude of skepticism, perhaps more will take opinions as just that, their own thoughts that may comport with any factual reality on so far. We have a tradition, a cultural bias better resisted, that our consciously rational thinking is a supreme achievement of humans, that evolution has granted us this so we can dominate the rest of nature, and that if only everyone else were rational, civilization would imperiously spread its contentment everywhere. It has taken until recent times for psychologists to re-discover that the basic human thought pattern is to have an opinion, say some moral or political stance, and then to rationalize it by marshaling facts to support our intuitive notions. I say re-discover because, again, some of the wiser ancients observed this long ago; skeptics have reproduced down through the ages though not in nearly enough numbers. Skeptics are important; that they do not multiply readily is not genomically driven but due to our cultural belief system biased for binding us to power and governance, even sometimes for good reason.

I have an affection for data based decision making, yet I am increasingly brought up short by the human capacity for opinion and often called back to cautious consciousness by the virulence of that opinion. Consider the explosion of asocial fantasy, pornographic, political or conspiratorial, on the internet. Consider the efforts now needed to preserve scientific data, gleaned through assiduous effort to understand our world, because that data is at risk from opinion mongers. Yes, the Catholic church 400 years ago put Galileo under house arrest and threat of death if he continued to espouse some facts. Yes, Hitler and Stalin perverted science to justify the final solution and Lysenkoism. Yes, some of America’s leaders reason their way to deny the benefits of our rich nation to a substantial minority based upon race, religion or what have you. And yes, small groups in our country have usurped governmental functions to do all of the above again, because opinions serve power more than understanding, and power serves the wealthy more often than not.

Here is why I find the biological power of art so important, because art is not opinion about things nor is it concerned with facts. Art conveys one’s own particular experience through symbolic forms reliant on empathy for a successful communal experience. In making no claims to factual truth or powerful opinion, true art, great art, achieves something deeper for humanity, at the least a consideration of assumed values and at the most a transcendence that allows us to view the human landscape with a sublime perspective. That enables us to understand the importance of basic values such as the Golden Rule, the necessity of prosocial governance, the importance of compassion, the tenuousness of reality, life’s daunting challenges (that we all share) to mitigate necessity and exploit chance, and the sense of Gaia as one, albeit complex, thing, i.e., an organism itself. Art, like a family or group gathered around a hearth to share a meal of remembrance and celebration, helps us remember what civilization is and isn’t and how delicate its hold on us here on earth is.

This post begins a periodic expansion on this blog of looking at current cultural issues from the perspective of our biological roots, because I feel the need to address the factual basis of this new expletive, “Oh, humans!” and that is my opinion.