Male privilege is an ugly cultural trope

So I am talking with a friend, whom I know to be intelligent and fair-minded about Mr. Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford, and I am caught by surprise.  He says first that Dr. Ford has been too inconsistent in her testimony about who was in the room when she was assaulted (she hasn’t), so that he cannot believe her. Then he says the incident is not big deal because he as a teenager tried to “cop a feel” many times, thereby equating perhaps overly aggressive making out with forceful isolation and capture while trying to strip the lady (I heard this too many times when I worked with sexually aggressive youth).  Finally he says the #Metoo movement has gone too far because simply accusing a man ruins his reputation.  Geesh!  If he had ever expressed concern over the centuries old culture of men abusing women with impunity I could give him a break on this one, but he has not. We talked a good deal about his views mostly to no purpose and I have since wondered about the lacuna in his moral outlook and how it is that what we call ‘male privilege’ is inculcated mentally and then so strongly affects perception, action, and judgment and the male seems unaware of the effects.

One analogy here is our accent when speaking. We learn early on to speak with a regional and familial accent; we can recognize speakers from Boston, the Midwest, and different parts of the South.  Our accents can change incidentally when we move to a new region or on purpose as when some train their voices for media work.  Further, we make judgments about people based on their accent.  I lived all over the USA and graduated high school in Japan.  My accent was a conglomerate of family and different regions. Some years after high school and having lived in North Carolina for 12 years, I ran into an old girlfriend.  We had been talking for a while when she said that she knew I was smart but that I sounded so dumb with my southern accent. Who knew?  And after long holidays in Ireland and Scotland I find, and friends remark on it, that my accent has picked up a little of their lovely lilt.

Accents different from our own can be hard to understand and put people off. My mother grew up in south central Virginia.  She left there in the mid-1940s with my father who joined the Air Force.  In 1960 we moved to North Dakota.  In those days you went through an operator to make a long distance call.  When my mother tried to call home, i.e., Petersburg VA, the operator could not understand her and she could not understand the operator, who spoke and listened with the Norwegian rooted accent native to that area.  My sister stepped in to translate.  When we visited family the next summer, her sisters said my mother sounded strange to them and talked like a ‘Yankee’.  Oh, my.

I use this analogy only to highlight the incidental, mostly unconscious learning of specific cultural facets.  A deeper and broader facet would be sex/gender roles, e.g., boys don’t cry, girls do and that’s ok except that it indicates their lack of rationality. “Boys will be boys” and so much misbehavior, some of it quite serious in its violation of another person, is excused, and aren’t all men really boys at heart so give all of them a break, please. I have posted several times before about gender bias and sexual harassment/assault.  As a clinical psychologist I worked with many young males who had been sexually aggressive.  They wondered what the problem was or thought their actions were completely ok and justified.  The complexity of full consent was unknown to them as it is to many males in many cultures. Why?  Because full consent, in the view of many males, does not apply to them—this is the rotten core at the heart of male privilege.

We go from being young children with instincts for empathy, intimacy, fair play, helping others, & revulsion at seeing others hurt to (especially men now) feeling entitled to catcall and comment on a woman’s appearance, privileged to touch her without either explicit permission or, more commonly, mutually established trust and intimacy, and holding opinions that women do not want powerful and responsible positions because they are too fragile or just prefer someone else to do the heavy lifting.  And opining that the questions raised about a man’s behavior when a women alleges that he has been inappropriate are being handled unfairly, while showing little concern about the incredible numbers of women who endure sexualized mistreatment silently because they are only too aware that speaking out will compound their mistreatment by those who loudly carry forward male privilege.

When we consider how our brains are acculturated in this way, how we inculcate assumptions in our habitus about the rules of social behavior, and how our Empathy Central or EC (that’s ToM or Theory of Mind to most of you) operates with the moral lacunae of male privilege, when we consider such phenomena, our lack of knowledge about this neuropsychology is plainly seen.  But we do know some things; go back a couple of posts and read about Decety’s model of empathy (see post 9/9/18) and Iacoboni’s ideas about existential neuroscience (see post 9/16/18). The latter discusses the centrality of mirroring and mentalizing about others in social behaviors.  Male privilege can be seen as both a defective mirror that distorts the resonance with another (females are so different from us, huh, guys?) and inaccurate algorithms that provide errant empathetic suppositions about the other (she can’t rationally object to what I the man think).  Decety’s model includes the failure to mirror and resonate accurately and fully and he also adds 3 other systemic difficulties [from that post]:

  • Confusion as to the agent of thoughts and feelings. They think their own thoughts and feelings are also the other’s and they may fail to process accurately social feedback when the other tries to disagree or otherwise present their own perspective (familiar, ladies?).
  • This leads to problems with perspective taking. They may assume that their perspective is shared by everyone [males assume females share theirs]
  • Poorly developed emotional regulation presents difficulties for staying on mental task and intent as well as for responding with empathic concern for the other—instead they act upon their own egoistic anxiety and fail to engage socially in an adequate manner

Male privilege is a cultural trope that has maintained its bias through many iterations for a long, long time.  Such bias is inculcated while young in various ways with different forms according to one’s sex/gender, family traditions, social class, and educational level.  Like a linguistic accent, our social behaviors and attitudes have a ‘privileged’ accent.  Many operate with this accent, i.e., bias, without any cognizance that something is different, indeed that something is wrong.  Some do learn to operate socially and morally with a different accent, i.e., they reflect consciously on their attitudes, evaluating their accuracy and fairness, and change the bias acquired earlier in life.

As I posted in January about Oprah’s wonderful speech at the Golden Globes: “Oprah’s promising vision of a world where girls and women meet respect and justice is one beautiful flower of this moment in time and cultural egress leaving a stultified domain of male privilege and entering one refreshed by the inclusion of females in a new and refreshing view of their humanity, the acknowledgment of their personhood and the refusal by everyone to abide by any violation of this inalienable right.” The change needed to fulfill this vision is, given the long history of cultural biases, enormous.  Indeed, it is in a way utopian, but it is also already evident in the cultural path of our civilization.  We are not alone in refusing to go forward with male privilege. That’s a good thing because the heavy lifting necessary for progress has gotten a bit heavier this past week or so. Travel on.

Existential neuroscience and autonoesis

I read a remarkable article by Marco Iacoboni in Social Neuroscience entitled “The Quiet Revolution in Existential Neuroscience”.  Instead of ‘quiet’ I wish it would be quite loud.  It makes for some dense reading but worth every nerve impulse to do so.  His main argument seems to be that instead of doing neuroscience based on the assumptions that the subjective and objective worlds are clearly delineated and that the subjective world is based upon representations which have been constructed through the accretion of analyzed elements (some pragmatic truth in that), our neuroscience should be based upon “the view of a human brain that needs a body to exist in a world of shared social norms in which meaning originates from being-in-the-world”.  What is important to our minds is not so much the analytic synthesis but the embodied context of experience.  Hey now, I can get behind that one.

Iacoboni marshals evidence for this view from a variety of research, especially studies into the frontoparietal mirror system.  (The frontal lobe has motoric functions that light up when we see someone doing something and the parietal lobe has perceptual and body schema functions that contribute to this mirroring).  Some studies show that mirroring emotions both incidentally and intentionally invokes not just the mirrored expressive actions but also the emotional processes themselves in the limbic system.  We mirror each other automatically on an almost continuous basis and that this leads to (I really like this next part) “a process according to which a certain intimacy is achieved . . . . . What is this intimacy if not the interdependence of both parties”.  What is emphasized here is not our separateness but our communal feelings. Mirroring helps us identify with and understand the other’s intention and emotional state.  This plays, of course, an important role in ‘mentalizing’ about others, what I call EC for Empathy Central and others label it ToM for Theory of Mind.

There is a lot more about this to be said but I want to explore another remarkable idea.  Iacoboni sees our minds interpreting much of our experience in context.  The same actions occur in many situations, so that to understand the other’s acts requires the inclusion of context in our deliberations.  (Be still, O my heart).  If I read him correctly, one major feature of any context is the degree of personal relevance; some situations are impersonal, i.e., without emotional engagement or involvement (think of doing things as a matter of course), and some are more personal, i.e., their emotional involvement leads to episodic memories (the experience is important enough to remember as an autobiographical episode of your life).  Experiences that are important to the self are autonoetic, as was discussed in my recent post 8/22/18, and autonoesis has many implications.


DMPFC=dorsomedial prefrontal cortex MPC=medial parietal cortex. Illustration provided by Georg Northoff – Georg Northoff  Brain and self – a neurophilosophical account Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health 2013, 7:28.

Most amazingly, Iacoboni identifies two structures relevant to the mirroring system, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and the medial parietal cortex, that light up when the experience is autonoetic (my interpretation).  For example, these two areas are silent during artificial laboratory tasks that have little ecological validity but they become more active when the task is social in a meaningful way.  Iacoboni says our ‘default state’ is to think socially and these two areas help in the ongoing social thinking needed to relate in a authentic, i.e., not rote or cant, manner.  To refer back to his earlier notion, these areas light up more when the situation’s import is based upon intimacy, i.e., engagement with the other, than when the situation is socially sterile.

Now, if you have followed my blog somewhat closely for more than a few months, you may already have a sense of how my dorsomedial prefrontal and medial parietal cortices are fired up.  Consider one of Iacoboni’s preliminary research finding that these areas light up when political aficionados discuss politics and grow dark when politically naïve or disinterested people do so.  I take this to mean that some of us feel politics is relevant to our lives and some do not.  Some do because they are cognitively engaged in issues and some do only because of the chameleon effect, i.e., they are responding by fitting in through social imitation and emotional contagion.  If you have done any phone canvassing for a candidate you might recall conversations based on positions, conversations based upon an emotional identification, and some when the person could care less.

Now consider a study posted about here on 4/18/18 that demonstrated that the closer you are, i.e., developing intimacy, with colleagues and friends, the more your neural responses to watching a movie are congruent with each other.  Also consider (and it may help to re-read my 8/22/18 post) the role of autonoesis in art. My empirical question is when someone ‘gets into’ a work of art, e.g., reading a novel that is hard to put down or seeing a movie that you love, do these areas indicative of autonoesis or personal engagement, i.e., dorsomedial prefrontal medial parietal cortices, light up? If you used an instrument to assess one’s aesthetic response such as the AESTHEMOS (see post 10/31/17), would this correlate with activity in these areas?  A very interesting study there wants to be done—oh to be a younger man in a research setting.  But go one step further with me.

Aristotle in talking about drama but it applies, I think, in some way to art forms in general, says that since we know the art is not ‘factual’, i.e., couldn’t be relevant to our ‘real’ life, to engage emotionally (and aesthetically, I would say) we must have a willing suspension of disbelief.  So I wonder if such a suspension allows what I am calling these autonoetic areas to fire up, and if we find art uninvolving, e.g., we could care less about the characters or the plot of a stupid movie, do these areas remain dark?  Oh my, that is seeking the deep aesthetic in life and mind.  Travel on.


a precious process part 2

So we know from last post that the mirror system contributes to our social skill of reading another’s intention.  Most researchers frame their studies of this theoretically as contributing to cooperation and joint activity and that is fine as far as it goes, but I also think that mirroring and empathy play an important role in both the evolution and the development of intimacy, which is important to the development of verbal, i.e., symbolic, communication.  Consider the epitome of intimate relationships, mother and child.  Watch a video of a mother-infant face to face interaction, how they mirror each other in action, e.g., sticking out tongues, and in rhythm, and this is only the beginning. In my former life I was a speech-language pathologist working primarily with preschoolers, some of whom had articulation disorders that made their speech difficult to understand.  I learned that no matter how disordered the child’s articulation, his or her mother could understand them.  Often fathers could too, though not as well as mother, depending on how involved the dad was in parenting.  Also older siblings were usually pretty good at understanding them.  In these early years communicative success is critical to energizing development. Indeed, as throughout our lifespan, feeling understood is a prerequisite to feeling good about our relationships and our life.


so is this kid happy or what?

Parent-child mirroring also plays an essential role in the development of emotional regulation.  Allan Schore gives a comprehensive summary of research into this in his two volumes on Affect Regulation and Affect Dysregulation.  While most people focus on the how the child learns to gain comfort, calm, self soothe, and recover from emotional distress, Shore also sees the importance of emotional innervation, i.e., the infant learns how to be positively excited through mirroring with parents.  We need to develop and acquire the capabilities to cope with distress, alleviate sadness, and also very importantly to be happy, i.e., to energize with positive emotions and use that energy for relating, or as my wife and I said in our vows, “to build a space for joy.”

Consider now how energetic, joyful mirroring appears later in life and its important contribution to social bonding and the expansion of intimacy.  I believe all cultures, at least those healthy dynamic ones, have traditions that promote musical fellowship and ecstatic dancing, e.g., drum circles, Celtic ceilidhs, and some vibrant church services.


Who wrote the book of love?

As an example of what I would call an unhealthy culture, remember almost any repressive fundamentalist religion. Scottish Presbyterian ministers in the 19thcentury demanded that musical instruments be destroyed (how could they destroy the family fiddle?), my Baptist family frowned on all dancing and rock and roll (were Buddy Holly and Elvis really doing the Devil’s work?), and even today the Taliban and ISIS use inquisitorial measures to restrict dancing and music.  One measure of unhealthiness is hypocrisy; for example when allied forces invaded Afghanistan in the effort to fight terrorism, they captured some Taliban leaders and their cars that had within tapes and CDs of music they had forbidden others to have.  It’s a small sick joy listening must have brought them.

Finally consider falling in love and how sexual intimacy involves the energetic acceleration of each partner’s pleasure centers together.  This is a highly skilled, difficult and variable performance and its learning requires a certain level of healthy development that includes how to mirror such actions and feelings.  In my past life as a clinical psychologist I worked with sexually aggressive youth, i.e., they had sex on someone, not with them.  Their aggression generally resulted from key experiences that bruised their empathic capability and stunted their capacity for real intimacy.  They used sex to energize themselves through feelings of power and control at the expense of their ‘partner.’  This bruising and stunting is more pervasive in our culture than many understand.

Why is the #MeToo movement so important? Because it demands change to how males (mostly) exert power to gain energy for themselves while draining the other’s energy; indeed they transform the victim’s energy from intimacy’s positive dynamic to the negative toxins of trauma and assault.  And so, the #MeToo movement in its full expression insists that our culture promote true intimacy through the abnegation of the mostly male illusion that coercion is a path to intimate joy (and parents need to instill a finer model for masculine intimacy).  That mirroring leads to intimacy is then a most precious process, and we must nurture and protect it.  Intimacy needs cherishing, or as Stevie Wonder sang, “Love’s in need of love today”.   (Now don’t get me started about the separation of parents and children and the consequent bruising of the child’s development of empathy.)  Better now to travel on.

a precious process part 1

I found a 2015 article that shows an important aspect of mirror systems in our empathizing, the lateralization of empathy and verbally directed attention, and the necessary neural (is there any other kind?) connection between context and intention:   Marco Iacoboni and colleagues, who first discovered mirror neurons back in the day, used a complicated experimental design to investigate mirroring systems in humans.  The set-up is to show video clips to subjects undergoing fMRI and then examine and compare the different brain responses to different clips.  Now these films were of a cup grasped either by the handle or by the whole cup with either of two contexts, either a table set for tea with cookies, clean plates, folded napkins, etc. or a table after tea with only cookie crumbs on plates, napkins in disarray, etc.  The idea is to see what neural systems operate to identify the intention of the person grasping the cup, either to drink or to wash. They used variations so that they could subtract neural patterns from one another to see the effects of the different types of grasping, the effects of context without the cup being grasped, and context with the cup being grasped.  All told, a very logical design that let them examine those factors and brain patterns.

Their motivation was to see if mirror neurons contributed directly to the apprehension of another’s intent or if other neural systems were used to mediate that process.  Their results showed that the mirroring system does contribute directly to the viewer’s understanding of intent without other areas being recruited, that it was the mirrored action coupled with context that enabled the apprehension of the other’s intent, that the intent itself was processed especially in the right frontal lobe, and that verbal directions were processed more through the left sided attentional system.  Another implication is that the mirroring system automatically processed the information about the intent no matter if the directions directed the subject to attend to that or distracted the subject to other features.  Quite an accomplishment all this, I think.

I have maintained that right sided structures process the immediate concrete information while the left side deals more with displaced information.  The reading of another’s intent from actions would be just such a current event, so the nexus of processing the intent to the right side makes sense.  That the mirroring system does this as a matter of course also makes sense because monitoring another’s intention is critical to social interaction, specifically to interacting with social intelligence, and is usually done incidentally in an interaction.

Two thoughts to finish up here, one about when this mirroring system dysfunctions and one about how it culminates and fulfills its evolutionary mission. The first instance happens with brain damage and/or developmental deficits.  Strokes etc. rarely damage just the mirror system but when it is included, patients have difficulty imitating or miming actions, reading and comprehending another’s intentions and feelings, and behaving in socially appropriate ways. Developmental deficits, such as those on the autism spectrum, result in deficient empathy and all that that entails. Several researchers, such as V. S. Ramachandran, think that mirroring deficits are at the core of the autistic syndrome, i.e., the person’s ToM (Theory of Mind as it is generally called, EC or Empathy Central as I like to call it) is deficient, i.e., Ramachandran calls it ‘a broken mirror system’.  Without this precious knowledge a person experiences difficulty establishing and maintaining social connections.

What about when the mirroring system operates optimally and develops with appropriate experience?  Over the past year I have come to understand that just as our symbolic capability makes human communication distinctive in the animal realm, so too does our empathic capability make human intimacy distinctive.  Indeed, I think that our symbolic capability emerges from our intimacy (look back at recent posts to see this).  Now intimacy is hard to study empirically yet it is critical to our humanity. Consider how important trust issues are and how destructive a breach is; we think we know our intimates well enough to trust them completely.  When we meet someone who seems erratic we will constrain our trust and development of intimacy.  Also consider how well married couples, e.g., old people, who are very intimate, know each other’s intent implicitly; they can readily read each other’s intents even in novel situations.  It is as if they share one mind on some matters.

So the mirroring system functions as an initial phase in a crucial process that leads to intimacy if successful interaction proceeds on course.  I have more to say about this but that will be in part 2. Travel on.


Neanderthal update

I like Neanderthal stories for two reasons. First, this research shows science at it best in the development of technologies to date artifacts, the diligent search for ancient clues, and especially, the fact that our conception of who the Neanderthal were has dramatically changed as new data have come in. Since their discovery over a hundred years ago we have gone from thinking them brutes barely different from gorillas to now almost completely human like us. Changing minds through new data is to be much appreciated. The second reason is that genetic studies prove that my ancestors mated with them and I do not want to think of my people long ago mating with brutes of little intellects and no symbolic capabilities. I would hope they were more discriminating.

So the most recent update comes from this story in the NYT:

Evidently some paleoanthropologists were holding up their admission of the Neanders into full humanity because they said the evidence allowed the possibility that their use of tools and their art making were copied from Homo sapiens. That objection has now fallen as art and tools have been found and dated through new, refined technology to time periods way before modern humans entered Europe. Hmm, maybe Homo sapiens copied tools and art from them?

My latest thinking on the inception of symbolic thought, both discursive (language) and presentational (art) forms, is that our heightened empathic abilities led to a rather robust intimacy, a mind to mind connection through kinesic modalities wherein we sensed and knew the other’s subjective mental domain, coupled with the increasing power and specificity of mirroring systems serving communication (think arcuate fasciculus). This yields the view that an intimate connection of immediate sensing of another’s mind coupled with the invariant structure of surface behaviors produced the first symbols.

In this light consider why early art is so often found in caves, and not just close to the entrances but sometimes way back in there. We visited one site in France where an electric railcar took us maybe a mile back into the cave to see etchings of mammoths and other animals on the ceiling. Why? Some say that art rose in association with animist magic, that these paintings were a mystical participation with the animal spirits and communion with Gaia. Read Kim Stanley Robinson’s excellent novel Shaman to see the truth of this possibility. But magic has both public and private aspects. Yes, shaman protected their mysteries (and for good reason because sometimes they were not so mysterious once initiated) but they also performed public rituals. Indeed, magic would not be very useful if not public.

Here’s another thought: Art came about when the need arose to extend intimacy beyond the circle of familiars, art being a personal expression of some vital experience, and so the first artists were a bit shy about their productions and protected their privacy by painting deep in caves. As we learned more about art and more came to appreciate the beauty therein, we moved it out into the public domain and cultural identity took on another feature. Even today while some artists open their studios to audiences, many keep their creations private until complete, and some, like Leonardo da Vinci, keep their most precious pieces in their possession. Leonardo kept the Mona Lisa with him for 20 years, working on it a little bit now and again, and died with it in his room, never giving it to his patron. Personal, private, it was.

Anyway, I really like my hypothesis about the inception of art here; it feels fit to me, this combining empathic intimacy and mirrored communication. (You heard it here first). Time, now, to travel on.


That sapiens guy copied my bison drawing. Good grief! Did a good job though. These new kids may have some talent.

2 roots or 2 lenses &

a heartwarming confluence of ideas

So keen readers of this blog will have realized that I think our humanity stems from 2 roots of our evolution, empathy developing deeply and robustly within our mammalian ancestry and symbolization developing more recently from somewhere within our ancestry, some current still mysterious despite the power of our science to understand such things. I think that is changing as I write. I read (think and write) with those two lenses to help me focus on empathy and symbolization in order to understand what I consider of paramount importance, our humanity, and I am glad I do, because the confluence of findings is, to say it simply, simply beautiful.

For the past 18 months or so I have been reading books about music and the brain (& periodically posting about it here—see posts on  6/17/14, 6/15/14, 11/12/14, 12/17/14, 5/19/15). Most recently I have started reading Origins of Music, a collection of articles presented as the initial text of evolutionary biomusicology. Wow, a third into the book and it is already worth every penny and second spent reading it.   Peter Marler, one of the preeminent early researchers into bird song if you did not know, writes that he believes the creativity evidenced in certain species’ songs may well represent an evolutionary stream contributing to the thoughtful varied expression of human music and language.   Thomas Geissmann, whom I do not know much about, writes that a primate relatively close to hominids, the gibbon, sings duets that may also represent an important contribution to our musical (and linguistic?) abilities.


Mozart the mockingbird, a great singer

Let us look at these through my two lenses, empathy and symbolization.  Marler provides a cogent analysis of the different bird songs such as the acoustic shape of the song, its context and presumed communicative function, e.g., territorial, mating, warning, spacing, etc. He finds that the birds with the most varied songs could perhaps be incipient to human music. The link is the creativity shown in vocal performance along with social communication. (One key difference is the regularity of the beat in human music). These birds, including the mocking bird and the brown thrasher, have, as it were, a creative sense of melody; does this reflect some significant difference in neural processing? Is this difference also manifest in relationships or is bird song, even at its most creative, so constrained by a brain quite limited to some immediate present, i.e., limited by the lack of power to displace information evident in mammalian evolution, heightened in primate and then, especially, hominid minds. These questions are based upon the idea that bird song became music, i.e., became a symbolic form as do all symbols, through the control of displacement from and abstraction of current information. To be plain about it, this is a primary root of symbolization.

Thomas Geissmann likewise provides a cogent analysis of gibbon song, and it turns out to be even more incredible than I previously suspected (see post 6/15/2014 on bird and gibbon songs. My next post will discuss some of these issues further). He focuses on the duets sung by male and female pairs. One most interesting finding is that the occurrence of duets correlates with the social interaction of bonding, e.g., grooming, sharing favored food source, behavioral synchronization, etc. Further, these gibbons are monogamous and they perform their duets, which are not that variable in form, with their partner. Geissmann reports that all primates that sing and not just call and hoot and such like have a monogamous social structure. Ah, song arising from intimacy. The male and female contributions are stereotyped in sequence and acoustical characteristics. Geissmann reports that a pair broken up and forced to bond with a new mate will each develop a new duet specific to that relationship. They do not, as my wife reacted when she heard this study, stop singing forever. I do not know the specifics of the experimental manipulation of forced bonding but I will say that my heart palpitates anxiously at what these scientific ethics entail.


A silver gibbon parent–they sing with their mates

So the main point here is that we have vocal communication serving the empathic relationship. Another feature of gibbon communication figures as an incipient homology to human music. When gibbons sing their duets and communicate vocally with the wider tribe, e.g., “Hey, look at the unfamiliar conspecific”, a stranger as it were, in our domain, they, or at least the females, always move not so much as for practical functions as for expressive engagement, termed more scientifically, a stereotypical locomotor display. Now compare this to what many who have studied the matter think, that music and dance evolved together. The gibbon songs are not so much creative statements of conceptual activity as social attunement. Ah, empathy.

So we have now looked through the dual lenses of empathy and symbolization at what these studies might mean. One of my contentions is that symbolization grew (grows) from the empathic awareness of another’s mind, their hidden subjective domain, in contrast with one’s own, and the subsequent call and challenge to communicate otherwise hidden contents. While birdsong creativity is important, generally only males sing. While primate song is generally stereotypical and not learned from parents, both sexes participate in vocal communication. An early confluence would seem to be between the creative novelty found in bird song and the empathic communication found in gibbons, but how could these different evolutionary streams merge? As I said at the beginning, our understanding of this question is changing as I write.


Shall we gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river?

Much more can and will be said about this. For now, Happy New Year, and travel on.

nice try, Homo erectus

Science News among others reported a find of a shell with clearly scratched lines, a sort of N combined with a W or vice versa, by Homo erectus over 400,000 years ago. Our man is No. 3 here (and we are No. 6).

By Волков В.П. (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Волков В.П. (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

That’s almost 300,000 years before Homo sapiens began to swim in the gene pool, much less began to glyph around. One archeologist commented that what we understand to be modern human behavior needs some revision. I believe that truth has been blowing in the wind for some time now, with big gusts since Darwin but a strong breeze continues even from Copernicus and Galileo.

I thought more about the idea mentioned last post, i.e., our minds beginning with intimacy and ending with intellectual endeavors, perhaps as two endpoints of that specific segment or arc on the continuum of evolution and now our development. Now I wonder if this shell comes from an early try to make a glyph in the effort to communicate mental musings with others. If so, it didn’t help them survive because that specific lineage died out long ago, though we do not understand this well due to so little data. We moderns assuredly share many of our genes with them because we do with every body else. But here we maybe have a simple and early example of the intimate-intellectual continuum, a very short arc as it were back then:

So, on an island in the south Pacific, one individual uses a shark’s tooth to scratch lines on a shell and another wonders what the other one is cogitating about. This occurs presumably long before human culture had coalesced and begun to fill our minds and the gap between them with memes, maybe even before language had evolved to the point where reporting on the virtual reality of our interiority was done with facility. I don’t see this as a meme (maybe an ur-meme) because of the lack of a coherent meaning conveyed in its expression. This does illustrate to my mind how our keen sense of empathy, working up to a theory of mind that can guide our understanding of another’s interiority and onward then through linguistic (and shell) communication to share our practical and intellectual thought, how this led to an intimate moment of sharing otherwise private mentations, or as we lovers say, a penny for your thoughts?