Saturday, February 14, 2009

More Science Stuff: God the Gap-Filler

I don’t understand how people can look at chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans and not see the effects of evolution. I look at these apes and I see my own face. And yet…

Orangutans affect me the most. They are smarter than chimpanzees. They learn and adapt more quickly, they make extensive use of tools. Their faces are so intelligent. Once, at a zoo, I spent several minutes staring in what I hoped was a non-threatening way at a large male having a rest against the cool Plexiglas window on the second level of the orangutan area. He had a burlap sack over his head to shade himself. In the jungle, orangutans use banana leaves; here, the zoo provided sacks, which were in demand on this hot day. He and I watched each other for a while. He raised his eyebrows when I moved closer. I raised mine back. He scratched his armpit, mine started to itch. He yawned, I yawned. I tried not to anthropomorphize (it’s difficult with animals that look so human) but he seemed curious, then bored, and then he went to sleep.

I watched him over a small distance, maybe two to three feet, a distance that seemed as small as the physiological distance between the two of us. Just a pinch of DNA here and there, maybe a couple rearrangements of sequences, and I am a human and he is an orangutan. But the truer measure of distance yields a vast gap. It’s that thing that no one understands well but we call “consciousness.” Philosophers, biologists, physicists, and computer scientists have all tried to define it; all the definitions differ. But nearly all of the thinkers I’ve read on this topic agree that humans have it and other animals do not.

A chimpanzee can recognize itself in a mirror; so can orangutans and, I believe, gorillas. This is a species of consciousness. Dogs, cats and birds, for example, react to their reflections as if seeing second animal. Most animals can learn, be conditioned with food rewards or punishments. Chimpanzees have rudimentary reasoning and planning skills. Many animals have emotions (although they do not, to our knowledge, understand them as such), many animals have complex social structures. Chimpanzees in particular have fascinating interlocking social hierarchies, and behaviors that look a lot like politics (right down to the baby-kissing, on occasion). Nearly all of what is present in humans is also present in our closest relatives.

Descartes believed it was language that set human beings apart from other animals, which I would call the ability to represent the world in symbols and manipulate it accordingly. I tend to agree. While all animal species communicate, none seem to be able to master to any significant degree, the ability to understand the relationship between a set of symbols and the world. As a result, none but humans can use those symbols to create things that did not exist but are brought into existence as a result of this symbolic understanding. Or, the idea to build a wheel likely preceded the wheel.

Then again, the human brain is itself a mystery. I read a book by a cognitive psychologist called Julian Jaynes, with the irresistible title The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes’ theory is roughly that consciousness evolved in human beings many thousands of years after the species evolved. Up until about 3000 years ago, we just heard voices and did as we were told, because the two hemispheres of our brains were not yet fully connected.

It’s not that far-fetched. Ancestor worship is probably the earliest form of religion in human beings. What better way to understand death than to attribute the voice in one’s head to the recently deceased relative or leader? Dead mothers and fathers eventually became gods and goddesses, ordering us to act in certain ways from the left hemisphere (language, ordering of stimuli and planning) and understood and obeyed as a familiar voice in the right brain (intuition, emotion, creativity). Also, if we believe, per Papa Darwin, nature does not make leaps, it makes more intuitive sense that consciousness evolved separately in humans after the speciation event, rather than bam! Humans! Consciousness!

Jaynes was never taken very seriously by his colleagues. This inclines me to him. Also, he describes several split-brain studies and studies done with people who suffered various types of brain damage that suggest there is something to his theory. As a last resort for severe epileptics, a neurosurgeon may sever the corpus callosum (the neuronal tissue that connects the two hemispheres of the brain) to prevent the electrical storm from spreading. These patients can generally communicate and act normally, but when certain perceptual and cognitive functioning is tested, the results are seriously bizarre. When asked to both identify and point to a picture of an apple, a patient told the experimenter she could not see an apple, even as her left hand was reaching towards the picture.

Other studies Jaynes cites involve brain damaged patients hearing voices, having visual hallucinations (very, very rare without the aid of psychotropic drugs) and various and sundry other—forgive me—wicked cool results, suggesting that indeed there are two brains inside our heads and it is the connection of these two brains that somehow creates something called “consciousness.”

We’ll probably never know. And I suppose this is my urge to fill the gap. I want to know. I want to know what orangutans are thinking. I want to know what a chimpanzee thinks when she sees me looking at her. I want to know what something that isn’t human makes of humanity.

For now, I’ll accept the fantasy and science fiction that at least provides insight into what human beings think that non-human beings think of human beings. It’s why I love Tolkien’s Ents. Forget orangutans. What would an ancient tree-herder make of all this?


  1. Ah, Ruby, I love the way your mind wanders over these things. Intelligence without specialist expertise - makes for the best conversation.

    Did you see the story of that Japanese research, last year, with chimps? The experiment was to flash up numbers from 1 to 10 on a screen, momentarily, then replace each number with a blank square, and the subject had to try to touch the squares in the correct order. It turned out chimps could do this better than humans.

    The write-ups I saw focused on the chimps' short-term memory, and suggested that perhaps they were better at focusing, having less on their minds. But what impressed me about it was that it implied the chimps could distinguish between symbols, and they knew that the symbols were supposed to go in a certain order. That's reading.

    A couple of thoughts, apropos of nothing much:
    - Chimps are sociable creatures, living in small tribes in the wild. Orangs are solitary. So I'm guessing the orang-utan might be better at practical problem-solving, but I imagine the chimp is better at communication and, probably, better at abstract reasoning, if there's any way of testing that.
    - From personal observation, I can tell you that cats don't react to a mirror as if to another cat. Dick investigated his reflection for a couple of minutes when he first encountered a mirror; but after that, he knew exactly what it was, and paid no attention to it at all.

    Have you started on "I am a Strange Loop" yet? It has a whole bunch of thoughts, theories and experiments about the emergence of consciousness in humans. Hofstadter goes on for some time about being a vegetarian, precisely because he thinks much the same process happens in animals.

  2. Wicked cool stuff indeed. I have long been intrigued by the notion that the early human brain did indeed hear God, that the voice of God is indeed the voice of the human brain itself.

  3. Some disjointed thoughts offered to my fellow primates:

    I sense that some of the humorless sods that can't abide Darwin or his Theory really are offended by the concept that at some point 'way back, an ape sits on their family tree, eating a banana and shrieking. I don't get it. I like monkeys, and I am proud to be their descendant.

    2And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

    It is interesting to think of this story as a communication problem. Abraham's voice stopped him at the last minute, we are told.

    Where I work, people who hear the voice of god get strong prescription drugs.

    Lew Lehr: "Monkeys are the craziest people!"

  4. I don't get to the zoo often enough, but when I do, my companions (the human ones that arrive at and leave the zoo with me) usually end up touring the place without me beyond the chimpanzee, orangutan or gorilla habitats. I get stuck there and can't leave. In fact, once I come upon the opportunity to sit and observe their lives like that, I have absolutely no interest in the rest of what the zoo offers. I went to the Atlanta zoo alone once just to spend the day watching the Gorillas. Choomba (see I connected that day. She watched me as much as I watched her. Later, I read about her and discovered we were born the same year and we share a favorite food... oranges. :) I felt quite the connection with her that day.

    Wonderful post here, Ruby.

  5. Oh, I'm so glad people liked this. It is a subject of much interest to me these days, probably due to Darwin's 200th birthday.

    vet, I have been told by a couple bartenders that I would make a great bartender in a reasonably upscale joint (i.e. little to no sports talk), as I seem to be able to riff on a range of topics for about 10 minutes each. One bartender and I had a lovely argument about who was "better," German or French philosophers.

    I had not read that study, but it's fascinating. I wouldn't quite call it "reading" though, in the sense that we read, which is to say, the simplest explanation is the chimps are able to discern relationships between two sets of symbols but not, say, the relationship between "2" and the concept "two."

    Re other animals and mirrors, yes, the research I've read is old; it's possible there are more complex phenomena at work. Experimentally, the chimp is anesthetized and the experimenters put a dot of bright nail polish on its forehead. When the chimp wakes up, wanders around and sees itself in a mirror, it will immediately investigate the red dot on its own head. To my knowledge, no other animals do that. They may ignore the reflection after a time, but don't seem to make the connection between "self" and "thingy in the mirror." Then again, maybe they aren't as vain as chimps.

    hick and Eric, yeah, god as voices in the head which we medicate because now we have our singular consciousness that should be able to determine that these "voices" are us talking to ourselves. I like Jaynes' theory for a number of reasons; it's elegant and explains so much.

    maze, so awesome. Another monkey watcher! My mom experienced profound sympathy with a female gorilla we saw one day--babies climbing all over her, pulling at her and hooting a little--the mama heaved this deep sigh, plucked the kids off of her, turned her back to them and us and walked up a hill a little ways to lie down with her arm over her eyes.

  6. Ah, when you describe it like that - I'd have to agree, I don't think my cat recognised the reflection as "himself". I think he got as far as realising that the mirror was an inanimate thing, and what he saw in it wasn't "real". Much like TV.

    I'm not sure if he would have grasped the idea that he could look at himself. Sight is one of those things that you perceive others with. He was no exception to the rule that cats are famously un-empathic, and it's possible that he never realised that his "self" - the dark behind his eyes - was part of just another moving body, like others.

    When you talk about "god as voices in the head", my mind turns to the preface to Shaw's "St Joan". Shaw argues that Joan's visions and voices were what happens when you combine a keen and original mind with an unusually vivid imagination; then the thinker may "hear" thoughts as external voices, taking on a shape that is dictated by the imagery they're most familiar with, which in Joan's case would be Catholic iconography. "The inspirations and intuitions and unconsciously reasoned conclusions of genius sometimes assume similar illusions," he says.

    Which makes me very nervous when people talk about voices as a "symptom" to be medicated away. I realise Shaw wasn't a trained psychiatrist, but I'm going to have to be persuaded that he was wrong.

    I too would love to know what orang-utans, other apes - and cats, too - are thinking. Sometimes, as everyone knows, they seem extremely human; but all that really means, I think, is that we humans often act without engaging all our much-vaunted "higher" thought processes, instead merely seeking some obvious, immediate comfort or advantage.

  7. I'm here! I finally got a blog set up!

    And then I cross-posted a livejournal post, so there's nothing new, but still!

  8. A very pleasant, reflective read.

    Am I right in saying that, in addition to vet's observation about orangs being solitary, they are also the most aggressive and violent? Could it be that human behavior is a sort of composite of chimpanzee, monkey, and orang behaviors?

    When I read this comment:

    While all animal species communicate, none seem to be able to master to any significant degree, the ability to understand the relationship between a set of symbols and the world. As a result, none but humans can use those symbols to create things that did not exist but are brought into existence as a result of this symbolic understanding.

    ... I wondered whether our much-vaunted ability to create and manipulate symbols is necessarily a successful evolutionary adaptation. Why exactly is it to be envied?

    It is entertaining and can even be beautiful (to our eyes). But symbolic misinterpretations have led to all sorts of senseless conflicts and conquests. Perhaps it is a population-limiting device?

    What has the human capacity for symbol creation and manipulation done for the other species we share the planet with?

    Is it possible that that very capacity has eventuated in countless toxic miscarriages of invention, like oil rigs and nuclear weaponry and pthalenes? Humans gave so little thought to consequence when they jumped headlong into all that. Other species a few genes away from us have felt no such compulsion, yet seemed to have lived well anyway.

    If our fellow species could vote a single species off the planet, would it be us?

    Personally, I'd be eager to have a species-change operation just to be able to try out the communication systems of dolphins, otters, and whales. They may be elegant, effective, and poetic in ways we can't imagine.

    And let's not forget the elephants. That thought harks back to that wonderful and depressing cover article in the October 2006 issue (as I recall) of the NYT Magazine.

    It talked about the sophisticated social hierarchies among elephants that humans have wantonly destroyed because they assumed them not to exist, because symbol-manipulators deemed this "lesser" species incapable of long- distance communication, advanced social organization, bonding, mourning, and, for all we know, story-telling and stand-up comedy. They were just big oafs with ugly skins and ivory tusks, all of them basically alike.

    And with that, I shall mercifully cease manipulating all these silly little repetitive symbols.

  9. Well, I suppose the ability to manipulate symbols, along with consciousness in some form that seems to differ from all other animals, is to be envied because it has allowed us to out-compete a range of other animals for limited resources. We've taken the place of many top-o'-the-food-chain predators and are pressing ever closer to destroying or severely limiting the numbers of other species that require a lot of room.

    Whether this is moral is obviously a different matter. But human beings are, to date, the only species capable of such thoughts or the ability to carry them out at least in some small way: caring for other species, notions of "good" and "bad," etc. Chimps will eat other monkeys, many animals eat their own children...none of this seems to trigger behaviors that cause grief or sadness.

    Your implied point that human beings are no better than other animals is well made and taken. An honest evolutionary scientist must agree--there is no "better" or "worse" in any universal sense in science. There's just what is.

    Nor, then, are human beings any "worse," because such a concept does not exist in evolutionary science. Again, morally, it's a different question, but to say that other animals have not done these things is a bit disingenuous, as there is no evidence they could even they wanted to.

  10. Chimps will eat other monkeys, many animals eat their own children...none of this seems to trigger behaviors that cause grief or sadness.

    The operative word here being "seems". For all its presumed objectivity and contingent virtues, "science" can still not make "seems" into a "definitely does". Nor can it overcome its own built-in anthropocentric tendencies to project and interpret states like "grief" and "sadness" in other species.

    That's a rather shaky foundation on which to build a cosmogony, is it not?

    Your implied point that human beings are no better than other animals is well made and taken. An honest evolutionary scientist must agree--there is no "better" or "worse" in any universal sense in science. There's just what is.

    One cannot quite be sure what criteria go into that "better" designation, of course....

    Stephen Jay Gould once pointed out, in an interview intended to popularize the topic, that if we consider evolution to be a process of branching out, bushlike (O, how ironically arduous using those four letters still is!), the branch currently culminating in Homo sapiens could well be just one lateral structure among tens of thousands. The giant shrub has no summit (for that would imply an inadmissible teleology), and even if it had, rigorous evolutionary biologists could infer no particular significance from that fact. (Whether they would infer or do infer that or not, subliminally, is another question, and a pertinent one.)

    One must wonder how qualified human beings are to study their own evolution. "Science", as has been demonstrated time and again, is hardly as objective as it pretends. It is as socially constructed as many other fields of human endeavor, if in a more cleverly clandestine way. Politics determines research agendas and the availability of funding, to take but one example. An estimated 40% of the patient care procedures sanctioned by medical science still have no evidentiary basis, to cite another example. One need only consider the history of the hardest of the "hard" sciences, physics, as Kevles's classic study describes it, to validate this point.

    Many who consider themselves "scientists", however, recoil at the notion of social construction, even in the face of cogent evidence.

    But enough of this facile positivist-bashing.

    Nor, then, are human beings any "worse," because such a concept does not exist in evolutionary science. Again, morally, it's a different question, but to say that other animals have not done these things is a bit disingenuous, as there is no evidence they could even they wanted to.

    Again, there are questions of anthropocentric projections of agency and volition here. We cannot know what pit vipers want or whether they've been carefully planning a coordinated assault on the GOP for millennia. We might hope, but we really can't know for sure.

    The NYT Magazine article cited above does assert that elephant societies traumatized by human overhunting do knowingly retaliate on human settlements. Whether chimpanzees could, under threat of extinction, organize themselves into a military-industrial complex is dubious, I will concede.

    We do know that some human societies have managed to live sustainably, without overtaxing local resources and life forms, for centuries — a feat that should inspire unalloyed awe among civilized societies that are centuries away from pulling that off.

    But to conclude that the large-scale ravaging that has distinguished certain human societies for the past three centuries (or so) was inevitable would be ahistorical and as erroneous as the conviction that, because humans can live in some kind of balance with the rest of their ecosystem, human life is destined to continue.

    So let us seek clarity and solace by taking the long view for a few seconds. Given the existence of billions of galaxies with billions of stars and planets in each one (here and there with life forms eerily resembling Carl Sagan), it's very likely that our little organic experiment on Earth may be only one of many flawed instances where one species undermines the existence of hundreds of thousands of others.

    Or that, once the animal and vegetal populations on Earth are reduced to a bare minimum of members by starvation and onerous banking fees, and, say, the Yellowstone mega-volcano blows, the survivors, thus purged and chastened, might evolve into something more esthetically and morally palatable to a modern sensibility. (That might well take another 100 million years. Worse yet, there may still be plastic spring-water bottles washed up on the beaches.)

    I guess I'm still just a little attached to the planet in its current form, that's all. I find myself wishing that our species could get on top of its pride in its ability to create symbols — which may prove eons hence to have been a useless and detrimental aberration — and then use them for wanton, toxic self-mutilation.

    From attachment invariably issues suffering, warranted the most recent Buddha. My bad.

  11. (I do sometimes lament the disappearance of the explanatory subtitle that appeared in an earlier incarnation of Alluvial. Newcomers to the blog, who have not had the benefit of that line, must feel bereft of their bearings. Not that anyone has actually confessed to such a sentiment, I hasten to add.)

  12. I'm afraid the subtitle is lost. I remember something about "fertile," and being "picked up" and "dumped;" I'll see if I can dredge it up (heh).

    As for your other comment, I'm not asserting that humans should be proud to be human--how nonsensical, pride in one's species--just trying to understand what differentiates human beings from animals that seem so very close to human and yet...aren't. It seems to me a good thing to contemplate what it means to be human.

    I have no great love for my species. It matters not to me if it disappears from existence as a whole, although I care deeply about the survival of, oh, say, 20 members of it (including, natch, myself, although I'm not sure why). I'm not sure where you see me placing humans at the top of a non-existent tree; I'm definitely of the bush/lawn metaphor, knowing that I would die instantly if expected to live at the bottom of the ocean on the edge of boiling sulfur vents, like some bacteria do most comfortably.

    I wonder if your desire to attribute complex emotional phenomena to other animals isn't due to your implied acceptance of what I think is the true logical error--that because other species do not possess certain human traits, it's OK to do with them as we will. That also makes no sense. In short, rather than overreaching on the "facts" to assert how human other animals are, I'd look to science to provide the limited data that is its purview(how, what, maybe why) and look elsewhere for the meaning of that information.

  13. I wonder if your desire to attribute complex emotional phenomena to other animals

    On the contrary, I am allowing that such phenomena, whether complex or simple, however alien to human understanding, may exist. Perhaps because our species has designed its experimentation on other animals inadequately, leaving us without conclusive data to support the existence of one phenomenon or another, is hardly adequate justification for assuming anything about links between "complex emotional phenomena" in humans and in other species.

    your implied acceptance of what I think is the true logical error--that because other species do not possess certain human traits, it's OK to do with them as we will.

    Where on earth do you see such acceptance implied? The contrary is in fact the case. I'm a vegetarian (who has occasional seafood lapses). I gather that you're not. Please correct that impression if it's wrong.

    My rationale for being so is complex, but one key element is that I do not accept the commodification of animal (human or non-human) life.

    And if you've noticed when reading me over the past year, I rarely refer to "animals" and "human beings" as though the two categories were mutually exclusive. I usually use "non-human animals" whereas, I note with some relief, you're careful to say, most of the time, "other animals".

    Perhaps therefore you were reading something into my statements that wasn't actually there?

  14. It's possible. Here is my thought process:

    1. I write a piece that begins with a musing on the differences between myself as a human being and an orangutan. It expands to a discussion of consciousness and language as perhaps the factors the differentiate humans from other animals.

    2. You respond with a somewhat heated criticism of humanity and, in particular, language. You cite the elephant study with respect to elephantine emotional states and hierarchy and conclude with some attacks on human's ability to understand other animals via scientific inquiry.

    3. This response, I admit, confused me. I did not see where in my piece I "vaunted" anything at all, nor claimed human beings to be the totally awesomest of all other animals, who were giant chunks of suck. I assumed you were writing in response to what I had written, instead of just writing, which could be an error. I responded to you as best I could, using your language (you mentioned elephantine mourning, I chimpanzee grief, etc.) to speak to you.

    4. You responded again, with further attacks on scientific inquiry, accused me, in effect, of anthropomorphizing, mentioned teleological assumptions I had not made, etc. You speculated about the interior lives of pit vipers. I was confused again. I didn't think I was saying what you seemed to think that I was saying. Nor was I quite sure why you suddenly objected to me attributed emotions to animals.

    I then tried (perhaps incorrectly) to read our comments as a conversation, and your comments as originating from a particular theoretical scaffolding. The only thing that made sense to me was that you object to any discussion of difference between Homo sapiens and any other mammals. I therefore assumed that this was so important to you because you, implicitly, accepted some notion that difference implies different treatment. Hence your apparent urgency to smooth any differences that make exist, to kvetch about humans and talk about how cool other animals are or may be. If you believed that everything needed to be the same to be treated the same, your comments all made sense.

    5. Emotional phenomena surely do differ between species as they differ so vastly among individuals. For simplicity's sake, I didn't quite feel like beginning a brief, reflective piece with three paragraphs of disclaimer about language, the inability of human beings to access the interior lives of chimpanzees (let alone other human beings), etc. Perhaps next time I will.

    6. I am a mostly vegetarian, who loves shellfish and sausages. Although I do believe there are substantive differences between human beings and other species--plant, animal, bacteria, etc.--I do not see this as a reason to treat them any differently.

    (Which is not to say I do not find it necessary to do so; I'm not suicidal and even if I were, starving myself would not be the way I'd do it. And I take antibiotics as necessary. And shower, which probably kills mites. And so on.)