Considering that my book The Edge of Evolution is due for release in four weeks, it’s certainly past time for another Island of Doctor Moreau post. So far I’ve talked about three of the four non-human-born protagonists, in All too human, The Other, and Why matters. I’ll reserve discussing the fourth protagonist, the Leopard Man, for a later time as that is a pretty big gun, and focus instead on a significant supporting character, the Ape Man with his Big Thinks.
It’s an important part of the novel, not least because of Prendick’s horror upon listening to religious sermons upon his return to England and being unable to distinguish their content from what the Ape Man used to go on about, calling it his “Big Thinks.”
[He] was for ever jabbering at me,—jabbering the most arrant nonsense. One thing about him entertained me a little: he had a fantastic trick of coining new words. He had an idea, I believe, that to gabble about names that meant nothing was the proper use of speech. He called it “Big Thinks” to distinguish it from “Little Thinks,” the sane every-day interests of life. If ever I made a remark he did not understand, he would praise it very much, ask me to say it again, learn it by heart, and go off repeating it, with a word wrong here or there, to all the milder of the Beast People. He thought nothing of what was plain and comprehensible. I invented some very curious “Big Thinks” for his especial use. I think now that he was the silliest creature I ever met; he had developed in the most wonderful way the distinctive silliness of man without losing one jot of the natural folly of a monkey.
I’ve used that phrase a lot. It’s the title of Chapter 10 in my upcoming book. A bit of the above text from the novel was the epigraph to the final chapter of my dissertation. In retrospect, I think it had a strong impact on me as a young reader, long before I thought about becoming a biologist or an author, at least not of non-fiction.
The literal point in the book is always worth discussing, whether the lofty matters of metaphysics and meaning are worth a hoot in hell to anyone, and why. A related, more painful point concerns the Ape Man’s personal history of failing to act “like a man” and suffering punishment for it, likely from his peers rather than from Moreau. There’s a touch of self-denying fervor in his constant theologizing which includes fear.
However, it’s more useful pedagogically to address the reverse: not what our minds don’t do even though we may feel they do, but rather, what we actually do with our minds. Little thinks.
Well, says human exceptionalism: all our thinks are special, we’re human – elevated (except umphh get down urrghh I said stop grunt grunt those terrible urges!). Look at these!
- Counting and general quantitative ability – oh wait, widely distributed across all living things
- Especially for distance and time
- Self-visualization – oh wait … yeah, proprioception and orientation, that’s everywhere too
- Self-regulating / circumstantial decision-making – umm, you mean “animals” do that too? What’s that you say? Better than us in many cases, especially concerning violence?
- Socializing and interrelating – funny, how those other social animals concern themselves with reputation and status, they must think they’re people, isn’t that cute?
- Anticipation and estimation – oh look at those “animals” assessing risks of many kinds, and again, often better than we do
Give it up, human exceptionalism. Nonhumans live their lives in ways we can understand very well, and there’s no shred of evidence to suggest otherwise.
I’m getting a flashback to one of those college discussions, featuring me at age 20 and looking altogether different from today. It was a non-acrimonious but unsatisfying exchange about the nonhuman experience of life; I was irked by the cavalier use of “animals don’t do this” and “animals don’t do that” which litter discussions of self and behavior. I stated that a dog could walk through a door just as easily as you and I do, and the prof replied that the dog doesn’t understand geometry and math. I withheld my reply – that I sure has hell didn’t understand the geometry and whatnot, and that if I did, I was pretty sure I didn’t use it when I “knew” where I was, where the door was, and how I might go through it. It seemed to me then, and to me now, that we go through doors pretty much the same way, cognitively speaking, that a dog does.
Conversely, guess what we say when there’s some beast who can do something we can’t? “Ah, instinct! It was gifted with the capacity to do it by natural selection … so that it might do it!” Oh golly, says the monarch butterfly, I just flew from Monterey to Mexico and back. Gee, how’d I do that?
I urge you to consider how insane this verbal tapdancing has become. If the critter does something we do, then we insist that our experience of it must be somehow different, with no evidence thereof. If the critter does something complex that we can’t do, then we invent a magic word to explain how and to divorce it from any way we do things, and which removes any aspect of identity, understanding, and agency from its experience.
“Instinct” does have a real meaning if you scrape away enough of the nonsense associated with it – it’s better called “innate,” meaning a complex behavior which requires little or no learning. However, once you do, and once you start examining any complex behavior, you discover that nothing develops from nothing, that a complex behavior is never simply written into a creature’s life by magical DNA. Developmental studies show that the purported division between “innate” and “learned” has blurred to the vanishing point … that what we call “learning” is itself merely one type of development, and that nothing lacks development. We also distort the meaning of the word “instinct,” along with weasel words like “drive” or “basic drive,” shifting it into psychology such that we confound it with “did it without verbalizing it first.” The poor word “reflex” has suffered similarly in being impressed into service to the human inability to face human action.
Here’s something the human mind does, our “trick” if you will: combine syntax and vocabulary.
- Vocabulary = representing things with an arbitrary symbol (the fact we do it with vocalizations is trivial; it can be part of any medium of communication)
- Syntax = utilizing subjects and objects in a modular arrangement, slotting different terms into them to form different meanings
You can find either among lots of different species, and it’s at least possible one or another nonhuman is using both in some medium we don’t understand. Among those creatures who share our general neurology and sensorium, though, no one else talks among themselves the way we do – using vocalized communication syntactically rather than only symbolically.
It aggravates me that some of the basic and useful points in Stephen Pinker’s The Language Instinct are overtaken by his oversimplifications concerning actual genes and development. The net effect has been more fuel for the anti-biology humanities rather than to clarify what the human animal does. I’m happy to work through that topic, and what I do find interesting in the book, in the comments if anyone’s read it.
Here’s something closely-related we can do too: “This is the square root of 2.” More basically, we take the common ability to assess and combine quantities into the symbolic sphere like “two,” “2,” “ii,” and “cuatro.” Mix it up a bit and add in syntax (which is what mathematics is), and you can end up with square root of -1 pretty soon.
Yay! We’re unique! We’re unique! That’s fine, no one said a given species can’t have a trick. But again, I’m interested in the ordinary things we do, and whether we do them differently. Here’s my question for you: if a given activity doesn’t require language to do it, then why do you think humans are (i) the only ones who can or (ii) do it in a special way?
Because it seems to me that what we can do is the same old things except we also talk about it – to what actual added value or quality, frankly, I am not convinced. I grant that talking about it and recording the talking yields gadgetry, and that more gadgetry means more to come. But similarly, when we examine what technology is about, the same old same old pops up again, including an amusing emphasis on gossip and porn.
I also suggest that this talk of what’s going on in there (our heads), which is to say, talking about talking, may be distracting from a much more tractable and possibly more relevant question: what do we really do differently? No talk of “self-awareness,” but rather, observably, putting aside talking about it, what do we see humans doing? I think of two right off the bat: music and fire. No other animals are observed to do these things, and I submit that nothing we know about spoken human language indicates that its use is intrinsic to doing them either. I also present them for contrast to one another, as rhythms and timing of all kinds are observed across animal (and others’) behavior, and therefore present foundational material for our enjoyment of music, whereas the use -and habitual use – of fire-technology seems more bi-polar.
Next: Ape, man