Little thinks

ch 10Considering 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



22 thoughts on “Little thinks

  1. What about sparing a bug’s life, i.e. not stepping on it, for the bug’s benefit (or to feel better about ourselves)? This requires us to assume the bug’s POV and/or assign value to its life. This is usually automatic in everyday life, i.e. there’s little to no internal verbalization.


    • Hi, help me out a little. What do you mean by “what about?” Is it phrased as a challenge to my points? Or positioned with them in some way?

      I’d like to talk about the variables that bounce back and forth in the human mind in such situations, It goes with the distinction between person-file and agency that I talked about in one of the death posts. There’s also the issue about when and how much we spare bugs.


      • The “What about … ?” wording was me being insecure. I’m afraid the person-file and agency post went right over my head, so I can only address the last issue you mention. I think we spare bugs when we are not otherwise preoccupied, it requires almost zero effort and we’re outside or in another setting where bugs don’t bother us. And I like to think that our capacity for empathy is behind this and that it makes us special … but I’m also interested in (and hopefully open to) this idea being dismantled here.


        • Cool! I mentioned the two technical terms in What remains; I wasn’t sure if you were a serious commenter or a drive-by, so didn’t go into it until I knew.

          Anyway, they’re things we assign to entities external to us. A person-file might be called “social relevance,” which includes caring and and exclusion, as well as unpleasant things based on caring, and all sorts of social history and expectations of behavior. Agency is the capacity (or rather, our cognitive assignment of capacity) for physical action.

          The odd thing is that in our heads, these two things aren’t correlated. We happen to assign them both to other people.

          Therefore sometimes we assign one, sometimes the other, and sometimes both. A good example of assigning agency alone is the startled and often retributive response a person may have toward an unexpected appearance of a roach in one’s dwelling. (I don’t suggest all agency-only responses are “mean,” but the point is that we aren’t talking about social empathy.)

          If I understand your query, then I definitely think we’re capable of assigning person-files to … well, just about anything. It’s a cognitive act and doesn’t rely on the target actually being or doing a thing – although the more it seems like a human to us, the more easy it is. Clearly anthropomorphism renders this murky because we often ‘port in features the target may not have; the opposite, refusing to recognize social/cogitive/sensory things the creature does including the sensation of pain, renders it murky too.

          I find it grossly frustrating that our ability to assign person-files is tied strongly to things we associate with human social dynamics. I find some hope in the fact that apparently we can assign person-files outside this realm, but again, it is clearly harder and rarer, in practice. It’s also horrible to me to know that we can rescind or never assign person-files to actual people – and unfortunately, apparently fairly easily.


    • I’m pretty sure that behavior that at least LOOKS just like this is observed across many species – like, a not-hungry lioness carries a baby antelope by the scruff over to its’ herd. I’m not sure I’d want to say anything about person-file and agency regarding the lion (maybe the baby antelope just needs to fatten up and become better prey), but in terms of raw behavior, acts that look kind and generous by human standards seem to happily coexist with nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I would love to hear more of your thoughts about The Language Instinct. On language, I feel like you’re downplaying the benefits of recorded thought and what you seem to reduce to “gadgetry” (as much as the point made me smile). But perhaps I’m just being defensive. How much of that technology and recorded knowledge has allowed for sizable benefits in terms of long-term survivability? A lot. Or am I missing your point here?


    • The point is that “benefit” isn’t the point. I’m not saying those things are bad or worthless; I’m saying that you don’t evolve X in order to do Y later. We didn’t evolve the capacity to write so that you and I would be sitting here today, writing on our gadgets. To understand our capacity, it needs to be discussed in terms of components which – when not in this particular combination – are not writing.

      To be especially cruel, I will stress that as far as our type of species goes, and even if you’re generous and include H. neanderthalensis and H. heidelbergensis – we are quite young and have demonstrated nothing to indicate long-term survivability. Population explosion, yes …. which is also a common phenomenon and worthy of no particular mention or status, and there’s no reason to let its scale distract us.


      • At the risk of upsetting anyone (Tim and James specifically), I am at least asking you to consider what we do with technology – specifically in relation to what we did without it.

        We eat. We travel. We resist illnesses. We tell stories. We make shelters. We kill one another. We use violence and alliance to influence one another. We gossip. We get laid. We make music. We form and disrupt social alliances. We did all this stuff with little if any recorded information or technology. With those things, we do a lot more of it, and dd the consequence of old-tech as new normal, yielding new-tech all the time.

        On grounds of per humanism (not exceptionalism), I’m good with people eating instead of starving to death, living instead of dying of influenza, et cetera. I’m not so good with obliterating cities with weaponry or scorching neighborhoods to death. But good or bad is not my point.

        The point is, what are we doing with our literature, culture, and technology, that is different from what we did without it, except as a matter of specific technique and scale? Answering this without getting metaphysical is not comfortable.

        I submit that culture and technology haven’t changed a thing. However, I do also suggest not falling into the “beasts, mere beasts” trap either – “beasts” are often quite good at nice, cooperative behaviors you or I call moral and uplifting. For what it’s worth, the human animal has/does those things too, with or without tech.


        • You’re being provocative, but hardly offensive (to me, anyway). I don’t have any illusions about human exceptionalism, only prejudices that crop up unexpectedly. When I say I needed a push, it was a push to remember that those culturally ingrained prejudices take me by surprise once in a while. Culture, literature, my new iPhone are human technologies, all of which can lead to interesting things, but they are still tools. One question before I proceed. When you say, “I submit that culture and technology haven’t changed a thing,” are you speaking in biological success terms, or more generally? I assume the former, but if it’s instead the latter, I’ll tailor my response accordingly.


        • I’m going to have to increase the nesting for replies …

          “Haven’t changed a thing” is too vague – I mean the precise action undertaken, or if you will, priority being met, with the technology. My little list was a quick pass at such priorities. I’m saying human goals and priorities haven’t changed. James, since you’ve read E&E, you know that Huxley presents some hope that they can, but also makes it clear that they certainly haven’t yet.

          The phrase “biological success” is not really a term. The three variables usually confounded by it are:
          – reproductive investment and its fitness effects (sometimes called “reproductive success”) is a fleeting generational phenomenon at the individual level
          – population size or abundance is a function of available resources and other contingencies
          – species longevity (much better to call it this instead of “survival”) varies … but apparently clusters strongly per type of creature, i.e., among species of a given taxonomic group – this is why I’m dismissive of “human survivorship” because we haven’t even hit our group’s average longevity yet; it’s mighty earily to extoll ourselves relative to the ones who are gone

          Of them all, only the first one includes “success” as a technical term and that’s the one which has the least to do with the fate of a species.


        • Thanks for the breakdown of “biological success,” Ron. As you can probably surmise, I was searching around for a useful shorthand and coming up a bit short. I was trying to get at your third bullet point — the idea of long-term survivability. Side note: point taken about whether humans even quality here. We’re obviously still a blip in the big picture of time.

          As to your overall point, I see what you mean now. i’ve been thinking about the implications all morning. In the grand scheme of things, right, humans are basically doing the same things we’ve always done — just with different specific details about how we do them (those details are what we obsess about within culture). Without making value judgments or getting mired in some BS notion of “progress,” I’m still wondering if that’s too reductionist a position (or maybe too broad a perspective). It certainly drives home the point about humans being just another species on the planet.

          I think I need to read more Huxley; I’m curious about his ideas about possible avenues for changing goals/priorities. Actually, I think I just need to better wrap my head around what that would even look like outside of the way I have typically framed the question (i.e., within culture). Hmmm… maybe I’m not as clear on this as i thought. More thinking…

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Music is just another form of vocabulary and syntax, IMHO. We can certainly imagine two people having an entirely improvised musical “conversation” with each other, which exchanges meaning of some kind even if we can’t capture it in conventional language.

    Ron, does any other species do communication-across-time? Without for one second suggesting that it was ever pre-ordained, or that the underlying structures which produced it were “meant” to lead to it, it seems to me that an occasional moment of “human smugness” (rather than human exceptionalism) may be warranted, because communication-across-time lets us do something really neat:

    I know you usually refer to “Evolution & Ethics” to make a different point, but I’d like to draw out an early quote:

    “Where the cosmopoietic energy works through sentient beings, there arises, among its other manifestations, that which we call pain or suffering. This baleful product of evolution [here used simply in the change-across-time sense, not the Darwin sense] increases in quantity and in intensity, with advancing grades of animal organization, until it attains its highest level in man [arched eyebrow, but never mind].

    “. . .

    “The conditions having been of a certain order, man’s organization has adjusted itself to them better than that of his competitors in the cosmic strife. In the case of mankind, the self-assertion, the unscrupulous seizing upon all that can be grasped, the tenacious holding of all that can be kept, which constitute the essence of the struggle for existence, have answered.”

    To paraphrase: life fucking sucks, and we’ve had to be complete bastards to make it this far.

    Huxley clearly disapproves of this. I do; I know you do. Most people would probably agree with the statement, “Dang, it would be nice to reduce the cruelty of Nature’s whims and the aggression we normally bring to bear when faced with them.”

    I don’t see how to win that fight without communication-across-time (which I see as our “one weird trick”). I think even perceiving it AS a fight is kind of an achievement.


  4. Can you say a bit about why you grant human music as special beyond bird song or whale song, and our fire-use as special beyond a sea otters’ rock or a chimpanzees’ stick? At least, I *think* you’re granting that in your last point …


    • Hi Gordon,

      I’m working off the strictly quantitative aspect of “singular” or “unique,” i.e., we observe a single instance. Scrubbing out the quick inference that this observation necessitates a singular and separate quality, it’s a good thing to investigate causally. And of course, without the circular “natural selection gave it to us because we needed it to survive.”

      The thing about fire is that it’s manipulation of radiant energy – specifically, combustion – rather than kinetic force. I can’t see any immediate reason why we’re the only ones who do that, especially when you get rid of that stupid movie notion that we realized we could and then did, the whole “Eureka fire” scene that’s been dramatized so many times. Even positing that we needed shelters before we could build fires, and positing as well that heating a shelter is what’s going on here rather than cooking food …well, plenty of critters build shelters. As you rightly imply, the basic dexterity involved is widespread. And sources of fire aren’t the problem; if we found them, someone else can too.

      My main inquiry is simply how to construct the proper comparison of variables. The default conclusion is that the single instance is merely stochastic, that some combination of variables in humans have yielded the behavior, and it so happens that no other creature has that combination for strictly contingent reasons. But I don’t like jumping to that default; it’s lazy and non-rigorous,until we find out what pieces of the behavior are distributed around the diverisity of living things. At least with language we’re finally getting an idea of how much vocabulary and syntax other creatures do have.

      Music is easier for sure. Maybe it is a matter of social vocalizing and rhythmic body motions, which are widespread among creatures in a variety of ways, and maybe I’m being humanocentric in thinking our particular use and experience of it is – again quantitatively only – singular. Or as James suggests, it’s the language-arts version of those features. Still, it’d be easier to grasp if we saw some other creature pounding out 4-4 patterns with a stick as a few fellow species members jumped around him in a circle – or better, lots of different creatures doing various versions of that, or harmonizing calls, et cetera.


      • Ron,

        Got you on the use of singular, and the central point being the proper comparison of variables. Considered as a tool, fire ain’t unique. Considered as radiant energy particularly – hmm. Is it overly anthropomorphic to say that Sequoia use fire to clear ground for future growth of their fire-dependent seeds? I mean, of course it’s overly anthropomorphic, but maybe still … illustrative of the contingency of the variables we choose to evaluate?

        I think that may be my default – I’m not sure how to establish that some prospective human-unique thing looks that way for rigorous reasons rather than my own nigh-inescapable humanocentric perspective. And since the contingent things various behaviors are based upon are in and of themselves so useful and fascinating to examine … say I go ahead and stop looking for something uniquely human, stipulating that something MAY exist but it’s gonna be super-tough (under some philosophies, flat-out impossible) to find/establish it. Does anything important get lost?


        • That is the question. The traditional answer is that the moment we stop thinking of humans as special – and whether its claimed foundations are secular vs. spiritual/religious makes no difference – then humans will suddenly “realize” they “can” run around committing heinous acts. Which is a very odd position, really, because it seems to acknowledge that there isn’t something special, we just dare not say so. Or perhaps they mean there is something special, but we are in danger of losing a tenuous, barely-achieved grip on it, and thus must insist upon it at all times. This is, in a nutshell, progressivism. Usefully, consider the anti-progressives who cite – just as the progressives do – both naturalism and divine mandate in dizzying combinations, in this case to justify their current privilege. The two aren’t “sides” at all a basic intellectual level and neither dares investigate what the biology is actually doing.


  5. Pingback: Fuzzyology | Man nor Beast

  6. Pingback: Should we talk about the government | Man nor Beast

  7. Pingback: A tale I will thee tell | Man nor Beast

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s