What does it say about the reality of the outside world if we can be fooled even about the state and composition of parts of our own bodies? And what does it say about the reality of our sense of self if we can’t trust our senses even when they report our apparent body states?
More evidence that the world, including us, is a construct, a mental representation of an otherwise un-experienced world “out there,” crops up in reports of a new study that fools subjects into believing that they have a phantom limb.
I share with many others the view that one of the best ways to understand human behaviour is to observe other animals in similar circumstances.
More often than not, this approach is applied to “higher” animals such as our chimpanzee cousins. But if our individual and social traits are products of evolution — and what else could they be? — then we should be able to find some pretty basic understanding from looking at older, “simpler” animals.
Ants, for example.
Everyone in the social sciences is now aware of the “WEIRD problem,” the built-in sampling bias that permeates the vast majority of psychological studies, the subjects of which are overwhelmingly Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.
Are the physical sciences also biased? In particular, is the way we typically explain the physics of the universe fundamentally anthropomorphic, with the assumption from Newton to the present that the universe functions the same way that our minds function?
The pairing of two seemingly-unrelated articles prompts this posting, which examines some of the ways that we can reconsider our “selves” as something other than unitary beings, or even unitary perceptions of dynamic states of being.
I’ve written fairly often here about the behaviour of our nearest primate relatives, typically with a view to deflating the idea that there’s something special about the human animal. Of course, there is something special about us. But my contention has always been that our specialness is much more a matter of degree than of kind.
That is, to pick just one felicitously phrased example, I believe that we are specially creative, but not the product of special creation. Our superior mental abilities are extreme versions of similar or analogous abilities in other creatures; these abilities are not one-off gifts from a benevolent creative force, natural or supernatural.
I’m back to this topic thanks to the conjunction of three sources: a book, a journal study, and a popular science article. Although these sources are quite independent, taken together they highlight a number of connected points about primate mental development. And this set of overlapping sources adds yet another layer to the arguments that (1) evolutionary biology is the key to any deep understanding of human nature and behaviour and (2) our proudest achievements are extensions of the skills of other creatures.
In the most recent post on this page (I’ve Mind, Hive Mind), I wrote that “our intellects are unique, in the sense that no other animal more than remotely approaches the power of the human brain.”
Chip Walter made a strong case for this claim in his excellent, soon-to-be-published book, Last Ape Standing (which I recently reviewed on my BOOKS page). Now a new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, gives empirical support to the idea. Continue reading
Human intelligence is unique, and it isn’t.
Our intellects are unique, in the sense that no other animal more than remotely approaches the power of the human brain, a power that includes the remarkable ability both to become aware of its own activity and to think about itself. Cognition and metacognition, on a scale no other animal even approaches.
Our intellects are not unique, in the sense that our formidable mental powers result from the action and interaction of the same neural raw material that compose all synaptic systems, large and small. A hundred neurons or a hundred million neurons is a difference of scale — a very significant difference — not a difference of kind.
The idea that all brains fall somewhere along the same neural continuum is reinforced by David Robson’s “Hive minds: Honeybee intelligence creates a buzz,” published by New Scientist on November 28th.
I’ve written before (such as here) about my unease with interpreted behavioural studies, especially those that purport to show that other animals, usually near-relative primates, “share” with us mental characteristics such as empathy and jealousy.
My discomfort was not eased by last week’s trendy “scientific” news that apes may suffer from a “mid-life crisis” equivalent to our own.
I’ve argued here more than once that, when it comes to psychology, measurement trumps interpretation. That’s one big reason that I am less critical of brain scans than some others are. To the extent that you have to interpret a game or speculate about a gesture, you’re on potentially shaky ground.
A newly-published study provides evidence of some of the potential problems that can plague research that may appear to be empirical, but really isn’t.
The study, “Social Evaluation or Simple Association? Simple Associations May Explain Moral Reasoning in Infants,” published by PlosOne on August 8th, re-evaluates a landmark experiment that used a toy scenario to conclude that infants have an innate preference for “moral” helpers. Continue reading
Now that even the Koch brothers’ personal scientists have conceded the reality of climate change, it’s time to move on from the rather silly question of whether it’s happening to the very real question of what might it do to us?
One way to answer the question is to investigate what climate change has done to civilizations in the past. The results of this approach were the subject of an article published online by New Scientist on August 6th (and due to be paywalled next week).
“Climate change: the great civilization destroyer?” summarizes recent research into the relationship between sustained climate change and the decline of civilizations both ancient and modern. From the collapse of the Akkadians in 2200 BC to the frequency of wars in Europe in recent centuries, the evidence suggests, societies put under pressure by climate change (or by neighbouring societies feeling climate stress) were liable to catastrophic failure.