Back in the virtual saddle

It’s been almost a year since I last posted anything on this page. I’ve been concentrating on book reviews and longer essays, on my other page, but the modest but persistent interest shown in the old posts on this page has led me to think that it might be time to post some topical articles again. (The two pages have now accumulated more than 75,000 reads.)

I still have strong opinions on the subjects about which I used to write, and so much has happened in the last year that would have been worthy of comment. So, I’m back. Perhaps not with my former frequency, but I hope with as much clarity and specificity as I can muster.

Meanwhile, don’t forget to read the book reviews, which will continue to be posted on More Notes from Aboveground.

See you soon.


Small evidence for the primacy of co-operation

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.

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Babies, bonobos, and brains

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.

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I’ve mind, hive mind

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.

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How scientific is the ape “mid-life crisis”?

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.

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Monkey study can be viewed through a multilevel lens

Individual selection or group selection? More reasonably, how about multilevel selection?

Is evolution driven entirely by selection at the level of the gene, by competition between individuals?

Or is evolution also driven in appropriate circumstances by selection at the level of the society (family to empire), by competition between groups?

If we shouldn’t, or can’t, explain all of our social behaviours as being solely aspects of culture, if social selection occurs in nature as well as in theory, shouldn’t there be empirical evidence of its operation? Specifically, shouldn’t we be able to point to examples of multlevel selection?

In a modest way, a modest study reported last week presents one such example.
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The case for dog-gone empathy

Sometimes the media report a scientific study that makes you think, “Duh. Everybody knows that. Why waste time and money studying that?”

That was my initial reaction to the online publication by MedicalXPress (formerly the medical strand of PhysOrg) of “Domestic dogs display empathic response to distress in humans” (June 7, 2012).

As a live-in companion of four Golden Retrievers over the last twenty-five years, I don’t need to be convinced how emotionally sensitive and empathically supportive dogs are when people around them are in distress. When you’re down, few things could be more comforting than a cold nuzzle from a warm Golden.

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Is neuroscience the next “great tragedy of Science”?

The great tragedy of Science —
the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

Thomas Henry Huxley

Human behaviour is so complex – and feels so personal – that some thinkers believe that empirical methodologies will never be able to explain it fully, even if “explain” is correctly understood to mean understanding “what” and “how” rather than “why.”

Yet the research keeps coming, and as it does, the likelihood increases that the good kind of reductionism, the kind that uncovers the more basic structures that underlie the more complex, will someday lead to a thorough knowledge of how what we do works – including what we think and feel.
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Chimps with smarts and culture

A lot of people over a lot of years have disliked Darwin’s contention that humans are just “big-brained apes.” They’ve fought to maintain a suitable distance between us and our closest primate cousins.

While the least sophisticated of these people are motivated by Bible literalism, and others by an often unrecognized or unadmitted need for human dignity, the most thoughtful objectors argue that we can’t rely on perceived similarities as real evidence that there is an uninterrupted continuum from the ai ai to the academic.
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