foresight among bonobos

This is a reply to Ben Hammersley’s [“comment(This ought to work)”:] on the previous entry. It will probably form part of the review I write.

Tallis argues that there are fundamental differences between our experience of the world and animals’; further that these differences have arisen by natural selection. He is a species chauvinist, but so might a bat be, arguing that he is not just a lizard.

So, of course he knows there is a range of cognitive abilities in nature. But you can believe that, and still believe that human knowing is different from anything else. His arguments for the distinctiveness of human knowing are both philosophical and anatomical. I haven’t gone into them here, though I think I will have to.

For the moment, though, it’s worth pointing out that your examples all beg the question. The whole point of Darwinian ethology is to show that behaviours which would show foresight _if we did them and could give reasons for them_ may evolve before reason and thus show no foresight at all. Ants milking aphids have no idea what they are doing though they are involved in an extremely complex system involving long-term payoffs. Ditto the famous tooth-cleaner fish who were used as the first example of reciprocal altruism.

Since animals can behave _as if_ they had foresight, and _as if_ they had deliberateness, without, so far as we can tell, having any such thing, there is a problem.

One solution is Dennett’s: to maintain in principle that foresight, deliberateness, agency, etc don’t exist in themselves. They are merely names we give to certain patterns of behaviour; and, if something consistently displays such behaviour, then we should credit it with the supposed underlying qualities. I think this is mostly balls, but built around two important truths, the first is that the recognition of foresight, agency, etc is a distinctly human ability. We recognise them because we possess them. The second is that very complex collective behaviours can arise from simple parts.

But if you reject Dennett’s radical behaviourism, you have to say that ants don’t understand ecology, that cranberry bushes aren’t predicting a hard winter when they fruit abundantly in autumn, and that something different, and distinctly human is going on when we analyse the behaviour of the ant farmers, or look at the thickness of a prairie dog mound and say the winter will be a hard one.

Once you take this step, the burden of proof shifts. There are lots of behaviour which would display, or might display, foresight if a human did them, but need not do so if an ant does. So it’s up to you to show that a squirrel knows about winter, and hard times ahead, when it buries nuts. It’s up to you to show that bonobos know what they are doing when they punish free riders. Difficult, this last, since, if you’re right about the activity, even the very smartest humans didn’t understand it until thirty years ago: the idea of “punishing free riders” is dependent on a really complicated scaffolding of language, experience, and mathematics. Obviously bonobos can do it. But I don’t think they can understand that’s what they’re doing, any more than genes can; and you can perfectly well analyse a lot of the activity of the genome in terms of punishing free riders.

This just reinforces Tallis’s point about the way that foresight, deliberation, etc, act in some sense contrary to natural selection. If we had to understand what we were doing before we could do it, we could never have evolved to the point where understanding is possible. The Bonobos’ ability to punish free riders may well be a pre-requisite for the evolution of human intelligence, with its ability to entertain concepts such as “ecology” and “the punishment of free riders”. But they couldn’t do it if they had to understand what they were doing. Only we can do that.

I think that some animals have some glimmerings of foresight. Some have ideas of agency. Bonobos are smarter in all sorts of ways than fish, or even greyhounds. But humans have two really important differences from other animals. The first is the use of our own bodies, and especially our hands as tools, which leads to external, collective tool use. The second is language, which is also collective. So our grasp of the world is not just a simple matter of individual cognition. If we are preparing for a hard winter, this involves many other people’s experience of “winter” — all that went into shaping the word. Both these mean we can think about what we do in a way that other animals just can’t, even though they can do, and perhaps to some extent think.

At this point, Tallis’ argument gets really complicated, and I am going to have to think about it some more.

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3 Responses to foresight among bonobos

  1. Rupert says:

    But none of that says that because we can examine and communicate our foresight, we are necessarily extra-evolutionary. Flying fish can use their fins to glide – nothing’s more ridiculous than a fish that flies – but there’s no gap there that evolution can’t cross, nor (pace the creationists) has one ever been suggested. Why should consciousness not employ our atavistic abilities? How could it not?

    We know that creatures have the ability to predict the future and act accordingly, even though they may not be aware of the whats and whys, and that this has obvious evolutionary advantages. In fact, I’d say that the ability to prepare for the future is in some way intrinsic to life, right down to the amoeba reproducing in the ‘expectation’ that the food glut will continue. Sex is certainly very difficult without some form of becoming ready.

    We also know that animals (again possibly all creatures) can and do communicate with their peers and the environment, at all ranges of cognitive ability from none to us.

    With higher social animals, this communication becomes explicit and bound up in the survival of the troop. Being able to examine oneself and model the effects of one’s future behaviour on the social structures you belong to will give you a survival advantage over someone without such skills – even if it means you learn how to deceive and steal without threatening the cohesiveness of your group. I suspect that this is where consciousness found its feet – it’s a just-so story, but nothing about it is nonsense.

    Any ability to create and communicate better models of the future and ourselves in those circumstances will be useful and will necessarily incorporate how we actually behave. This can – I expect will – include those behaviours that you do instinctively. Take goosebumps – we share that reaction with many other animals, so it’s not Special Human Skillz at work. But we have integrated that into our consciousness and learned to use the instinct as part of our general toolset of mind. We don’t decide to have goosebumps, but when they happen they form part of our decision what to do next.

    We don’t *have* to understand what we do before we do it. That we think we might do so is, I suspect, often something of a self-deception (I remember those neurological experiments where intent is detected hundreds of milliseconds before the subject is conscious of it). But we do examine it, and perhaps modify it in future. We’re not that good at it, which is why logic and foresight generally come such a long way behind emotion and instinct in the way we order our affairs.

    That we think about what we do in ways that other animals just can’t is, I think, a truism. The question is whether we got here from there in ways that make evolutionary sense – and I can see no philosophical reason why the net effect of various mechanisms of mind, all individually perfectly respectable evolutionary products, cannot combine to produce what we are.

    It’s interesting to consider autism in this argument. People who conspicuously lack the abilities that, say, bonobos have, clearly have a form of mind, but decoupled from social perceptive and organisational mechanims it’s very dysfunctional. They are not some form of pure human living a life exhibiting the magic traits that Tallis seems to be promoting. They’re lost in a frightening world, and without special treatment by the rest of us it’s hard to see how many such would survive. Consciousness only makes sense as an evolutionary advantage in the context of the rest of us.


  2. acb says:

    %(sane)But none of that says that because we can examine and communicate our foresight, we are necessarily extra-evolutionary.% Neither I, nor Tallis, are claiming that for a moment. I agree with everything you said. The point, however, is surely that flying fish do fly, more or less. they’re not just swimming exuberantly. The nub of the argument with Dennett is whether consciousness, once attained, is real: Dennett himself seems to me ambiguous on this point, arguing at one stage that since it has arisen by natural, mechanistic, causes, it can’t be fundamentally different from other things produced the same way; at other times, that we are qualitatively different, perhaps because of memes. Both statements are of course true, except for the bit about memes. But they are easily understood as diminishing the gap between outrselves and animals, which, with consciousness and collective knowledge is huge. it’s the gap between bats and rats, if you like, though they obviously evolved from a common ancester. But rats can’t fly, and chimps can’t blog.

  3. Rupert says:

    I’ve never really understood what Dennett’s actually saying, although I admire the forcefulness with which he doesn’t say it.

    Tallis seems to be saying that for truth to have meaning it must be disconnected from the thing it describes, and for us to be creatures of mind we must rely on that disconnection. And that nothing else has that disconnection excepting man. Is that a fair summary?

    He then says that because we make decisions based on this, we are separated in a uniquely significant way from Darwinian mechanisms — I suppose, thus making such thought a much less useful way to explore ourselves.

    For a start, I suspect this is delusional. It appears that our decisions — even those that we imagine are made through rational thought — are often made before we are ourselves aware of having made them. There’s that tantalising few hundred milliseconds gap between things happening in our minds (including ‘conscious’ decisions) and us becoming aware of them. And looking at the way we order our affairs, it’s clear that logic and foresight often come a poor second to emotion and instinct. Even in an enterprise like science, designed explicitly to provide a framework to counter this, the Way Of The Purple-Arsed Baboon is strong.

    None of which says that consciousness isn’t real, just that it isn’t as it seems – and one would expect to find it in some form in plenty of other animals. Chimps can’t blog, but they do quite clearly have complex social models in their head in which they engineer changes through communication with other chimps – which seems a pretty good underlying reason for people blogging too (well, I wonder about the ‘complex social models’ sometimes).

    Which makes me wonder – what does autism tell us about Tallis? Autistic people lack much that we share with our nearest primate cousins, but what’s left isn’t some form of pure decoupled intellect – it’s a fascinating, terrible, dysfunctional mechanism. Does he touch on this anywhere?


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