Archive for the ‘brain’ Category
Canto: There isn’t much detail in Lobel’s book about how sensations or the senses can be harnessed to education, but she tantalisingly offers this:
Several studies have shown that peppermint and cinnamon scents improved cognitive performance, including attention and memory; clerical tasks, such as typing speed and alphabetisation; and performance in video games.
Jacinta: Right, so we spray peppermint and cinnamon about the classroom, and genius rises. But is there anything in this approach specifically for language learning?
Canto: Well, a key insight, if you can call it that, of embodied cognition is that not only does the mind influence the body’s movements, but the body influences our thinking. And the relationship can be quite subtle. It’s known from neurophysiological studies that a person’s motor system is activated when they process action verbs, and when they observe the movements of others.
Jacinta: So that’s about mirror neurons?
Canto: Exactly. The basic take-away from this is that activating mirror neurons enhances learning. So as a teacher, combining gestures, or ‘acting out’ with speech to introduce new language, especially verbs, is an effective tool.
Jacinta: Playing charades, so that students embody the activity? This can be done with phrasal verbs, for example, which students often don’t get. Or prepositions. The teacher or students can act them out, or manipulate blocks to show ‘between’ ‘next to’, ‘in front of’, ‘under’, etc. This would be a useful strategy for low-level learning at our college, really engaging the students, but it would also help with higher level students, who are expected to write quite abstract stuff, but often don’t have the physical grounding of the target language, so they often come out with strange locutions which convey a lack of that physical sense of English that native speakers have.
Canto: Yes, they use transition signals and contrast terms wrongly, because they’re still vague as to their meaning. Acting out some of those terms could be quite useful. For example, ‘on the one hand/on the other hand’. You could act this out by balancing something on one hand, and then something of equal weight on the other hand, and speaking of equal weights and balancing in argument, and then getting the students to act this out for themselves, especially those students you know are likely to misconstrue the concept. ‘Furthermore’ could be acted out both by physically adding more to an argument and taking it further in one direction. ‘Moreover’ takes more over to one side. You could use blocks or counters to represent contrast words, a word or counter that shifts the argument to the opposite side, and to represent the additive words, with counters that accumulate the arguments on one side.
Jacinta: So this acting out, and gesturing, all this is very suggestive of the origins of language, which might’ve begun in gestures?
Canto: Yes it’s a very complex communicative system, which may well have begun with a complex gestural system, accompanied by vocalisations. Think of the complexity of signing systems for the deaf – it’s extraordinary how much we can convey through hand gestures accompanied by facial expressions and vocalisations, or even partial vocalisations or pre-vocalisations – lip movements and such. Other primates have complex gestural communisation, and it was in monkeys that mirror neurons were first discovered by neurophysiologists examining inputs into the motor cortex. They are the key to our understanding of the embodied nature of language and communication. When we learn our L1, as children, we learn it largely unconsciously from our parents and those close to us, by copying – and not only copying words, but gestures which accompany words. We absorb the physical framing of the language, the tone in which certain words are conveyed, words and phrases – locutions – associated with physical actions and feelings such as anger, sadness, humour, fear etc, and they fire up or activate neurons in the motor cortex as well as in those centres related to language processing.
Jacinta: I’ve heard, though, that there’s a competing theory about the origin and evolution of language, relating to calls, such as those made by birds and other animals.
Canto: Not just one other. This has been described as the hardest problem in science by some, and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of it, but I recently watched an interview with Giacomo Rizzolatti, whose team discovered mirror neurons in monkeys, and he strongly favours the gestural origin theory, though he also says we need more neurophysiological evidence, for example of mirror neurons in other areas of the brain, or the absence of them, before we decide once and for all. He finds the debate a little ideological at present.
Jacinta: Well the origin of language obviously involves evolution, but there are few traces discoverable from the past. Spoken language leaves no trace. So it’s always going to be highly speculative.
Canto: Well it may not always be, but it long has been that’s for sure. Apparently the Linguistic Society of Paris banned all present and future debate on the origins of language back in 1866, so we could get arrested for this post.
Jacinta: Yeah, a bit hard to enforce that one. So we have no idea about when human language evolved, or did it evolve gradually over hundreds of thousands of years?
Canto: Well, that’s more speculation, but there are continuity theories (language is this extremely complex thing that came together gradually with the accumulation of changes – mutations or brain-wirings – over an extended period), and there are discontinuity theories that favour, for example, a single transformative genetic mutation.
Jacinta: And what about the song theory – that’s one I’ve heard. That song, and therefore music, preceded language. I suppose that’s romantic speculation – right up our alley.
Canto: Okay so this is very interesting and something to follow up in future posts, but we should get back to our main subject, the implications of embodied cognition for language learning today.
Jacinta: Aren’t the implications fairly straightforward – that we learned language, that’s to say our L1 – in a thoroughly embodied way, within a rich sensory and physical context, as highly active kids, and so it’s a battle to get students to learn their L2 or another language, because neurons that fire together wire together, and there’s this thing called brain frugality which makes us always look for short-cuts, so we always want to convert the L2 into the familiar, wired-in L1, rather than trying to grasp the flow of a foreign language. We want to work in the familiar, activated channels of our L1. So, as teachers, we can help students to develop channels for their L2 by teaching in a more embodied way.
Canto: Here’s a thought – I wonder if we can measure teaching techniques for L2 by examining the active brain and the feedback mechanisms operating between cortices as students are being taught? Have we reached that level of sophistication?
Jacinta: I doubt it. It’s an intriguing thought though. But what exactly would we be measuring? How much of the brain is ‘lighting up’? How long it’s remaining lit up? And how would we know if what’s being activated is due to language learning? It could be active avoidance of language learning…
Canto: I need to learn much more about this subject. I’ve heard that you can’t and shouldn’t teach an L2 in the way we learn our L1, but what does that mean? In any case, it’s true that the way we teach, in serried rows, facing the front with too much teacher talk and a general discouragement of talking out of turn and even moving too much, it really does smack of an old dualist conception, with disembodied minds soaking up the new language from the teacher.
Jacinta: Well surely you don’t teach that way any more, shame on you if you do, but there are ways in which a more embodied approach can be used, with role-playing, framing and other forms of contextualising.
Canto: Yes, clearly contextualising and incorporating action, sensation and emotion into language teaching is the key, and getting students to use the language as often as possible, to learn to manipulate it, even if ungrammatically at times and with gestural accompaniment….
Jacinta: So, like learning L1? But we ‘pick up’ our L1, we absorb it like little sponges, together with context and connotation. Is that really how to learn an L2? Is the idea to replace the L1 with a thoroughly embodied L2? Or is it to have two – or more – fully embodied, firing-and-wired transmitting and feedback-looping language systems alongside each other. What about energy conservation?
Canto: Okay so let this be an introductory post. I clearly need to research and think on this subject a lot more…
Canto: I want to talk about patriarchy, it’s weighing on my mind more and more.
Jacinta: Go on. And by the way, since we’ll obviously be talking about males and females and difference here, I notice that this blog is currently getting quite a few hits on a previous post, What do we currently know about the differences between male and female brains in humans?, and I think there’s information I’d want to add to that post, based on more recent research.
Canto: Go on.
Jacinta: Well what the research found, and it doesn’t in any way contradict the above-mentioned post, is that there are no categorical differences between the male and female brain, only statistical differences. It’s a nice thing to emphasise, that human brains are a kind of mozaic of ‘male’ and ‘female’ traits, with a very broad spectrum of possibilities. It essentially means that, unlike with genitalia, which, with a few statistically insignificant exceptions, can be used to identify maleness or femaleness, you wouldn’t, even with a lifetime’s neurological experience behind you, be able to say categorically that an individual was male or female based on an examination of the person’s brain alone.
Canto: But there might in some cases be a high probability.
Jacinta: Oh yes, maybe 80% in some cases, but that wouldn’t pass muster in a court of law, beyond reasonable doubt and all that. That would require a 99.9% probability or more. Think DNA ‘fingerprinting’. So, in all that was written in the previous post, the words ‘on average’, a statistical reference, should be kept in mind.
Canto: Right. And that term was used in the post, but perhaps not enough. But now let’s look at some other stats. According to IFL science, males commit some 85% of homicides, 91% of same-sex homicides, and 97% of same-sex homicides in which the victim and the perp aren’t known to each other (that’s to say, in which the likely motive was ideological)…
Jacinta: Or business-related, as in hired hit-men and the like…
Canto: It’s a stark but probably not surprising set of statistics. The IFL science post from which I got this data went on to provide an explanation, of sorts, in evolutionary psychology, through concept such as ‘precarious manhood’, clearly embedded in a patriarchal society which appears to be taken for granted. The notoriously macho Yanomamo people of South America are cited as an example, because the more men they kill the more their status rises. This is claimed as evidence that the quest for dominance is pretty well universal among males…
Jacinta: Well I can see a clear problem there.
Jacinta: And it relates very much to what I’ve been saying about male (and female) brains. Just as they vary over a very wide spectrum, so males themselves vary in the same way. So how can the quest for dominance be universal among males when males themselves are so various in their brain wiring and function?
Canto: Excellent point, and so let me leave this evolutionary psychology stuff aside, at least for the time being, and get back to patriarchy. There are many reasons that have converged to make western society less violent over the centuries, but I strongly believe that a ‘drop’ in patriarchy and a rise in gender egalitarianism has been one of the major civilising factors – possibly the major one.
Jacinta: So you have a solution for the world: patriarchy bad, matriarchy good?
Canto: Matriarchy probably better, but that wouldn’t make for such a good bumper sticker.
Jacinta: Seriously, I think you may be right. And it might actually be safer to challenge certain societies – Arabic, African and Indian societies for example – on their patriarchy than on their religion. It might actually be their soft spot, because if they react violently to a criticism of patriarchal violence they’ve lost the argument, haven’t they?
Canto: They probably wouldn’t care about losing the argument, as long as they kept their patriarchy.
Jacinta: I would challenge the women in those societies, too. Nowadays, in the interests of multiculturalism, we’re asked to respect the hijab, and we get soft interviews with women who almost invariably say it’s their choice to wear it, and when asked why they choose to wear it they almost invariably say something about modesty. And that’s where the tough questioning should come in, but it never does.
Canto: Such as?
Jacinta: Such as, Does your husband (or father, or son) wear a hijab? If not, is that because modesty isn’t a male virtue? And if not, why not?
Canto: I’ve no idea what they’d say. Maybe they’d say that in their culture women dress differently from men, just as they do in western culture. You don’t see many western men going about in frocks, or hot-pants.
Jacinta: Well… you don’t see that many women going about in hot-pants actually. And not even frocks except on special occasions. Trousers and a top, that’s probably the most common everyday dress for both sexes. But we’ll get back to that, imagine I’m trying to pin them down on this modesty question. I think maybe they’d have to admit that modesty is regarded as a feminine virtue in their culture.
Canto: Ah, and then you’d go for the killer blow, saying ‘isn’t this because modesty is a self-effacing virtue, whereas the male virtues would be more about confidence and assertiveness? And which of these virtues would you associate with power?’
Jacinta: Yes, that’d kill them stone dead.
Canto: Well, actually you don’t go for the killer blow, you soften them up with Socratic manoeuvrings.
Jacinta: Ah. Well, Socrates I’m sure that self-confidence and assertiveness are more associated with power than modesty.
Canto: And modesty, that tends to more associated with a desire not to wield power – to be, or to seem to be, lacking in power?
Jacinta: Yes, that is certainly true, Socrates.
Canto: So it would follow, would it not, that those who don’t wear the hijab, namely the males, would be assertive and dominant within such a culture, and the hijab-wearers would be more submissive, and rather dominated? For to be modest is surely not to be dominant.
Jacinta: Surely it isn’t.
Canto: And yet, research tells us that both females – the hijab-wearers in this culture – and males are both a mosaic of various traits, some of which have been traditionally associated with maleness, some with femaleness, though perhaps not with good reason.
Jacinta: Yes, that’s what the research clearly shows. And yet there’s this problem, even in our somewhat less patriarchal society, of male violence against women, both domestic and general. Is this just because of the statistical differences between male and female brains – not only in connectivity between neurons and between specific regions in the brain, but the flow of hormones and neurotransmitters such as oxytocin and testosterone and dopamine?
Canto: Well, yes, now we’re getting into very tricky territory.
Jacinta: Yes, like ‘I wasn’t responsible for killing her, it was my brain that was responsible – I can’t help the dangerous cocktail of chemicals that is my brain’.
Canto: Yes, but the fact is, for the vast majority of us, those chemicals are ‘in check’, they don’t cause us to harm others or ourselves, in fact they’re essential to our living socially constructive, civilised lives. And it seems that the feedback from the wider society regulates the circulation and effect of those chemicals. If you live in a society which rewards you for denouncing someone as a witch, or which more or less sanctions pack rape – and such societies or sub-cultures do exist, though hopefully they’re diminishing – then many will act accordingly. And many societies, as we know, sanction or reward the two genders differently.
Jacinta: Well, that’s interesting, and it raises another question – the extent to which the culture we live in, or the family we grow up in, affects the actual physiology of our brains. So, ‘my culture/my family made my brain make me do it’.
Canto: Well, we can’t get away from that. What we want is something like the universal declaration of human rights having real impact, so that these universal values are actually imposed at the level of the brain.
Jacinta: Brainwashing? And are they universal values?
Canto: They’re useful ones for our flourishing, that’s enough. Ok forget the word ‘impose’, but they should be encouraged and rewarded, and we should ask people to look critically, through education, at whether there are any effective alternatives – such as shari’a law, or any other cultural laws or customary behaviours.
Jacinta: Individual flourishing, or is there some other possibly better sort of flourishing?
Canto: No I’m actually talking about a broad social, human flourishing, imposing limits within which individuals can thrive, as members. And those useful values deal pretty well with patriarchy, in that they show that both the Catholic Church and whole religions such as Islam are violating those values by discriminating in terms of gender.
Jacinta: But the UDHR has freedom of religion as one of its values.
Canto: It’s not perfect.
Jacinta: Some values are more valuable than others?
Canto: Well actually yes. And, getting back to what we know about human brains, and what they tell us about diversity within each gender, any cultural or religious practice which delimits that diversity is a curtailment of self-expression, freedom and flourishing.
Jacinta: Fine words, but get this. This diversity within genders you talk about is based on one study. How many brains were examined in this study, and more importantly, from which cultural backgrounds were they drawn? Could it be that brains taken from subjects who inhabited cultures that had imposed strict gender divisions for generations would show considerably less diversity? Then it becomes a chicken-and-egg issue.
Canto: Good point, and unfortunately the details of the research are behind a paywall, but there’s been a lot of reporting on it, for example here, here and here. Some 1400 brains were studied, and there was a connected study of behavioural traits among 5500 individuals, and ages ranged from 13 to 85, but I couldn’t find anything on the cultural backgrounds of the subjects. The research was done from Tel Aviv University, using existing datasets of MRI images. I’m not sure what can be derived from that.
Jacinta: Well OK, I don’t think we’ve quite solved the patriarchy problem or even sufficiently addressed it here, but it was a start. Time to finish.
Jacinta: So you know that the average human brain mass, or is it volume, has reduced by – is it 15%, I can’t remember – over the past 20,000 years or so, right? And there’s this theory that it’s somehow related to domestication, because the same thing has happened to domesticated animals…
Canto: How so..?
Jacinta: Well, we don’t know how so, we just know it’s happened.
Canto: How do we know this? Who says?
Jacinta: Well I’ve heard about it from a few sources but most recently from Bruce Hood, the well-known psychologist and skeptic who was talking on the SGU about a recent book of his, The Domesticated Brain.
Canto: So the idea is that humans have somehow domesticated themselves, in the same way that they’ve domesticated other species, with a corresponding decrease in brain mass in all these species, which signifies – what?
Jacinta: Well it raises questions, dunnit? What’s going on?
Canto: It doesn’t signify dumbing down though – I read in Pinker’s big book about our better angels that our average IQ is rising in quite regular and exemplary fashion.
Jacinta: Yes, the Flynn effect. Though of course what IQ measures has always been controversial. And they do reckon size isn’t the main thing. I mean look at all those small critters that display so many smarts. For example, rats, octopuses and corvids (that’s to say crows, ravens and some magpies). They all seem to be fast learners, within their limited spheres, and very adaptable. But getting back to the human brain, it seems to be something known mainly to palaeontologists, who have a variety of theories about it, including the ‘we’re getting dumber’ theory, but I’m not convinced by that one. It seems more likely that our brains are getting more organised, requiring less mass.
Canto: So this has happened only in the last 20,000 years?
Jacinta: Or perhaps even less – between 10 and 20 thousand.
Canto: Isn’t that a phenomenally short time for such a substantial change?
Jacinta: I really don’t know. They say it might be partly related to a decrease in overall body size, so that the brain to body ratio remains much the same.
Canto: A decrease in body size? What about the obesity epidemic? And I remember way back when I was a kid reading about how we’d been getting taller with each generation since the Great Depression – or was it the Industrial Revolution? Anyway our improved diet, our era of relative abundance, has led to a change in height, and presumably in mass, in only a few generations.
Jacinta: So now you’re saying that substantial changes can occur in a few generations, let alone 10,000 years?
Canto: Uhhh, yeah, okay, but I wasn’t talking about brain size.
Jacinta: Well why not brain size? Anyway, although there have been those recent changes, at least in the west, the story goes that the planet has warmed since the last ice age, favouring less bulky bodies, less fat storage, more gracile frames.
Canto: So what about domestication, why has this led to decreased brain sizes?
Jacinta: Well this is very complex of course…
Canto: I can think of a reason, though it might not be called domestication, more like socialisation, and outsourcing. You can see it in very recent times, with smart phones – it’s even become an already-stale joke, you know phones are getting smarter so we’re getting dumber. But then we always tend to exaggerate the short-term and the present against the longer view. And yet…. I was on the tram the other night, sitting across from this couple, locked into their phone screens, I mean really locked in, earplugs attached, heads bent, utterly fixated on their little screens, completely oblivious, of each other as well as of the outside world. I was reading a book myself, but I became distracted by my irritation with these characters, while wondering why I should be irritated. It just went on so long, this locked-in state. I leaned forward. I waved my hand in front of their bowed heads. I wanted to tell them that the tram had rattled past all the stations and was heading out to sea…
Jacinta: There are some problems with the whole argument. How do we know that domesticated animals have smaller brains? Domesticated cats have a wide range of brain sizes no doubt, but what wild cats are you comparing them with? Even more so with dogs and their immense varieties. Okay they’re descended from wolves so you compare a wolf brain with its modern doggy-wolfy counterpart, but who’s going to agree on type specimens?
Canto: So you brought the subject up just to dismiss it as a load of rubbish?
Jacinta: Well if we shelve the domestication hypothesis for the moment – I’m not dismissing it entirely – we might consider other reasons why human brains are shrinking – if they are.
Canto: So you’re not convinced that they are?
Jacinta: Well let’s be sceptical until we find some solid evidence. In this Scientific American site, from November 2014, palaeontologist Chris Stringer states that ‘skeletal evidence from every inhabited continent’ suggests – only suggests – that our brains have become smaller in the past 10 to 20 thousand years. No references are given, but the article assumes this is a fact. This piece from Discovery channel or something, which dates back to 2010, relies in part on the work of another palaeontologist, John Hawks, whose website we link to here. Hawks also talks about a bucketload of evidence, but again no references. The original research papers would likely be behind a paywall anyway, and barely intelligible to my dilettante brain….
Canto: Your diminishing brain.
Jacinta: Okay I’m prepared to believe Hawks about our incredible shrinking brains, but is domestication the cause, and what exactly is domestication anyway? Hawks doesn’t go with the domestication hypothesis. In fact the Discovery article usefully covers a number of alternative hypotheses, and of course the shrinking may be due to a combo. In fact that’s more than likely.
Canto: So what’s Hawks’ hypothesis, since we’re supposedly admirers of his?
Jacinta: Well Hawks decided to look more closely at this brain contraction – which is interesting because I was thinking along the same lines as he was, i.e. has it been a uniform contraction, or was there a sudden, quick development, followed by a stagnant period, as you would expect?
Canto: Anyway isn’t brain organisation more important than brain mass? Sorry to interrupt, but haven’t we already established that?
Jacinta: We haven’t established anything, we’re just effing dilettantes remember. Hawks started looking at more recent data, over the past 4000 years or so, to see if he could detect any difference in the encephalisation quotient (EQ) – the ratio of brain volume to body mass – over that time. He found that indeed there has. The picture is complicated, but overall there has been a reduction in the brain compared to the body. His explanation for this though is quite different. He reckons that a series of mutations over recent history have resulted in the brain producing more out of less…
Canto: Right, just as a series of modifications have allowed us to produce smaller but more powerful and fuel-efficient cars.
Jacinta: Uhh, yeah, something like that.
Canto: But we know what those modifications were, we can name them. Can we name the mutations?
Jacinta: Clever question, but we know about cars, we built them and they’ve only been around for a bit more than a century. We know vastly less about the brain and we’re still getting our heads around natural selection, give us a break. Hawks points out that it’s a rule about population genetics well-known in principle to Darwin, that the larger the population the more numerous the mutations, and there was a surge in the human population back when agriculture was developed and large settlements began to form. So a number of brain-related mutations led to streamlining and, as you suggest, fuel efficiency.
Canto: But isn’t this compatible with the domestication hypothesis? I imagine that, if there really is a brain reduction for domesticated animals, it’s because they don’t have to rely on their brains so much for survival, and we don’t either, the collective has sort of magically taken care of it through farming and infrastructure and supermarkets.
Jacinta: Yes but they all have their own complicated networks and issues we have to wrap our brains around. The domestication hypothesis is really about aggression apparently. The argument goes that all animals under domestication become more varied in size, coloration and general build, with a tendency to become more gracile over all. Selection against aggression, according to the primatologist Richard Wrangham, favours a slowly developing brain – one that is, in a sense, in a perpetually juvenile state (think of cute cat and dog videos). Of course, all this assumes that juvenile brains are less aggressive than adult brains, which some might see as a dubious assumption.
Canto: Yes, think of school bullying, Lord of the Flies, youth gangs, the adolescent tendency to extremes…
Jacinta: Well, both Wrangham and Hood offer a particularly interesting example of ‘super-fast’ domestication to illustrate their hypothesis:
In 1958 the Russian geneticist Dmitri Belyaev started raising silver foxes in captivity, initially selecting to breed only the animals that were the slowest to snarl when a human approached their cage. After about 12 generations, the animals evidenced the first appearance of physical traits associated with domestication, notably a white patch on the forehead. Their tameness increased over time, and a few generations later they were much more like domesticated dogs. They had developed smaller skeletons, white spots on their fur, floppy ears, and curlier tails; their craniums had also changed shape, resulting in less sexual dimorphism, and they had lower levels of aggression overall.
Now, how does this relate to juvenilism? Well, in the wild, offspring grow up quickly and have to fend for themselves, which requires a certain ruthless degree of aggression. Cats and dogs, yes, they abandon their offspring soon enough, but those offspring continue to be tutored, tamed, domesticated under their human owners. We hear a lot about school bullying and gangs of youths, but they’re actually the exception rather than the rule, or a last ditch rebellion against the domestication pressure that’s exerted by the whole of society, and they’ll either succumb to that pressure or end up in jail, or worse. It’s a bit like the Freudian concept of sublimation, you channel your aggressive energies into creativity, competitive problem-solving, sports achievements and the like.
Canto: So you’re in favour of the domestication hypothesis?
Jacinta: Well, I’m not against it. It sounds plausible to me. Human domestication, or self-domestication if you want to call it that, is a social-contract sort of thing. You agree to outsource and comply with certain arrangements – laws, government, taxation and so forth, in return for certain benefits in terms of security and resources. So you don’t have to fend for yourself. And that affects the brain, obviously. Though it might not be the whole story.
Canto: Well I suppose the apparent detection of gravitational waves should be capturing our attention more than anything else right now, but it’s very well described in The Economist, and in many other places, and we’re no astrophysicists, and we did promise to focus a bit more on philosophical issues, so…
Jacinta: But we’re no philosophers. But we’re philosophasters at least, so let’s have a go.
Canto: Well I came across an article on Three Quarks Daily which vaguely gave me the irrits, so with your help I want to explore why.
Jacinta: Right. The essay is called ‘The psychologists take power’, the author is Tamsin Shaw and it was originally published in the New York review of books.
Canto: Yes, and on reading it in full I find it an interesting but confused piece, which seems to take the failings of certain individual psychologists as an example of the failings of psychology as a whole, and even of neurology. Shaw seems to be entering the philosophy versus science debate, on the side of philosophy, but I don’t find her arguments convincing.
Jacinta: The essay seems to divide into two parts, first a general critique of psychology and neurology, which can be summed up by the title of a philosophical essay by Selim Berker, which she quotes approvingly, ‘the normative insignificance of neuroscience’. The second part is an account of how certain professional psychologists, practitioners of the ‘positive psychology’ pioneered by the influential Martin Seligman, colluded with the US government in providing dubious evidence for the psychological effectiveness of torture in eliciting valuable information from ‘enemies of the state’. Shaw clearly wants to link these unethical practices to what she might want to call ‘the normative insignificance of psychology’.
Canto: Yes, and it’s a bit of a dangerous game – you might as well label Heidegger’s allegiance to the Nazi party, or Althusser’s murder of his wife, as examples of ‘the normative insignificance of philosophy’.
Jacinta: Ha, well Althusser was declared insane at the time, no doubt by psychologists, who would be examining Althusser to determine whether he was, while strangling his wife, capable of understanding and following the normative rules of his society. Such determinations are hardly normatively insignificant, even though, no doubt, individual psychologists might make different determinations, due to levels of competence, corruption, ideological considerations and so forth.
Canto: Right, but let’s look more closely at Shaw’s essay, and pick it apart.
Jacinta: Okay, but first let’s make a philosophasters’ confession. Shaw mentions eight or so books or sources at the head of her essay, which form the basis of her discussion, but of those we’ve only read one – Pinker’s eloquent tome, The better angels of our nature. And we don’t intend to bone up on those other texts, though no doubt we’ll refer to our own reading in our responses.
Canto: And we are reasonably familiar with Jonathan Haidt’s work and ideas.
Jacinta: So Shaw begins her essay with the overweening ambition of behaviourist extraordinaire B F Skinner, a pretty soft target these days. I have no problems with criticising him, or Freud or any other psychologist whose theories get way out of hand. Shaw’s concerns, though, are specifically about the moral sphere. She feels that a new breed of psychologists, armed with neurological research, are making big claims about moral expertise. Here’s a quote from her essay:
Neuroscience, it is claimed, has revealed that our brains operate with a dual system for moral decision-making.
Canto: I like the ‘it is claimed’ bit. Claimed by who? Someone has put forward that hypothesis I’m sure, along with their reasons, but most neurologists bang on about neurology being a field in its infancy, and most findings are highly contested, it seems to me.
Jacinta: Shaw may be referring to the work of Daniel Kahneman – a psychologist not a neurologist – who distinguished between system 1 thinking (intuitive, less conscious, rough-and ready) and system 2 thinking (reasoned, conscious, more changeable depending on inputs and knowledge). But really there are many dual-process theories going back at least to William James. But Shaw is explicitly referring to the fMRI imaging work of the neurologist Jonathan Cohen, who analysed brain activity when subjects were asked to think about moral hypotheticals.
Canto: Yes and she’s quite straight about describing the two systems apparently highlighted by Cohen’s research and the brain regions associated with them, but becomes scathing in dealing with Joshua Greene, Cohen’s co-researcher, whom she quite deliberately introduces as a mere ‘philosophy graduate student’, whose interpretation of the research she describes thus:
Greene interpreted these results in the light of an unverifiable and unfalsifiable story about evolutionary psychology. Since primitive human beings encountered up-close dangers or threats of personal violence, their brains, he speculated, evolved fast and focused responses for dealing with such perils. The impersonal violence that threatens humans in more sophisticated societies does not trigger the same kind of affective response, so it allows for slower, more cognitive processes of moral deliberation that weigh the relevant consequences of actions. Greene inferred from this that the slower mechanisms we see in the brain are a later development and are superior because morality is properly concerned with impersonal values—for example, justice—to which personal harms and goals such as family loyalty should be irrelevant. He has taken this to be a vindication of a specific, consequentialist philosophical theory of morality: utilitarianism.
Jacinta: Okay, so here’s where psychology – especially evolutionary psychology – first comes under attack. It’s often said to present just so stories, which are necessarily highly speculative, as if they are facts. But I would question whether these speculations, or hypotheses, are unverifiable (forget about falsifiability, a term made popular by Karl Popper but which has come under heavy criticism since, both by scientists and philosophers of science, and I suspect Shaw has simply used it as a ‘double whammy’ to vilify Greene), to me they’re important and useful, and in any case are rarely presented as facts, at least not by the best psychologists.
Canto: So how do you verify this hypothesis, that fast, rough-and-ready responses for dealing with immediate dangers are systematically different from slower, more sophisticated responses that deal with the ‘impersonal violence’, the many restraints, justified or not, on our personal freedoms that we deal with on a daily basis?
Jacinta: Well one obvious way is through neurology, a scientific field still in its infancy as you say. Clearly the system 1 responses would be shared by other complex social mammals, whereas system 2 thinking is much more language-dependent and unique to humans – unless cetaceans have developed complex language, which is far from being out of the question. New techniques for mapping and exploring neural pathways are coming up all the time, as well as non-invasive ways of exploring such pathways in our closest mammalian relatives.
Canto: Good point. So to go to the second part of the above quote, Greene is presented (and I wonder about whether Shaw is fairly or accurately presenting him) as finding system 2 thinking as superior because it deals with more abstract and less personal values, whereas I would prefer to think of this system as a further adaptation, to a human existence that has become more socially complex, systematic and language-based. And in this, I’m apparently in line with the thinking of psychologists Shaw takes aim at:
Many of the psychologists who have taken up the dual-process model claim to be dismissive of philosophical theories, generally. They reject Greene’s inferences about utilitarianism and claim to be restricting themselves to what can be proved scientifically. But in fact all of those I discuss here are making claims about which kinds of moral judgments are good or bad by assessing which are adaptive or maladaptive in relation to a norm of social cooperation. They are thereby relying on an implicit philosophical theory of morality, albeit a much less exacting one than utilitarianism.
Jacinta: But I detect a problem here. You’ve talked about adaptation to the fact of growing social complexity, and the need to co-operate within that complexity. Shaw has written of a ‘norm of social co-operation’, by which she means an ethical norm, because she claims that this is the implicit philosophical theory of morality these psychologists rely on. But that’s not true, they’re not claiming that there’s anything moral about social complexity or social co-operation. We just are more complex, and necessarily more co-operative than our ancestors. So it’s kind of silly to say they’re relying on a less exacting moral philosophy than utilitarianism. It’s not about moral philosophy at all.
Canto: And it gets worse. Shaw claims that this phantom moral ethic of social co-operation is greatly inferior to utilitarianism, so let’s look at that normative theory, which in my view is not so much exacting as impossible. Utilitarianism is basically about the maximising of utility. Act in such a way that your actions maximise utility (act utilitarianism), or create rules that maximise utility (rule utilitarianism). So what’s utility? Nothing that can be measured objectively, or agreed upon. We can replace it with happiness, or pleasure, or well-being, or Aristotle’s eudaemonia, however translated, and the problem is still the same. How do you measure, on a large-scale, social level, things so elusive, intangible and personal?
Jacinta: Yes, and look at how laws change over time, laws for example relating to homosexuality, women’s rights, the protection of minorities, and even business practices, taxation and the like; they’re all about our changing, socially evolving sense of how to co-operate in such a way as to produce the best social outcomes. This can’t be easily bedded down in some fixed normative ethic.
Canto: Yes, Shaw seems to imply that some deep philosophical insight is missing from these psychologists which makes them liable to go off the rails, as the second half of her essay implies, but I’m very doubtful about that. But let’s continue with our analysis:
Rather than adhering to the moral view that we should maximize “utility”—or satisfaction of wants—they are adopting the more minimal, Hobbesian view that our first priority should be to avoid conflict. This minimalist moral worldview is, again, simply presupposed; it is not defended through argument and cannot be substantiated simply by an appeal to scientific facts. And its implications are not altogether appealing.
Jacinta: But surely she’s just assuming that ‘they’ – presumably all the psychologists she doesn’t like, or is it all the psychologists who posit a two-tiered system of decision-making? – take the view that avoidance of conflict is the highest priority.
Canto: Well I must say that Jonathan Haidt seems to take that view, and it’s something I find uncomfortable. So I agree with Shaw that Haidt ‘presupposes that the norm of cooperation should take precedence over the values that divide us’, and that this view is dubious. It’s just that I suspect my own view, that there are values more important than co-operation, is also a ‘presupposition’, though I dislike that word. But more of that later perhaps.
Jacinta: Right, so Shaw refers to the sinister implications of a minimalist Hobbesian worldview, supposedly held by these psychologists. What are they?
Canto: We’ll get there eventually – perhaps. Shaw describes the work of the ‘positive psychology’ movement, stemming from Martin Seligman and practised by Haidt among others, including Steven Pinker, whose book The better angels of our nature was apparently influenced by this movement:
In that extremely influential work Pinker argues that our rational, deliberative modes of evaluation should take precedence over powerful, affective intuitions. But by “rationality” he means specifically “the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games,” rather than any higher-order philosophical theory. He allows that empathy has played a part in promoting altruism, that “humanitarian reforms are driven in part by an enhanced sensitivity to the experiences of living things and a genuine desire to relieve their suffering.” But nevertheless our “ultimate goal should be policies and norms that become second nature and render empathy unnecessary.”
And here’s where I see another problem. Pinker is here criticised for not subscribing to any ‘higher-order philosophical theory’, but Shaw doesn’t attempt to outline or give examples of such higher-order theories, though she does refer to empathy – an important factor, but one that doesn’t obviously emerge from philosophy.
Jacinta: Right, and we’ve already referred to utilitarianism and its problems. This reminds me that years ago I read a sort of primer on ethics, I think it was called Moral Philosophy, in which the author devoted chapters to utilitarianism, Kantianism, rights theory and other ethical approaches. In the final chapter he presented his own preferred approach, a sort of neo-Aristotelianism. I was intrigued that he felt we hadn’t made much progress in philosophical ethics in almost 2,500 years.
Canto: Well, his may be a minority view, but it’s doubtful that our changing laws derive from philosophical work on normative ethics, though this may have had an influence. I do think, with Haidt, that there’s a great deal of post-hoc rationalisation going on, though I’m reluctant – very reluctant actually – to embrace the relativism of values. And this brings me to the nub of the matter, IMHO. To go back to an old favourite of mine, Hume: ‘reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions’. A fairly notorious pronouncement, but I take the passions here to be something very basic – the fundamental drives and instincts, largely unconscious, that characterise us as humans…
Jacinta: But doesn’t Hume break his own is-ought rule here? He says that our passions rule our reason, which may or may not be true, but does it follow that they ought to?
Canto: Please don’t complicate matters. Hume also wrote this, in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals:
In all determinations of morality, this circumstance of public utility is ever principally in view, and wherever disputes arise, either in philosophy or common life, concerning the bounds of duty, the question cannot, by any means, be decided with greater certainty, than by ascertaining, on any side, the true interests of mankind.
So these true interests of mankind…
Jacinta: Hang on, so there he goes again, gaily bounding over his own is-ought barrier, saying that in order to work out what we ought to do we need – pretty well absolutely – to determine our interests, what in fact makes us human, what we actually are.
Canto: Well, precisely…
Jacinta: Or what we have evolved to become, which might amount to the same thing. So we need to study our evolution, our genes and genetic inheritance, our brain and its inheritance, and adaptive growth, and maybe the physics of our bodies…
Canto: So we need neurology, and genetics, and palaeontology, and physics and psychology, all of which contribute to an understanding of what we are. Without them, normative ethics would be empty theorising.
Jacinta: So I suppose you’re going to write a rejoinder to this ‘normative insignificance of neurology’ essay? Something like ‘the insignificance of normative ethics without neurology’?
Canto: Ha, well that would require reading Selim Berker’s essay, which I’m not sure about – so many other things to explore. But I should end this discussion by saying a few words about the second half of Shaw’s article – and I’ll pass over many other points she’s made. This section deals with the collusion of some psychologists, practitioners of the above-mentioned ‘positive psychology’, with the CIA and the US Department of Defence in the commission of torture.
Jacinta: And what exactly is this ‘positive psychology’?
Canto: Well, to explain that would require a large digression. Suffice to say for now that it’s about using psychology to make us more resilient, and in some sense ethically superior, or more benign, humans. Shaw dwells on this at some length, but claims that in spite of much rhetoric, these psychologists can only offer what she calls the bare, Hobbesian ethic of avoidance of strife. However, she herself is unable to point to a more robust, or a deeper, ethic. She presumably believes in one, but she doesn’t enlighten us as to what it might be. And this is very striking because the tale of these psychologists’ collusion with the Bush administration on torture, and the huge financial gain to them in applying ‘learned helplessness’, a theory of Seligman’s, to the application of torture, is truly shocking.
Jacinta: So it would be a question of what, in their make-up, allowed them to engage in such unethical behaviour, and was it the lack of a deep ethical understanding, beyond ‘bare Hobbesianism’?
Canto: Right, and my answer would be that, although two psychologists took up this lucrative offer to ‘serve the state’, there would have been others who refused, and would any of them, on either side, have made their decision on the basis of some rigorous normative ethic?
Jacinta: I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have colluded with that sort of thing for all the terracotta warriors in China, but I’m also sure it wouldn’t have been for deep philosophical reasons. I just have a kind of visceral revulsion for physical violence and bullying as you know, and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I’d facilitated the premeditated cruel and unusual punishment of others. I’m not even sure if it’s about empathy, but it’s not a particularly reasoned position.
Canto: Yes, and so the only way to understand why some people are more prone to do unethical things – actions outside of the ever-changing standards of community ethics – might be to look at individual psychology, and neurology, and genetics, which takes us further away from normative ethics than ever.
Jacinta: Yes, and didn’t we read, in Sam Kean’s The tale of the duelling neurosurgeons, about a poor fellow in his mid-fifties who suddenly started engaging in paedophile acts, something he had never showed any signs of before? A brain scan revealed a large tumour pressing on parts of the brain responsible for higher-order decision-making (to put it over-simplistically). When the tumour was removed he returned to ‘normal’, until some time later he regressed to paedophile acts. A further scan showed they didn’t remove all the tumour and it had regrown. After another more successful operation he was cured and never diddled again. But the consequences of his actions for his victims when ‘not himself’ would have required him to be punished, on a consequentialist ethical view, wouldn’t they?
Canto: Very good point. And yet, and yet… can it be true that we’ve barely gone further in our ethics than the Golden Rule, or Aristotle’s mean between extremes?
Jacinta: We’re animals, don’t forget. Okay we’re animals that have managed to detect waves from space that are a tiny fraction of the diameter of a proton, but we’re still not that good at being nice to each other. And the extent to which we’re able to be nice to each other, and follow social norms, that’s a matter of our individual psychology, our neurology, our individual and cultural circumstances, our genes and our epigenetic profile, so much particular stuff that philosophical ethics, with its generalities, can’t easily deal with.
Jacinta: Okay Canto, I rather hesitate to open up this subject, because I can’t see an end to it, but I want you to repeat here something you’ve said to me before about women and power, which goes to differences between men and women, an area subject to endless debate and contestation.
Canto: Ah well, I was considering how political power, in the world, is largely in the hands of men, and what the world would be like if the situation was reversed. It’s my humble opinion that the world would be less violent, more collaborative, and a lot more fun.
Jacinta: Well as a woman I’m obviously pleased to hear you say that, but we do try to look at evidence rather than personal opinion here, so what in the way of evidence leads you to this conclusion?
Canto: Well… where do we begin? Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that women are made and not born, a highly contestable truism as it seems that women are actually wired differently from men, having less neurons but more connections between neurons, in toto and on average, so the very question of what it means to be a woman, or a man is one we’re unlikely to get to the bottom of, but I’d like to start with bonobos, always a favourite topic of mine. They appear to have diverged from chimpanzees only between a million and two million years ago, and they look very similar to chimps, which is likely why they weren’t identified as a separate species until the 1930s, and the differences seem to be far more social than anatomical. I mean, they share the same sexual dimorphism as chimps, and humans, and yet they’re essentially matriarchal, due it seems to social arrangements rather than individual size and strength. That gives me great hope for humans, especially now that physical size and strength are less relevant than ever as leadership qualities.
Jacinta: Ah, well now I get the fun part – you think a human matriarchal society will turn out to be a gigantic mutual wankfest. But what about civilisation? What about science and technology? Considering that women, regardless of culture or nationality, are more into astrology, fortune-telling, spiritualism, religion, naturopathy, and virtually every other pseudo-science and primitivism you care to mention, than men are.
Canto: Well, you’re talking about statistical differences, but you well know that there are many fine female astrophysicists, neurosurgeons, geneticists, experimental psychologists, whatever. You’re hardly the only female skeptic, even if they’re in a minority. And who knows what would happen if females were in a majority, with a history of being in a majority, with respect to leadership and power? Maybe you’d find then that it was men who were more into pseudo-science, statistically speaking.
Jacinta: True, and that brings me to a study analysed on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe recently. I had read, like you, that women, overall, had more white matter (the myelinated connections between neurons) than men – by a large factor, and that men had more grey matter, though this was concentrated around particular areas such as the amygdalae and the hypothalamus. However, in the study referred to, the researchers wanted to find if there were any categorical differences between male and female brains. They looked at 4 data sets of MRI and fMRI scans, checking out anatomical and connectional or networking differences, to make comparisons. According to SGU’s Steven Novella (a practising neurologist), the media over-simplified the findings as saying there were no differences, but in fact it was more interesting than that. Novella found this study to be essentially an exercise in examining how we categorise things (how do we define and categorise a disease, for example, or a planet, or a species). How we do so depends on a range of factors, and increasing knowledge, and better technology, helps us to develop parameters for categorising…
Canto: Though this also raises more problems… the more we know or learn, the more problematic our previous categories tend to become…
Jacinta: Anyway, in the case of female and male brains, the researchers distinguished between categorical differences and statistical differences. They used genitalia as a categorical difference. As Novella explains it, with genitalia we have a bimodal system, with male and female equipment…
Canto: I prefer to call it tackle…
Jacinta: And nothing really between. The vast majority of people, as subjects, can be placed in one category or another. Of course there are exceptions, but they are, always arguably, statistically insignificant. So, using this as a yardstick, the researchers wanted to know if there are categorical differences between male and female brains in the same way that there are categorical differences between male and female genitalia. One way to distinguish between categorical and statistical differences is whether, once you know which category an individual belongs to, that provides certainty about their particular traits. If it does, you have a categorical difference. So the researchers looked at about 40 different anatomical and functional aspects of the brain. They found that, generally speaking, there are statistical differences between males and females, in the size of various regions, the richness of the networks in various regions, but with a lot of overlap between the sexes; so it was statistical but not categorical. And the study didn’t look at causes of these differences, whether biological or social (we know that brains can be wired up through social conditioning to some degree). But they also did studies of individuals over the range of the 40 anatomical and functional features to determine how many were ‘typically’ male or female, or somewhere in between. One way to capture this was to ask – what percentage of people had 100% of their brain regions (those 40 features analysed) that were ‘typical’ of their sex? Among the 4 data sets, that percentage was 0 to 8%. So, very few men have ‘all-male’ brain regions, in terms of size and connections. Some 28% to 58% had a mixture of both.
Canto: So let me get this clear, the essential finding, according to Novella, was that though there were statistical differences in specific brain areas – and these are the differences described in ‘Do men and women have different brains?’ in How Stuff Works, from which the new ussr’s earlier post was largely derived – there is a lot of individual variation, which muddies the water rather a lot.
Jacinta: Yes, and I would say hopelessly, at least for those who want to think in stereotypes. As Novella puts it, people are mosaics of male and female traits. Another way of thinking about this, again put succinctly by Novella, is that we can’t assume that because a person is male – or female – we know what that person’s brain regions will be like. Statistical differences can’t automatically tell us about the brain region of any individual. There is no typically male or female brain in the way that there are typically male or female genitalia. And that is really interesting, and it might even mean that it’s illegitimate to say, ‘oh she’s female but she thinks like a man’, or ‘but she has a male brain’. There’s no male brain, or female brain, there are individual brains that are a product of all the influences, genetic, epigenetic, environmental, social, hormonal, psychological, whatever you can think of that influences brain activity and wiring.
Canto: And yet, and yet. Statistical differences do count for something don’t they? We still have the statistics showing that women are more into astrology and naturopathy than men…
Jacinta: Yes but what this study shows is that you can’t base this on some essentialist argument about female brains, and isn’t that a good thing?
Canto: Well, definitely, but then it works the other way. My argument that if women ruled we’d be so much better off can’t be based on anything essentialist either! Maybe being in power would turn their brains into something like the statistically typical male brain. My hopes are turning to dust…
Jacinto: No, no, don’t despair Canto. Consider the bonobos of the jungle…
Canto: Well, we’re celebrating this month what is surely the greatest achievement by a single person in the history of science, the general theory of relativity. I thought it might be a good time to reflect on that achievement, on science generally, and on the impetus that drives us to explore and understand as fully as possible the world around us.
Jacinta: The world that made us.
Jacinta: Well, first can I speak of Einstein as a political animal, because that has influenced me, or rather, his political views seem to chime with mine. He’s been described as a supra-nationalist, which to me is a kind of political humanism. We’re moving very gradually towards this supra-nationalism, with the European Union, the African Union, and various intergovernmental and international organisations whose goals are largely political. Einstein also saw the intellectual venture that is science as an international community venture, science as an international language, and an international community undertaking. And with the development of nuclear weapons, which clearly troubled him very deeply, he recognised more forcefully than ever the need for us to take international responsibility for our rapidly developing and potentially world-threatening technology. In his day it was nuclear weapons. Today, they’re still a threat – you’ll never get that genie back in the bottle – but there are so many other threats posed by a whole range of technologies, and we need to recognise them, inform ourselves about them, and co-operate to reduce the harm, and where possible find less destructive but still effective alternatives.
Canto: A great little speech Jas, suitable for the UN general assembly…
Jacinta: That great sinkhole of fine and fruitless speeches. So let’s get back to general relativity, what marks it off from special relativity?
Canto: Well I’m not a physicist, and I’m certainly no mathematician, but broadly speaking, general relativity is a theory of gravity. Basically, after developing special relativity, which dealt with the concepts of space and time, in 1905, he felt that he needed a more comprehensive relativistic theory incorporating gravity.
Jacinta: But hang on, was there really anything wrong with space and time before he got his hands on them? Why couldn’t he leave them alone?
Canto: OMG, you’re taking me right back to basics, aren’t you? If I had world enough, and time…
Jacinta: Actually the special theory was essentially an attempt – monumentally successful – to square Maxwell’s electromagnetism equations with the laws of Newton, a squaring up which involved enormous consequences for our understanding of space and time, which have ever since been connected in the concept – well, more than a concept, since it has been verified to the utmost – of the fourth, spacetime, dimension.
Canto: Well done, and there were other vital implications too, as expressed in E = mc², equivalating mass and energy.
Jacinta: Is that a word?
Canto: It is now.
Jacinta: So when can we stop pretending that we understand any of this shite?
Canto: Not for a while yet. The relevance of relativity goes back to Galileo and Newton. It all has to do with frames of reference. At the turn of the century, when Einstein was starting to really focus on this stuff, there was a lot of controversy about whether ‘ether’ existed – a postulated quasi-magical invisible medium through which electromagnetic and light waves propagated. This ether was supposed to provide an absolute frame of reference, but it had some contradictory properties, and seemed designed to explain away some intractable problems of physics. In any case, some important experimental work effectively quashed the ether hypothesis, and Einstein sought to reconcile the problems by deriving special relativity from two essential postulates, constant light speed and a ‘principle of relativity’, under which physical laws are the same regardless of the inertial frame of reference.
Jacinta: What do you mean, ‘the initial frame of reference’?
Canto: No, I said ‘the inertial frame of reference’. That’s one that describes all parameters homogenously, in such a way that any such frame is in a constant motion with respect to other such frames. But I won’t go into the mathematics of it all here.
Jacinta: As if you could.
Canto: Okay. Okay. I won’t go any further in trying to elucidate Einstein’s work, to myself, you or anyone else. At the end of it all I wanted to celebrate the heart of Einstein’s genius, which I think represents the best and most exciting element in our civilisation.
Jacinta: Drumroll. Now, expose this heart to us.
Canto: Well we’ve barely touched on the general theory, but what Einstein’s work on gravity teaches us is that by not leaving things well alone, as you put it, we can make enormous strides. Of course it took insight, hard work, and a full and deep understanding of the issues at stake, and of the work that had already been done to resolve those issues. And I don’t think Einstein was intending to be a revolutionary. He was simply exercised by the problems posed in trying to understand, dare I say, the very nature of reality. And he rose to that challenge and transformed our understanding of reality more than any other person in human history. It’s unlikely that anything so transformative will ever come again – from the mind of a single human being.
Jacinta: Yes it’s an interesting point, and it takes a particular development of culture to allow that kind of transformative thinking. It took Europe centuries to emerge from a sort of hegemony of dogmatism and orthodoxy. During the so-called dark ages, when warfare was an everyday phenomenon, and later too, right through to the Thirty Years War and beyond, one thing that could never be disputed amongst all that disputation was that the Bible was the word of God. Nowadays, few people believe that, and that’s a positive development in the evolution of culture. It frees us to look at morality from a broader, richer, extra-Biblical perspective..
Canto: Yes we no longer have to even pretend that our morality comes from such sources.
Jacinta: Yes and I’m thinking of other parts of the world that are locked in to this submissive way of thinking. A teaching colleague, an otherwise very liberal Moslem, told me the other day that he didn’t believe in gay marriage, because the Qu-ran laid down the law on homosexuals, and the Qu-ran, because written by God, is perfect. Of course I had to call BS on that, which made me quite sad, because I get on very well with him, on a professional and personal basis. It just highlights to me the crushing nature of culture, how it blinds even the best people to the nature of reality.
Canto: Not being capable of questioning, not even being aware of that incapability, that seems to me the most horrible blight, and yet as you say, it wasn’t so long ago that our forebears weren’t capable of questioning the legitimacy of Christianity’s ‘sacred texts’, in spite of interpreting those remarkably fluid texts in myriad ways.
Jacinta: And yet out of that bound-in world, modern science had its birth. Some modern atheists might claim the likes of Galileo and Francis Bacon as one of their own, but none of our scientific pioneers were atheists in the modern sense. Yet the principles they laid down led inevitably to the questioning of sacred texts and the gods described in them.
Canto: Of course, and the phenomenal success of the tightened epistemology that has produced the scientific and technological revolution we’re enjoying now, with exoplanets abounding, and the revelations of Homo floresiensis, Homo naledi and the Denisovan hominin, and our unique microbiome, and recent work on the interoreceptive tract leading to to the anterior insular cortex, and so on and on and on, and the constant shaking up of old certainties and opening up of new pathways, all happening at a giddying accelerating rate, all of this leaves the ‘certainty of faith’ looking embarrassingly silly and feeble.
Jacinta: And you know why ‘I fucking love science’, to steal someone else’s great line? It’s not because of science itself, that’s only a means. It’s what it reveals about our world that’s amazing. It’s the world of stuff – animate and inanimate – that’s amazing. The fact that this solid table we’re sitting at is made of mostly empty space – a solidity consisting entirely of electrochemical bonds, if that’s the right term, between particles we can’t see but whose existence has been proven a zillion times over, and the fact that as we sit here on a still, springtime day, with a slight breeze tickling our faces, we’re completely oblivious of the fact that we hurtling around on the surface of this earth, making a full circle every 24 hours, at a speed of nearly 1700 kms per hour. And at the same time we’re revolving around the sun at a far greater speed, 100,000 kms per hour. And not only that, we’re in a solar system that’s spinning around in the outer regions of our galaxy at around 800,000 kilometres an hour. And not only that… well, we don’t feel an effing thing. It’s the counter-intuitive facts about the natural world that our current methods of investigation reveal – these are just mind-blowing. And if your mind doesn’t get blown by it, then you haven’t a mind worth blowing.
Canto: And we have two metres of DNA packed into each nucleus of the trillions of cells in our body. Who’d’ve thunkit?
Canto: If anybody doesn’t appreciate the beauty and complexity and general magnificence of birds they should pee off and never darken this blog again.
Jacinta: Right. Now what brought that on, mate?
Canto: Oh just a general statement of position vis-à-vis other species. Charles Darwin, an old friend of mine, was pretty disdainful of human specialness in his correspondence, but he kept a low profile – on this and everything else – in public. I want to be a bit more overt about these things. And one of the things that really amazes me about birds, apart from their physical beauty, is how much goes on in those teeny noggins of theirs.
Jacinta: Yes, but what really brought this on? I haven’t heard you rhapsodising about birds before.
Canto: You haven’t been inside my vast noggin mate. Actually I’ve been taking photos – or trying to – of the bird life around here; magpies, magpie-larks, crows, rainbow lorikeets, honeyeaters, galahs, corellas, sulphur-crested cockies, as well as the pelicans, black swans, cormorants, moorhens, coots and mallard ducks by the river, not to mention the ubiquitous Australian white ibis and the masked lapwing.
Jacinta: Well I didn’t know you cared. Of course I agree with you on the beauty of these beasties. Better than any tattoo I’ve seen. So you’re becoming a twitcher?
Canto: I wouldn’t go that far, but I’ve been nurturing my fledgling interest with a book on the sensory world of birds, called, appropriately, Bird sense, by a British biologist and bird specialist, Tim Birkhead. It’s divided into sections on the senses of birds – a very diverse set of creatures, it needs to be said. So we have vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and that wonderful magnetic sense that so much has been made of recently.
Jacinta: So we can’t generalise about birds, but I know at least some of them have great eyesight, as in ‘eyes like an eagle’.
Canto: Well, as it happens, our own Aussie wedge-tailed eagle has the most acute sense of vision of any creature so far recorded.
Jacinta: Well actually it isn’t ours, it just happens to inhabit the same land-form as us.
Canto: How pedantic, but how true. But Birkhead points out that there are horses for courses. Different birds have vision adapted for particular lifestyles. The wedge-tail’s eyes are perfectly adapted to the clear blue skies and bright light of our hinterland, but think of owl eyes. Notice how they both face forward? They’re mostly nocturnal and so they need good night vision. They’ve done light-detection experiments with tawny owls, which show that on the whole they could detect lower light levels than humans. They also have much larger eyes, compared with other birds. In fact their eyes are much the same size as ours, but with larger pupils, letting in more light. They’ve worked out, I don’t know how, that the image on an owl’s retina is about twice as bright as on the average human’s.
Jacinta: So their light-sensitivity is excellent, but visual acuity – not half so good as the wedge-tailed eagle’s?
Canto: Right – natural selection is about adaptation to particular survival strategies within particular environments, and visual acuity isn’t so useful in the dark, when there’s only so much light around, and that’s why barn owls, who have about 100 times the light-sensitivity of pigeons, also happen to have very good hearing – handy for hunting in the dark, as there’s only so much you can see on a moonless night, no matter how sensitive your eyes are. They also learn to become familiar with obstacles by keeping to the same territory throughout their lives.
Jacinta: So they don’t echo-locate, do they?
Canto: No, though researchers now know of a number of species, such as oilbirds, that do. Barn owls, though, have asymmetrical ear-holes, one being higher in the head than the other, which helps them to pinpoint sound. It was once thought that they had infra-red vision, because of their ability to catch mice in apparently total darkness, but subsequent experiments have shown that it’s all about their hearing, in combination with vision.
Jacinta: Well you were talking about those amazing little brains of birds in general, and I must say I’ve heard some tales about their smarts, including how crows use cars to crack nuts for them, which must be true because it was in a David Attenborough program.
Canto: Yes, and they know how to drop their nuts near pedestrian crossings and traffic lights, so they can retrieve their crushed nuts safely. The genus Corvus, including ravens, crows and rooks, has been a fun target for investigation, and there’s plenty of material about their impressive abilities online.
Jacinta: So what other tales do you have to tell, and can you shed any light on how all this cleverness comes in such small packages?
Canto: Well Birkhead has been studying guillemots for years. These are seabirds that congregate on cliff faces in the islands around Britain, and throughout northern Europe and Canada. They’re highly monogamous, and get very attached to each other, and thereby hangs another fascinating tale. They migrate south in the winter, and often get separated for lengthy periods, and it’s been noted that when they spot their partner returning, as a speck in the distance, they get highly excited and agitated, and the greeting ceremony when they get together is a joy to behold, apparently – though probably not as spectacular as that of gannets. Here’s the question, though – how the hell can they recognise their partner in the distance? Common guillemots breed in colonies, butt-to-butt, and certainly to us one guillemot looks pretty well identical to another. No creature could possibly have such acute vision, surely?
Jacinta: Is that a rhetorical question?
Canto: No no, but it has no answer, so far. It’s a mystery. It’s unlikely to be sight, or hearing, or smell, so what is it?
Jacinta: What about this magnetic sense? But that’s only about orientation for long flights, isn’t it?
Canto: Yes we might discuss that later, but though it’s obvious that birds are tuned into their own species much more than we are, the means by which they recognise individuals are unknown, though someone’s bound to devise an ingenious experiment that’ll further our knowledge.
Jacinta: Oh right, so something’s bound to turn up? Actually I wonder if the fact that people used to say that all Chinese look the same, which sounds absurd today, might one day be the case with birds – we’ll look back and think, how could we possibly have been so blind as to think all seagulls looked the same?
Canto: Hmmm, I think that would take a lot of evolving. Anyway, birds are not just monogamous (and anyway some species are way more monogamous than others, and they all like to have a bit on the side now and then) but they do, some of them, have distinctly sociable behaviours. Ever heard of allopreening?
Jacinta: No but I’ve heard the saying ‘birds of a feather flock together’ and that’s pretty sociable. Safety in numbers I suppose. But go on, enlighten me.
Canto: Well, allopreening just means mutual preening, and it usually occurs between mates – and I don’t mean in the Australian sense – but it’s also used for more general bonding within larger groups.
Jacinta: Like, checking each other out for fleas and such, like chimps?
Cant: Yeah, though this particular term is usually reserved for birds. Obviously it serves a hygienic purpose, but it also helps calm ruffled feathers when flocks of colonies live beak by jowl. And if you ever get close enough to see this, you’ll notice the preened bird goes all relaxed and has this eyes half-closed, blissed-out look on her face, but we can’t really say that coz it’s anthropomorphising, and who knows if they can experience real pleasure?
Jacinta: Yes, I very much doubt it – they can only experience fake pleasure, surely.
Canto: It’s only anecdotal evidence I suppose, but that ‘look’ of contentment when birds are snuggling together, the drooping air some adopt when they’ve lost a partner, as well as ‘bystander affiliation’, seen in members of the Corvus genus, all of these are highly suggestive of strong emotion.
Jacinta: Fuck it, let’s stop beating about the bush, of course they have emotions, it’s only human vested interest that says no, isn’t it? I mean it’s a lot easier to keep birds in tiny little cages for our convenience, and to burn their beaks off when they get stressed and aggressive with each other, than to admit they have feelings just a bit like our own, right? That might mean going to the awful effort of treating them with dignity.
Canto: Yyesss. Well on that note, we might make like the birds and flock off…