Re: Are we "special"?

Noel Dickover (
Wed, 18 Dec 1996 12:17:56 -0500

In article <598und$>, says...

> >While it may appear that you and I are more or less on the same side of
> >this downhill arguement, I think your above post shows where we differ.
> >Yes we are the same species we were 30,000 years ago. If we were not
> >special then, I would have to go with the arguement that we are not
> >special now. I don't think we can just say that because we have
> >developed neat tools and infinitely complex societies, this makes us
> >special.
> True enough, I suppose. But I would like to leave open the door
> for the fact that (ca) 30,000 years ago we were potentially special
> in the sense I am trying to push for the word.
> Much of what Homo sapiens does today is culturally, not biologically,
> based. Some authors have pushed the idea (Jaynes, a litte fringy,
> Merlin Donald more mainstream) that our current style of thinking
> is a result of the interaction of culture with the biological brain,
> an operating system shift so to speak sometime in the last 10,000
> years or so.

I'm only mildly aware of these, and wouldn't mind a brief synopsis...

> With regard to the special issue, if our neat tools and such are
> just culture, just a software shift, then why has no other species
> gone through this non-biological change?
> >Being a cybernetics guy, I'm a big believer in feedback. Positive
> >feedback systems can deviate drastically from a current steady state if
> >given the proper initial kick.
> Chaos!

This above comment is probably in jest (I hope), but let me be clear:
Positive feedback was not a concept created by Chaos theory, but is
instead a cybernetics and systems concept. By an astronomical figure,
most positive feedback systems definitely do not conform to chaos
principles. The best article for looking at positive feedback systems as
control systems, which can apply to both learning and evolution, is

"The Second Cybernetics: Deviation-Amplifying Mutual Causal Processes",
Magoroh Maruyama, originally printed in the American Scientist (vol 51,
1963), reprinted in the Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral
Scientist Sourcebook, 1968.

Of course, Gregory Bateson's work is also a very good source, although
its a bit more difficult reading.

> >... Becuase H.S.S.'s ability for
> >language is largely instinctual, this would have to be hard coded into
> >our DNA.
> However, I do not think the change in DNA can be very great.
> Just a little twist in the way the brain is organized which we
> don't yet understand. The difference between humans and chimps
> DNA-wise is so small and the anatomies are so close that it must
> be some small difference that leads to feedback (as you point out)
> that makes the brain language-capable. One think pointed out by
> Steven Pinker in the _Language Instinct_ (by others) is that because
> of early birth, humans brains are still developing after birth while
> they are in the presence of language using adults. Perhaps this
> influences the structure of the brain so that the crucial DNA
> difference may be that leading to large brain -> early birth ->
> language behavior influenced brain development -> language ability.

Now this is a potentially very interesting point. BTW, I'm currently
reading the Language Instinct (Awesome book!), but havn't yet come across
the reference you cited. If enculturation does in fact influence brain
development in the way you cite, it is very possible that people today
are in fact tangibly different from how they were 30,000 years ago.
This, of course, would change the fact that theoretically, if you brought
a newborn baby from 30,000 years ago (thorugh a Star Trek time warp I
suppose...Humor me, OK?) and raised it today, it would be no different
from other H.S.S.'s

> >So my question really involves an analysis of where we sit in relation
> >to other species in terms of developing flexible and adaptive (and no, I
> >am not referring to some stupid pop reference to chaos theory here)
> >social structures. And yes, I think this trait led to morphological
> >changes in the genus Homo over time. It is this trait, I believe, that
> >provided the possibility for complex societies to form at a later date.
> [yes, the concept of chaos is ill-defined] Lots of loops like the
> above could operate. Hunting behavior can enable the use of skins
> can make hairiness less necessary makes the use of skins more necessary
> etc.

Well, no. I think Chaos theory is very well defined, its the pop-science
references of it that confuse everyone. Not sure I agree or understand
the rest of the above part.

> >Jane Goodall once said that she thought the big difference between
> >H.S.S. and Chimps involved our ability to discuss past and future
> >events. This allows us to maintain and modify over time, the knowledge
> >necessary to adapt to our environment.
> Did she emphasize the "discussion" or the "past and future"?
> These may be inseperable, but certainly animals have some ability
> to remember the past and choose behavior to reach a desired future
> result independent of their linguistic abilities.

She definitely emphasized the "past or future" part. I think she would
have said that Chimps "discuss" things in a very real way. Franz de
Waal would probably back this up. Many would argue that most H.S.S.
interpersonal communuication is non-verbal.

And I'm still eagerly awaiting for the cetacean references from Phil.


Noel Dickover