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Sunday, January 24, 2010

What Was Alan Alda Thinking?

My wife and I just finished watching Alan Alda's PBS thing on the "human spark."  He's a smart guy and funny but what was he thinking when he endorsed the notion that there is a "human spark?"  And what were these Harvard and Oxford and other scientists thinking?

I have had some experience with media sorts and they are very fond of "hooks" that one can use to snag an audience and keep it.  The hook this time is the notion of a "human spark" -- something we have but that chimps and no other species (on this planet) have.  This is a terrible metaphor.  We know that it takes a spark to ignite gasoline fumes in an automobile cylinder and that this is the most proximate cause of the piston's moving downward thereby assisting the engine in its effort to ...  I don't want to get into automobile stuff.  I would be way out of my depth.  However, I am inclined to think that the evolution of those human qualities that distinguish us from chimps and other life forms might be just a bit more complicated than this metaphor makes it out to be.

The terrible thing about this metaphor is that it works better for "sophisticated" intelligent design people than for Darwinists.  If intelligent design people are willing to concede that we and the chimps have a common origin, they need only then say, "Aha, Alda is with us.  We are the life forms god sparked into humanhood by causing us to be capable of forming complex intentions, recognizing complex intentions in others, and imagining future actions."  Unsophisticated intelligent design people need only say that God dropped us on the planet pre-sparked.

The show actually admitted that chimps are capable of forming intentions and recognizing intentions in others (but not as well as we do).  About the future, they don't seem to think too much but to suppose they can't think about the immediate future is absurd.  Indeed the show proved otherwise as when it was argued that alpha males may choose to share with females based on attempting to curry favor with them.  Back in the day when I followed research on chimp linguistic development, I formed the view that the researchers who did this work were not always the sharpest academic tacks.  In my view, they tended to be so empathetic with their research subjects that they were willing to think things that just might not be true.

In the show, the human spark seemed to be whatever "sparked" the conjoint abilities to "read other's minds and travel in time," as Alda put it.  Let me show you a picture they showed of the areas of the brain that light up when these two abilities are activated.  Notice that these two parts of the brain are not adjacent.  Two questions arise in my mind: how did a single spark ignite abilities requiring two different parts of the brain to be be realized and how is it that so much of one part of the brain manage to be recruited for this realization.

Perhaps I am being a bit too simplistic here but I am not at all sure that these two abilities are so different.  If a crucial feature of humans, one shared by chimps, is our socialization then thinking about the future -- making plans for the future -- must crucially have involved making plans in connection with others.  And making plans in connection with others would seem to require an ability to form views as to others' intentions.  A Harvard professor did note that both abilities involve escaping one's present point of view.  I can imagine that being able to escape one's present point of view could have been a precursor to the gradual evolving of these abilities over a very long time.

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16 Comments:

Blogger SusieQ said...

I'm so excited! I haven't read your post yet about the Human Spark, but I will later tonight. You see, I had planned on asking for your opinion on this program. Catch you later this evening.

6:03 PM

 
Blogger Rita said...

I'm at a disadvantage not having seen the documentary, but, I wonder, how hard is it to escape ones present POV? Epiphanies come to mind because I've had a few. Although, epiphany is defined as a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something...education & the ability to process information appears to be the key to the "spark" that moves people forward.
I'm not going to take any digs at religion, but...it seems the further we move away from it the smarter we get.

12:30 AM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

Well done non-dig at religion. One reason we get smarter is that more questions are in play.

10:13 AM

 
Blogger SusieQ said...

I meant to get back to you sooner than this. Sorry.

What grabbed my attention was the part about Neanderthals. Modern humans are supposed to have this special something (human spark) that sets them apart from other species including the Neanderthals. If it is insight and imagination that makes us special and unique and sets us apart, I have to ask how that can be given what we know about the Neanderthals.

Maybe I just feel sorry for the Neanderthal who keeps appearing in commercials..."Even a caveman can do it". But I do not think this series gave the Neanderthal the credit he deserves. In fact I believe the series downplayed the Neanderthal's abilities.

The Neanderthal was highly intelligent with a brain larger than our own although the frontal part apparently was not developed as much as modern humans. He hunted large game which means that there would have been planning and coordination and forethought involved in order for a group kill to take place.

There is evidence that he knew how to skin animals, build shelters, and use fire. He fashioned tools and used them. He buried his dead. He may have painted his body. It appears that he wore crude jewelry. He lived in small social groups where "reading another's mind" would have been going on all the time especially since language had not developed with the Neanderthal.

The Neanderthal had the gene we associate with language though, but he lacked the anatomy to make a variety of sounds. I just finished reading something at PBS about a theory involving Neanderthal's use of music (pitch, tones, rhythm) to communicate with each other.

Here is another thing with the Neanderthal. His diet. He was carnivorous. There is evidence that he suffered from periods of malnutrition when game was scarce. There is evidence that he resorted to cannibalism. I can't help but to think that these circumstances motivated him to look to the future with imagination.

It seems to me that if modern humans are unique it is because we have language, we are highly complex in our thinking, and we record our knowledge for future use and are able to build upon it.

12:37 AM

 
Blogger Rita said...

"More questions are at play"
Of course! It is Inquisitiveness: "The state of active interest...Eager for knowledge"

That is the key to our perception of what is intelligence.

11:10 PM

 
Blogger SusieQ said...

Rita, the American architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller described human beings as information-gathering-problem-solvers. (his hyphens)

Perhaps we are most fulfilled when we are actively solving problems.

12:32 AM

 
Blogger Rita said...

I agree, & what I was thinking when I made the above comment was this...Inquisitiveness is a "spark" that we physically look for when we look for intelligence in other people & other animals.
What I found exciting was how it ties into this post & a discussion on my blog about ethics involving animals & where degrees of intelligence fits into our treatment of them. The point is being made that intelligence involving animals, including humans, is not a matter of kind but of degrees.
I find this a very fascinating concept.
What do you think about that idea?

11:27 AM

 
Blogger SusieQ said...

I checked out your blog and your recent post there. Yes it does relate to LG's post and this discussion. BTW, you can view The Human Spark in its entirety at the PBS website.

Here is what I think, Rita. Intelligence is a general term that covers a number of categories of cognitive ability. We've taken these abilities as they appear in humans and then tried to determine if other animals possess them and to what degree. I could be mistaken but what I don't think we have done is to determine if other animals possess certain cognitive abilities that we do not possess. We have made ourselves the measure. Is it possible that reptiles, for instance, possess a particular cognitive ability that we do not? Could be. I would have to say that there is a possibility that intelligence is both a matter of kind and degree, but more a matter of degree.

Your post at your blog is about the humane treatment of animals. I have always been an advocate for this. The way we abuse our livestock breaks my heart. I do not think one animal should be treated more humanely than another though just because that one animal may be smarter. All animals that can feel pain and know fear should receive the same humane treatment. So for me it is about the animal feeling pain and knowing fear and not about how smart it is.

Another reason we should not use intelligence as a determining factor in how various animals are treated is because of the problem we encounter when we compare the adult ape to the human toddler. This came up in the discussion at your blog, and I have run across this kind of thinking before. The adult ape is smarter than the human toddler at that point in the toddler's life. If we were to go with smarts, then the adult ape would be entitled to more consideration than the human toddler.

What do you think about what I have written?

12:01 AM

 
Blogger Rita said...

I don't think there is any fear of adult apes ever having more rights then human toddlers, not in a human society anyway. Throw a human toddler in with a bunch of apes & things might be different.

The idea of treating the more intelligent animals more humanely is that the more intelligent animals are emotionally sophisticated & socially adept compared to the other animals. The way I see it is, either they are more like us or have ingratiated themselves to us. I think it comes down to a matter of emotional attachment, either way.

As far as intelligence being a matter of degree or of kind... Those are very big differences. You pointed out, how do you know if an animal has a different cognitive ability then us humans? I would say the only cognitive abilities that matter are ones that we recognize.
When we are kids we are taught not to pull the wings off of flies by being told, "How would you like it if someone pulled your wings off?" We have no clue whether flies have negative feelings about having their wings pulled off, we can only imagine our own feelings. Does that way of thinking change as we get older?

10:42 PM

 
Blogger SusieQ said...

Rita, I'll have to get back to you tomorrow. Wish I had time tonight, but I don't. Till then....

12:35 AM

 
Blogger SusieQ said...

I believe you and I are talking about two different things, Rita.

You are talking along the lines of granting personhood with rights to certain animals due to their high intelligence and complex social systems.

I am talking about getting rid of puppy mills, cock fighting, and dog fighting because these are inhumane and cause pain and suffering. I am talking about giving chickens space to roam around in. I am talking about treating our other livestock in ways that minimize pain and prevent undue suffering. I am talking about bringing to justice people who abuse and neglect the animals in their charge or ones they come in contact with.

It should not matter whether these animals are "emotionally sophisticated" or not. It should not matter whether they are smart or dumb or somewhere in between.

To be humane is to be kind and compassionate. To have compassion is to be especially sensitive to the suffering of another being. To suffer is to feel pain and distress. I know you are with me in these cases.

We can be humane toward our animals without granting any of them personhood status. Don't you think?

The world is complex and full of nuances. Are you a vegetarian yet? If not, what is holding you back?

12:43 AM

 
Blogger Rita said...

We can be humane toward our animals without granting any of them personhood status. Don't you think? I agree with you & I'm not ready to jump onto the bandwagon of granting the lower species person hood, yet. What I was doing was making an observation of how people tend to make emotional judgments about these things. Of course animals shouldn't be subjected to abuse by humans, no one would argue with that. People do argue about degrees & kind of intelligence, though. Why does the abuse of dogs & cats get so much more attention? If you study a PETA site site they are always playing on peoples emotions.

I grew up on a farm & was married to a hunter for 20 years. I also tried my hand at raising rabbits for meat for a couple of years. Certain aspects of all of these things made me uncomfortable, but I could always justify them.

Now I'm semi-comfortable buying my meat at the supermarket. Luckily, I am spared the sight of how the meat actually makes it onto the shelves. I became a vegetarian for a while after being exposed to the Stockyards down in AZ. I would consider doing it again if I could kick the carnivore habit.

7:54 PM

 
Blogger SusieQ said...

We may have discovered some common ground where we can agree.

There has been a similar debate going on at another blog involving more people though. Here, it is just the two of us.

One of the contributors to the debate at this other blog explained what it means to be a vegan. I had assumed that veganism was about abstaining from eating animal flesh. It is a lot more than that though. It is about not using animals in any way. This includes no milk products, no eggs, no honey, no wool, no companion animals, no working animals, no pets of any kind, no guide dogs for the blind...and there is more. The part about no companion animals and no guide dogs really troubles me since these animals thrive as our companions and helpers.

In the process of evolving humans have come to need a certain amount of animal flesh in our diet in order to maintain health. Someone at this other blog pointed out that a vegetarian diet is the only diet known to be harmful to children. This person, who in fact had been a vegetarian for years before she discovered that it was harming her health, pointed out that many people can not tolerate soy products that vegetarians rely upon as a source of protein.

It is not easy to get the proper nutrition on strictly a plant based diet. We are no longer made that way. So what do we do?

Should we hold humans in contempt for having evolved into beings that require meat in their diet? Should we demand that humans be something they are not. We do not demand that of lions. We do not hold lions in contempt for feasting on their prey while it is still breathing.

The lion serves as a reminder to us that death is a part of life, that death supports life. But death does not have to be painful and cause suffering. We can avoid that for the most part with our animals.

12:46 AM

 
Blogger Michael said...

Do you remember the Google employment test, it showed a formula (I could not get it in time, others got it way before I did) Well! The Alan Alda show on the chimp intelligence is like that formula. You want to trust but something is not quite right. One example, on the comments from Elizabeth about female/male intelligence. First intelligence has never been clearly defined but it absolutely not gender specific - but species specific and is solely based on survival. The show states that females chimps are more intelligent at fishing but purposely leaves out the reasoning. I have noticed several shows from Alan Alda that do the same thing. Either politically or religiously the show picks one side of the view and never state the “why.” At first I thought the issue was to “spark” controversial feedback, perhaps so, but it instead places the issue of mistrust in the documentary and its producer. If the content for solution is purposefully left out, why, -then-, what else is left out on purpose.

4:45 PM

 
Blogger Michael said...

Do you remember the Google employment test, it showed a formula (I could not get it in time, others got it way before I did) Well! The Alan Alda show on the chimp intelligence is like that formula. You want to trust but something is not quite right. One example, on the comments from Elizabeth about female/male intelligence. First intelligence has never been clearly defined but it absolutely not gender specific - but species specific and is solely based on survival. The show states that females chimps are more intelligent at fishing but purposely leaves out the reasoning. I have noticed several shows from Alan Alda that do the same thing. Either politically or religiously the show picks one side of the view and never state the “why.” At first I thought the issue was to “spark” controversial feedback, perhaps so, but it instead places the issue of mistrust in the documentary and its producer. If the content for solution is purposefully left out, why, -then-, what else is left out on purpose.

4:45 PM

 
Blogger barbaste said...

The most important aspect of Alda's documentary is that it brings down another linguistic myth, that language has no relation to intelligence, by showing how recursion requires a mental effort. I have always thought that the so-called infinite recursion is just part of linguists' ideal model of language, separated from actual speech -something that could only function (as linguists argue it does) in written language, and what about the primacy of speech?
Alda said the spark image was a hypothesis, and he actually ends up putting it in serious doubt.

12:13 PM

 

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