Thursday, November 8, 2007

Baboon Metaphysics II

In my last post, I wrote about Dorothy Cheney’s and Robert Seyfarth’s new book “Baboon Metaphysics” and their claim that
“Baboons teach us that it is possible to have a complex society based on cognitive processes that are both computational and representational without either language or a theory of mind. Concepts (of a sort) can exist without words; computation can occur without grammar, Along with many other species of animals, baboons provide us with a natural experiment that allows us to ask “What it thought – what can it possibly be – without language and a theory of mind.?” (p. 276)
In their book, the authors refer to a wealth of other literature about animal communication, cognition and human evolution, and I will write about some of these papers from then to then.

One important implication of Cheney and Seyfarth’s argument is the “Continuity of the conceptual system across species“ (Barsalou 2005a), which outright contradicts the strong versions of the Sapir-Whorf-thesis, radical constructivism and cultural relativism. The Conceptual system is a “system distributed throughout the brain that represents knowledge about the world“(Barsalou 2005b: 621). Primates and monkeys have rich conceptual systems, they therefore can think without language. Conceptual representation in humans and monkeys has common neural substrates, suggesting how human cognition build upon these evolutionary precursors (Gil-da-Costa 2004).
Additional systems seem to have extended the conceptual abilities of humans significantly (Barsalou 2005a). And this is where, Cheney and Seyfarth’s “First thought, then language” ceases to tell the whole story. I don’t think this can really be called a shortcoming of the book, but I’m a bit disappointed that the authors didn’t at least hint at what makes our conceptual system different from that of other animals, and in which ways it could be influence by language. Though they stress that the human ability to have a theory of mind “favored an ability to speak, expand one’s vocabulary, and combine words in sentences to convey novel meanings” (p.281) and they concur with Tomasello et al. (2005) that “shared intentionality”, the motivation to cooperate with others and to share intentions and mental states with them, is a crucial principle of humanness, culture, and language, they still don’t go further than “Thought came first; speech and language appeared later, as its expression”(p.281).
But for me, the story doesn’t end here. Cheney and Seyfarth stress the fact that the “same basic architecture for representing knowledge is present in humans” (Barsalou 2005a), and rightly so. As Barsalou (2005b) puts it, conceptualization processes work
"via integrated simulations of agents, objects, settings, actions, and introspections. On recognizing a familiar type of category instance, an entrenched situated conceptualization associated with it becomes active to provide relevant inferences via pattern completion". (Barsalou 2005b: 645)
This pattern completion seems to be an essential feature of all cognitive systems, because it allows an organism to prepare for and predict actions and events, thus aiding survival. (Barsalou 2005). Many neuroscientists are convinced that the brain’s main task is prediction in order to survive in dangerous environments (Ryder/Favorov 2001), and, we can add with Cheney and Seyfarth, to be able to function in large social groups. With a theory of mind, humans have much better predictive strategies at hand, and thus are even better equipped to cooperate and function in large societies. This is one of the key themes in “Baboon Metaphysics.” But what else makes our conceptual system different, and how so? Besides having a ToM, Barsalou (2005a) argues that another uniquely human complement of the conceptual system is that they “represent situations that are completely unrelated to the current situation,” enhancing learning and future performance by mentally simulating past events, an maximizing the achievement of goals by simulation of planned events in the future.

Barsalou stresses the importance of the frontal lobe for such activations. He adds language as another possibility for the extensions of the human conceptual system. Barsalou speculates that “the linguistic system provides exquisite control over the simulation system as it represents non-present situations.” Thus, what could make humans essentially different, along with higher social ToM-competence, may be their “control of the distributed property architecture to represent components of situations and to combine them in novel ways.“ This ability again is hugely reliant on frontal activation. These observations resonate with Terrence Deacon’s (1998) depiction of our ‘front-heavy” cognitive style, which makes us “The Symbolic Species”, Mark Turner’s theory of Conceptual Blending, as well as with work by Stephen Kosslyn, which I will address in my next post on the book.
In sum, this combinations of Cheney and Seyfarth’s work with Barsalou’s and others considerations about the human conceptual system is, I think, extremely interesting, and makes “Baboon Metaphysics” – coming from one side and looking to meet with research such as Barsalou’s, Deacon’s, and Turner’s – an important milestone in our quest of unravelling the human mind.

Barsalou, Lawrence W. 2005a. “Continuity of the conceptual system across species.” Trends. Cog. Sc. 9.7: 309-311.

Barsalou, Lawrence W. 2005b “Situated Conceptualization.” Handbook of Categorization in Cognitive Science. Eds. Henri Cohen and Claire Lefebvre. Amsterdam: Elsevier. 619-650.

Cheney, Dorothy L. and Robert M. Seyfarth. 2007. Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Deacon, Terrence William. 1998. The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York / London: W.W. Norton.

Gil-da-Costa, Ricardo, Allen Braun, Marco Lopes, Marc D. Hauser, Richard E. Carson, Peter Herscovitch and Alex Martin. 2004. “Toward an evolutionary perspective on conceptual representation: Species-specific calls activate visual and affective processing systems in the macaque.” PNAS 101.50: 17516–17521.

Ryder, Dan and Oleg V. Favorov. 2001. "The New Associationism: A Neural Explanation for the Predictive Powers of Cerebral Cortex.” Brain and Mind 2.2. : 161-194.

Tomasello, Michael, Malinda Carpenter, Josep Call, Tanya Behne, and Henrike Moll. 2004. “Understanding and Sharing Intentions: The Origins of Cultural Cognition.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28.5

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