Posts Tagged ‘Darwin’

Bird Minds

October 8, 2019

This post is based on “The Genius of Birds,” a book by Jennifer Ackerman. Like humans, birds are kingdom Animalia; phylum Chordata; subphylum Vertebrata. There the common descent ends. Birds are class Aves; humans are Mammalia. Aristotle wrote in his History of Animals that animals carry elements of our “human qualities and attitudes,” such as “fierceness, mildness or cross-temper, courage or timidity, fear or confidence, high spirits or low cunning, and with regard to intelligence, something akin to sagacity.”

When HM was a graduate student anthropomorphizing, claiming that an animal had anything like human intelligence, consciousness, or subjective feeling was a mortal sin. But if HM imposed this standard on his fellow humans he would have been unable to communicate or interact with them effectively. Although one needs to tread carefully in this area, wouldn’t it be a mistake to assume that because bird brains are fundamentally different from us and ours, that there is nothing in common between our mental abilities and theirs? Darwin in his book The Descent of Man argued that animals and humans differ in their mental powers only in degree, not in kind. As was discussed in previous posts, many have strong feelings regarding the possibility of kinship. Primatologist Frans de Waal calls this “anthropodenial,” blindness to the humanlike characteristics of other species. He says, “Those who are in anthropodenial try to build a brick wall to separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.”

There are many ways of measuring birds’ intelligence And there is a very wide range of intelligence across the species. It ranges from the extremely slow, to some that appear to verge on genius. Lefebvre thought that a good way of estimating bird intelligence would be to look at occurrences of birds doing unusual new things in the wild. This notion had been proposed three decades earlier by Jane Goodall and her colleague Hans Kummer. They made a plea for measuring a wild animal’s intelligence by looking at its ability to find solutions to problems in its natural setting. This can be found in an animal’s ability to innovate in its own environment, “to find solutions to a novel problem, or a novel solution to an old one.”

So the task becomes finding which kinds of birds are the most innovative in the wild. Lefebvre said, “Experimental and observational studies of cognition are important, but a taxonomic count like this would provide a unique opportunity and would avoid some of the pitfalls of animal intelligence studies,” such as using testing devices that are far removed from what an animal does in its natural environment.

Lefebvre reviewed seventy-five years worth of bird journals for reports featuring key words like “unusual,” “novel,” or “first reported instance,” and came up with more than 2300 examples from hundreds of different species. Some of these were discoveries of strange new finds such as a roadrunner sitting on a roof next to a hummingbird feeder and picking off the hummers; a great skua in Antartica snuggling in among newborn seal pups and sipping milk from their lactating mother; herons holding down a rabbit or a muskrat; a pelican in London swallowing pigeon; a gull ingesting a blue jay; or a normally insectivorous yellowhead in New Zealand seen for the first time time eating bush lily fruits.

Taken from “The Genius of Birds:” Other examples involved ingenious new ways of getting at food. There was the cowbird in South Africa using a twig to pick through cow dung. Several observers noted instances of green herons using insects as bait, placing them delicately on the surface of the water to lure fish. A herring gull adapted its normal shell-dropping technique to nail a rabbit. Bald eagles ice fishing in northern Arizona discovered a cache of dead fathead minnow forces under the surface of an ice-covered lake. They were seen chipping holes in the ice, then jumping up and down on the surface, using their body weight to push the minnows up through the holes. There was a report of vultures in Zimbabwe that perched on barbed-wire fences near minefields during the wars of liberation, waiting for gazelles and other grazers to wander and detonate the explosives providing a pulverized ready-made meal.

The smartest birds according Lefevbre’s scale.
Corvids with ravens and crows as the clear outliers along with parrots. Then came grackles, raptors (especially falcons and hawks, woodpeckers, hornbills, gulls, kingfishers, roadrunners and herons. Also high on this totem pole were birds in the sparrow and tit families. Owls were excluded because they are nocturnal and their innovations are rarely observed directly. Among those at the low end were quails, ostriches, bustards, turkeys, and nightjars.

Lefebvre examined if families of birds that show a lot of innovation behaviors in the wild have bigger brains. In most cases, there was a correlation. Two birds weighing 320 grams: the American crow, with an innovation count of sixteen has a brain of 7 grams, while a partridge , with one innovation, has a brain of only 1.9 grams. Two smaller birds weighing 85 grams: the great spotted woodpecker, with an innovation rate of nine has a braining weighing 2.7 grams, and the quail with one innovation, only 0.73 gram.

Social Animals

June 12, 2019

This is the second post based on a new book by Douglas Rushkoff titled “TEAM HUMAN.” The title of this post is identical to the title of the second section of this book.
This section begins, “Nature is a collaborative act. If humans are the most evolved species, it is only because we have developed the most advanced ways of working and playing together.”

Rushkoff writes that it is a myth that evolution is about competition, the survival of the fittest. According to this view, each creature struggles against all the others for scarce resources. Only the strongest ones survive to pass on their superior genes, while the weakest deserve to lose and die out. He argues that evolution is every bit as much about cooperation as competition. Our own cells are the result of an alliance of billions of years ago between mitochondria and their hosts. Individuals and species flourish by evolving ways of supporting mutual survival. A bird develops a beak which lets it feed on some part of a plant that other birds can’t reach. This introduces diversity into the population’s diet, reducing the strain on a particular food supply and leading to more for all. Birds, much like bees, are helping the plant by spreading its seeds after eating its fruit.

Rushkoff writes, “Survival of the fittest is a convenient way to justify the cutthroat ethos of a competitive marketplace, political landscape, and culture. But this perspective misconstrues the theories of Darwin as well as his successors. By viewing evolution through a strictly competitive lens, we miss the bigger story of our own social development and have trouble understanding humanity as one big, interconnected team.”

We once believed that human beings developed larger brains than chimpanzees in order to do better spatial mapping of the environment or to make more advanced tools and weapons. Primates with better tools and mental maps could hunt and fight better, too. But there are only slight genetic variations between hominids and chimpanzees, and they relate almost exclusively to the number of neurons that our brains are allowed to make. It’s not a qualitative difference but a quantitative one. “The most direct benefit of more neurons and connections in our brains is an increase in the size of the social networks we can form. Complicated brains make for more complex societies.”

Rushkoff continues, “The more advanced the primate, the bigger its social groups. That’s the easiest and most accurate way to understand evolution’s trajectory, and the relationship of humans to it. Even if we don’t agree that social organization is evolution’s master plan, we must accept that it is—at the very least—a large part of what makes humans human.”

Continuing further, “Our nervous systems learned to treat our social connections as existentially important—life or death. Threats to our relationships are processed by the same part of the brain that processes physical pain. Social losses, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or expulsion from a social group are experienced as acutely as a broken leg.”

These social relationships required us humans to develop a “theory of mind.” This is the ability to understand and identify with the thinking and motivations of other people. From an evolutionary perspective, this concept of self came after our ability to evaluate and remember the intentions and tactics of others. Our social adaptations occurred over hundreds of thousands of years of biological evolution. These enduring social bonds increase out ability to work together, as well as our chances for procreation. Our eyes, brains, skin and breathing are all optimized to enhance our connection to other people.

Prosocial behaviors such as simple imitation make people feel more accepted and included, which sustains a group’s cohesion over time. In an experiment people who were subtly imitated by a group produced less stress hormone than those who are not imitated. Our bodies are adapted to seek and enjoy being mimicked. When humans are engaged in mimesis they learn from one another and advance the community’s skill set.

Physical cues to establish rapport are preverbal. We used them to bond before we even learned to speak—both as babies and as early humans many millennia ago. We flash our eyebrows when we want someone to pay attention to us. We pace in sync with someone else’s creating when we want them to know we empathize. When we see someone breathing with us, their eyes opening to accept us, their head subtly nodding we feel we re being understood and accepted. Our mirror neurons activate, releasing oxytocin, the bonding hormone, into our bloodstream.

The development of group sharing distinguished true humans from other hominids. We waited to eat until we took the bounty back home. Humans were defined not so much by our superior hunting ability as by our capacity to communicate, trust, and share. Early humans had a strong disposition to cooperate with one another, at great personal cost, even where there could be no expectation of payback in the future. Members of a group who violated the norms of cooperation were punished. Solidarity and community were prized in their own right.

Rushkoff concluded this section as follows: “Mental health has been defined as ‘the capacity both for autonomous expansion and for homonymous integration with others.’ That means that our actions are governed from within, but directed toward harmonious interaction with the world. We may be driven internally, but all this activity is happening in relationship with out greater social environment. We can only express our autonomy in relationship to other people.

To have autonomy without interdependency leads to isolation or narcissism. To have interdependency with no autonomy stunts our psychological growth. Healthy people live in social groups that have learned to balance or, better, marry these two imperatives.”

How Emotions Are Made

May 9, 2017

“HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE” is the title of a revolutionary book by Lisa Feldman Barrett.  It’s Subtitle is “The Secret Life of the Brain.”  It is indeed a revolutionary book as it debunks longstanding theories of emotions and substitutes for them a new theory based on detailed experiments and data.  Daniel Gilbert wrote, “A brilliant and original book by the deepest thinker about this topic since Darwin.”

For two-thousand-years the assumption has been that we all have emotions built-in since birth.  “They are distinct, recognizable phenomena inside us.  When something happens, whether it’s a gunshot or a flirtatious glance, our emotions come quickly and automatically.  We broadcast emotions by way of smiles, frowns, scowls, and other  characteristic expressions that anyone can easily recognize.  Our voices  reveal our emotions through laughter, shouts, and cries.”

The classical view of emotion posits that there are circuits of particular sets of neurons for different emotions.  Emotions were thought to be a kind of brute reflex, very often at odds with our rationality.  Our rationality was supposed to control our emotions to keep us from acting out too strongly.

Dr Barrett notes that this view of emotions has been around for millennia in various forms.  “Plato believed a version of it.  So did Hippocrates, Aristotle, the Buddha, Rene Descartes, Sigmund Freud, and Charles Darwin.  Psychologist Steven Pinker, Paul Ekman, and the Dalai Lama also offer descriptions of emotions based on this classical view.  The classical view is found in virtually every introductory college textbook on psychology, and in most magazine and newspaper articles that discuss emotion.  Preschools throughout America hang posters displaying the smiles, frowns, and pouts that are supposed to be the universal language of the face for recognizing emotion.  Facebook even commissioned a set of emoticons inspired by Darwin’s writings.”

Dr. Barrett continues, “And yet…despite the distinguished intellectual pedigree of the classical view of emotion, and despite its immense influence in our culture and society, there is abundant scientific evidence that this view cannot possibly be true.  Even after a century of effort, scientific research has not revealed a consistent, physical fingerprint for even a single emotion.  This notion also held that emotions were universal.  Regardless of where or when people lived, they experienced the same emotion.

Dr Barrett concedes that there are experiments that offered some evidence for the classical view, but many more cast the classical view in doubt.  She presents detailed research in the book that compels the reader to conclude that the classical view is flawed.  For example, emotions vary across cultures, much like languages will vary their vocabularies to reflect the environment in which they reside.

Of course, having debunked the classical view, it is incumbent on the critic to propose something better.  Dr. Barrett calls this view the theory of constructed emotions.  These emotions are constructed on the basis of our interoceptive environments.  She presents a convincing argument that our emotions are built upon our interpretation of our internal environments, that is analogous to the manner in which we develop an understanding of the external world.

Readers of the healthy memory blog should be aware that we do not experience the external world directly.  Rather we develop concepts and models on the basis of what our senses receive from the external world.  In other words, emotions are based on what we feel, that is how we interpret what we receive from our interoceptive environment.  Emotions are interpretations of our interoceptive conditions.  In other words we learn our emotional concepts in an analogous manner to how we learn about the external world.  We have an energy budget and this budget affects feelings of hunger and other bodily conditions.

Dr. Barrett provides a personal anecdote to illustrate how constructed emotions work.  When she was a graduate student a fellow male graduate student asked her out at the end of the day.  Although she had no feelings for this guy, she was tired and thought it would be a good way to kill the evening.  While they were dining, she thought she was beginning to fall for him.  Nothing further happened and she went home and fell asleep exhausted.  The next morning she woke up with the flu and remained in bed for several more days.  Apparently she had misinterpreted her interoceptive environment.  What she had originally interpreted as incipient feelings of love, were really incipient feelings of the flew virus.

GRIT: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

July 4, 2016

GRIT is a significant book written by Angela Duckworth.  There is a previous post on Angela Duckworth’s presentation at the 27th Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science.  There will be a series of posts based on her book.  Angela’s father had been telling her that she was no genius from the time when she was quite young.  Her IQ was not high enough for her to be placed in gifted and talented classes.  Yet she did manage to attend Harvard and earn a degree in neurobiology.   She then earned a Marshall Scholarship that allowed her to attend Oxford and earn a Master’s degree.  They she worked at the high priced consultant firm, Mckinsey.  She left her highly paid job at Mckinsey to pursue her true love, which was teaching.  To understand more about teaching and how people learn and succeed she attended the University of Pennsylvania and earned a Ph.D in psychology from an outstanding psychology faculty.

In 2013 she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, better known as the genius award.  Then she was able to show her father that she was indeed a genius.  Her research had convinced her that what we eventually accomplish depend more on our passion and perseverance than on our innate talent.   This should remind healthy memory blog readers of Carol Dweck and her book “Mindset” and of the importance of having a “growth” mindset.  .

Dr. Duckworth notes that her insights are not new, but rather have been forgotten.
Darwin wrote, “I have always maintained that, excepting for fools, men did not differ much in intellect, only in zeal and hard work.”  Darwin was certainly intelligent, but insights did not come to him in lightning flashes.  He was a plodder.  Darwin wrote in his autobiography, “I have no great quickness of apprehension that is so remarkable in some clever men.  My power to follow a long and  purely abstract train of thought is very limited.  So poor in one sense is my memory that I have never been able to remember for more than a few days a single date or a line of poetry,”

Darwin also wrote, “I think  I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully.  My industry has been nearly as great as it could have ben in the observation and collection of facts.  What is far more important, my love of nature science has been steady and ardent.”  One biographer describes Darwin as someone who kept thinking about the same questions long after others would move on to different—and no doubt—easier problems.

The founder of American psychology, William James,  published an article in the Journal Science titled, “The Energies of Men.”  “Compared with what we ought be, we are only half awake.  Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked.  We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.”  James continued, “Of course there are limits.  The trees don’t grow into the sky.  But these boundaries of where we will eventually stop improving are simply irrelevant for the vast majority of us:  “The plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extreme of use.”
Three of the McKinsey firm’ partners published a report called “The War for Talent.”  Talent was defined as the sum of a persons intrinsics gifts.  According to “The War for Talent”, the companies that excel are those that aggressively promote the most talented employees while just as aggressively culling the least talented.  In such companies huge disparities in salary are not only justified, but desirable, because a competitive winner-take-all environment encourages the most talented to stick around and the least talented to find alternative employment.

The journalist who’s done the most in-depth research on McKinsey to date, Duff McDonald,  has suggested that this particular business philosophy would be more aptly titled “The War on Common Sense.”He pointed out that the companies highlighted in the original McKinsey report as exemplars of their doctrine didn’t do so well in the years after the report was published.

Macomb Gladwell has also criticized “The War for Talent.”  Enron epitomized the McKinsey philosophy.  The performance review system  for Enron  consisted of grading employees annually and summarily firing the bottom 15%, regardless of their absolute level of performance.  And everyone should know of the disaster that befell Enron.

Dr. Duckworth asks the question what is the downside of television shows like “America’s Got Talent,” “The X Factor”, and “Child Genius”?  She asks why shouldn’t we separate children as young as seven or eight into two groups:  those with few children who are “gifted and talented” and the  many, many more who aren’t?  What harm is their, really,  in a talent show being names a “talent show”?

To which she answers, “In my view, the biggest reason a preoccupation with talent can be harmful is simple:  By shining our spotlight on talent, we risk leaving everything else in the shadows.  We inadvertently send the message that the other factors—including grit— don’t matter as much as they really do.”

In other words, Dr. Duckworth thinks that as much as talent counts, effort counts twice.

The Prescience of Leonardo Da Vinci

July 5, 2014

Leonardo Da Vinci anticipated many great scientific discoveries.

40 years before Copernicus he noted, in large letters to underscore its significance, “IL SOLE NO SI MUOVE,” “The sun does not move.” He further noted that “The earth is not in the center of the circle of the sun, nor in the center of the universe. When he lived, it was not only believed that the sun revolved around the earth by that the earth was the center of all things.

60 years before Galileo he thought that “a large magnifying lens” should be employed to study the surface of the moon and other heavenly bodies.

200 years before Newton he anticipated Newton’s theory of gravitation. He wrote, “Every weight tends to fall towards the center in the shortest possible way.” In another note he added, “every heavy substance presses downward and cannot be upheld perpetually, the whole earth must become spherical.

400 years before Darwin he placed man in the same broad category as monkeys and apes writing, “Man does not vary from the animals except it what is accidental” The accidental part is especially prescient as he is anticipating the basis of evolution, random mutations.

I’m curious as to whether any of these scientists were aware of Da Vinci’s writings and whether he had any influence on their work. Please comment if you have any information regarding these questions.

Evolution vs. Creationism

April 5, 2014

The previous post was on the stupidity pandemic. A specific example of this pandemic is on whether evolution or creationism should be taught in the public schools. The Scopes Trial, commonly called the Scopes Monkey Trial, and technically termed The State of Tennessee vs. John Thomas Scopes took place in 1925. The state claimed that Scopes had violated Tennessee law by teaching evolution is a state-funded school. Inherit the Wind is a movie on the Scopes trial. Scopes was found guilty, but his conviction was overturned on a technicality. Nevertheless, the debate has continued. Some argue that evolution should not be taught, or that creationism should be taught instead of evolution, or that both evolution and creationism should be taught. Frankly I am strongly in favor of the final option. My friends tell me that I am wrong, that creationists would use this option to legitimatize their position or perhaps, with biased teaching, to discredit evolution.
What my friends fail to realize is that they are advocating teaching evolution as dogma, which is the very thing that creationists are doing. What is important is that students understand what science is and how it is conducted. The evolution vs. creationism debate provides an ideal means to do this. However, the following points need to be made.
The first point is that scientific theories can be disproved. So, however unlikely it might be, evolution could be disproved on the basis of overwhelming new evidence. In fact evolutionary theory is constantly undergoing refinement. Creationists regard this as a refutation of evolution, but this fine tuning process is a vital part of science. So creationists need to be asked, if there were significant evidence to the contrary, could creationism be disproved? If it cannot be disproved, then creationism is most definitely not a science.
The second point regards the scientific method as well as a bias in the way we humans process information. The human tendency is to look for information that confirm one’s beliefs or hypotheses. However, in the scientific enterprise it is important to look for disconfirming information. In the case of creationism, one can find evidence of an intelligent creator, but looking at the historical record, an enormous number of species have failed and become extinct. True, if the creator were seriously flawed, this could be a reasonable result. But isn’t it more reasonable to propose a random selective process?
The third point is that science does express beliefs, and in probabilistic terms in statistics, but they are based on data and logic. So consider the relevant geologic information. That is based on theory and data. What is the basis for what is presented in the religious source? Arguments based on authority, regardless of the presumed status of that authority, are not acceptable.
Students should be free to draw their own conclusions. But these are the points it is important for students to understand about science.

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