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[personal profile] flewellyn
So, I was reading a forum today, I forget where, and happened upon a debate about human evolution. Specifically, it was about various behaviors you see in humans, and whether they were adaptive behaviors, or arose from cultural influences. Yet another incarnation of the old "nature vs. nurture" argument, in other words.

The problem I have with these arguments is that they imply a disparity that does not exist. I submit that culture is our collection of evolved adaptive instincts. Humans have three traits, three defining behaviors, that make up our evolutionary bag of tricks: language skills, tool use, and social structure. These three things are what make up a culture, and give humans our uniqueness.

The individual traits are hardly unique to humans, of course! Many animals use sounds to communicate, many animals use tools, and there are lots of social animals as well. However, only a few animals have all three (primates and cetaceans), and only humans have taken those three and made them the entire survival strategy of the species. We have no other mechanisms BUT these three behaviors for adapting to an environment: no natural weapons, no camouflage, no protective coverings, zip. Physically, our bodies are extremely generic, and it's only through language, tools, and socializing that we survive and thrive.

Look at how human children develop. One of the first skills babies learn, even before they can talk, is how to recognize faces. This is key to social interaction. Then they learn language, and as any child psychologist, or any parent, could tell you, children learn languages amazingly quickly, considering how complex human language really is. Then, of course, in very short order, young children start learning tool use: picking things up and messing with them to see what they can do and how they can be used.

The combination of language, tool use, and social structure, each one reinforcing the other, creates culture. Cultures, in my view, are really just collections of ideas, knowledge, and behaviors that have (mostly) proven adaptive over time; or sometimes, haven't proven maladaptive enough to be eliminated. Cultures evolve as the world changes, and as the needs of the people living in that culture change. New ideas come around and may be rejected, or if they prove adaptive (and can out-compete old ideas), may be accepted and incorporated into the culture. (Sometimes this happens fitfully, and rejected ideas can come back after they'd been abandoned, but that's an artifact of our culture-making strategy: humans have a tendency to want to hold onto ideas they learned when they were young, and sometimes this can be very hard to overcome.)

And, of course, cultures meet, and exchange ideas with each other; obviously, they also can clash with each other, or absorb each other, or one can be absorbed by another, or...well, you get the idea. Check any history book for more info.

Obviously, how people interact with the culture they live in has HUGE bearing on their survival and success, in evolutionary terms. People who, for various reasons, would not be able to survive living on their own in the wilderness (and that's most of us, folks) can have productive and meaningful lives living in their societies, fulfilling cultural needs. Traits that would doom a non-cultural animal may simply be inconvenient to a human, such as various disabilities or genetic diseases. On the other hand, cultural effects can kill people who would otherwise live, or otherwise take them out of the gene pool (monastic orders that vow celibacy, for instance).

Culture allows humans who cannot or will not have children, to still make a meaningful and lasting contribution to the species, which can in turn affect the survival and success of other humans. Through culture, we can survive and thrive in environments which are extremely hostile, and which other species from our original native home in east Africa would find completely inhospitable, if not instantly lethal. Culture gives us access to a variety of food sources enjoyed by no other species on the planet, enables us to live at population densities unmatched by nearly any other animal, and in short, gives us the ability to adapt to nearly any situation. It's the most adaptive set of behaviors any animal on this planet has ever evolved.

The entire question, then, of "nature versus nurture", with regards to human behavior, is ultimately meaningless. My answer? Nurture is our nature.

Date: 2007-12-14 12:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] motodraconis.livejournal.com
Your post reminded me of summat that happened last weekend, while I was locked in a chalet with chums at a music festival.

We were all of us pretentious arty types, artists, musicians, writers, one of the artists knitting furiously as we drank and talked about our various projects on the go, and someone (I forget who) piped up and said...

"You know it's all a form of modified sexual display..."

The room fell silent as each of us pondered this from the point of view of our own personal artiness, our eyes downcast in thought, the silence became really uncomfortable, and then [livejournal.com profile] oxfordslacker (a bloke) says...

"Good god! You mean, without women I'd have done even less with my life than I have already? That's terrifying!"


Date: 2007-12-14 01:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] foma44.livejournal.com
along the same lines, i feel annoyed when people discuss homosexuality and try to say it is learned vs. inborn. i don't see why it is okay to try and pinpoint a person's development in order to decide whether or not they should be treated certain ways or have certain rights....it's an odd angle to me. the majority of gay people are offended and insist they were born that way (which i don't even see why they should have to do), so i guess homophobes/lawmakers/combination of the two are just going to have to take their word for it, there's no real way to prove the argument one way or another. and it's not even worth discussing for the sake of discussion like the nature vs. nurture thing can be, it is just worthless blabber used for discrimination.

Date: 2007-12-14 01:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lyneidas.livejournal.com
Well, Pinker's work in books like "How the Mind Works" tells us that humans have a lot of built-in ways of interacting with the world, most of them so obvious that people don't even notice them. As an example, Pinker described a movie shown to a test group, where the people in the test group said the characters in the movie had motivations. The characters in the movie are dots. Once you think about it, isn't it astonishing that people attribute human goals and emotions to a group of moving dots, as long as they move in particular ways? And everyone does it. It's built in to attribute motives to certain patterns of actions.

On a more humble note, there are things like the color names that, if you think about them long enough, challenge the blank slate idea quite effectively. Berlin and Kay did a survey of color terms. They found that the minimum number of color terms are light, dark, and red. The color that shows up almost always when there are four is green. Then comes either yellow or blue. They did tests with people in the various color-name groups and these people were easily able to distinguish differences between color chips even if they called them by the same name, so it's not that they have trouble seeing and identifying colors because of the cultural grounding imposed by the language. Also, according to the folks studying distribution of trying to make construction workers and crossing guards less easily overlooked, we see yellow-green light best under normal conditions. Surely, if we weren't programmed to think red is important, we should have yellow as the first color name, rather than a 50-50 shot at being third?

Date: 2007-12-14 05:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cherrypep.livejournal.com
In the specific case of colo(u)r, Taylor (Linguistic Categorization: prototypes in linguistic theory, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press) did a nice review, which could be summarised by saying that color terms are unusual in that there is a very clear physiological and neurological base (eg. we see using the characteristics of our eyes): Berlin and Kay apparently suggested that color terms and perhaps also words for some other perceptual domains like taste, smell and noise might be atypical of language as a whole. The 'cross-language stability of color focality' has attracted a whole lot of discussion.

That said, whilst we do not in general have trouble distinguishing differences between shades, we do have trouble communicating about specific instances, because whilst they are not arbitrary the categorizations used are not universal either. Thus, famous examples like 'Russian has no word for blue' and the Japanese color 'ao' - blue and green seem to lack stability. Additionally, it's worth looking at criticisms of Berlin and Kay's 'basic focal colors', which Taylor summarises as 'the empirical claims made ...with regard to the implicational hierarchy are probably too strong'.

So yeah perception is interesting, category perception in general is a fascinating thing... but I'm not sure the evidence amounts to 'hard-wired' in general. Additionally, there's a long way between strong Sapir-Whorf ('having trouble seeing and identifying colors because of the cultural grounding') and negating the influence of culture entirely.

Kirby and Hurford describe language as at the intersection of three complex adaptive systems, learning (child learns language), cultural evolution and biological evolution, and that's about where I'd place my bet. Which makes 'nature versus nurture' an incredibly unrewarding way of looking at the question. As to Pinker's anthropomorphised dots, well, how is it built in? That's the question. Complex systems are buggers precisely because it is so difficult to guess at the cause by examining the surface phenomena.

Anthropomorphisation follows directly from gaining a theory of mind, eg. getting the idea that there is a 'you' in your head, just as there is a 'me' in mine. We're not born with that knowledge. Small kids gain self-awareness over time, learn to recognise themselves. Later, they learn about the 'you' in other peoples' heads.


The thing about this ability is that it's absolutely central to our ability to communicate. Learning language depends on it, effective communication depends on it. Having learnt it, it seems reasonable that we would leave it switched on when we watch movies about dots. Now, as to how we learn it, no idea other than the suggestions in the link above. I assume it depends on the capabilities of the brain, in the sense that we (and it seems also apes) seem to get there eventually, but I would also assume that we don't grow into it by magic as the X-Men do into their pre-programmed mutant powers, which seems to be what a 'fully innate' argument suggests. Although that said, if we can do that then I hope to grow Angel wings sometime soon :-D

Date: 2007-12-14 05:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cherrypep.livejournal.com
100% agreement with that.

Things you might enjoy reading, if you haven't yet:
Ostler's 'Empires of the Word'.
Tomasello 'Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition'
Hurford 'The origins of meaning'.
Kirby and Hurford: 'The emergence of linguistic structure: an overview of the Iterated Learning Model' (a paper).

On the other hand there are many who would explicitly disagree with you - mostly for reasons relating to the poverty of the stimulus argument. Which basically goes along the lines of 'We can't see where the hell you get enough data to be able to learn all the stuff that we apparently do learn, and therefore we assume that we must do it by means of applying explicitly hardcoded mechanisms (not that we can really tell you what these helper mechanisms would be, but there jolly well must be some)'.


Me, I think of the hard-wired language acquisition stuff as a multiplication of entities. Instead of having one thing that you don't understand, you now have two. But it takes all kinds. I'm not comfortable with the artificiality of the nature/nurture dichotomy, or with its role in contemporary discourse, which from appearances contains too many absolutists with political agendas. Here's hoping people choose to let go of it one of these years.

Instinct vs. Indoctrination

Date: 2007-12-15 06:18 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] voltronscandide.livejournal.com
Truly fascinating.

I read recently that there may be something to the idea that humanity has actually, measurably, evolved more rapidly than previously thought since the onset of civilization.

Of course, speech, thumbs, and society have been around longer than hill forts, agriculture and job specialization... In terms of evolution, civilization is still a drop in the bucket of human history; the bucket being filled to the brim with hunting and gathering. But, in that one tiny drop there exists more humans than have ever lived before moving faster than ever before and interacting with one another in ways never before imagined. We have excelerated our own evolution by inventing modern medicine, jet engines, and the internet.

Oh, I Googled it: http://www.slate.com/id/2179998/

I didn't read that particular article (until now) but it references the same study. This quote struck me as particularly relevant to your post:

Rapid population growth has been coupled with vast changes in cultures and ecology … creating new opportunities for adaptation." Such "rapid cultural evolution" has "created vastly more opportunities for further genetic change, not fewer, as new avenues emerged for communication, social interactions, and creativity."

Y'see that? They just switched out "tool use" and threw in "creativity".

Yeah. I've always thought the Nature vs. Nuture argument was a bit of a waste of time. You can't really separate the two and test for these things separately, unless you attach a sensory deprivation tank to a birthing mother's hooha...

Date: 2007-12-16 05:13 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I thought the three defining behaviors were locating bananas, peeling bananas, and eating bananas...


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