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Posts Tagged ‘human beings’

I’m dying to see James Marsh’s new film Project Nim, not only because he directed one of my favourite documentaries of recent years (Man on Wire), but because it’s about the question of whether or not human beings have a unique ability to communicate with language.

Marsh documents the attempt by Herb Terrance, a psychology professor at Columbia University in New York, to discover whether chimpanzees can learn a human language.

Mick Brown explains:

Terrace’s idea was to give rise to one of the most idiosyncratic scientific experiments of the era, to take a newborn chimpanzee and raise it as if it were a human being, while teaching it to communicate using American Sign Language (ASL). For a period in the 1970s Terrace’s chimpanzee, named Nim, became a celebrity, featuring in newspapers and magazines and appearing on television chat shows – the tribune, as a New York magazine cover story had it, of a ‘scientific revolution with religious consequences that occurs once every few hundred years’.

Herb Terrace was not the first person to hit on the idea of communicating with an ape through sign language. In 1661 Samuel Pepys described in his diaries encountering ‘a great baboon’ brought from ‘Guiny’ that was ‘so much like a man in most things… I do believe that it already understands much English, and I am of the mind it might be taught to speak or make signs.’ In the 1960s a husband and wife team, Allen and Beatrix Gardner, had raised a chimp named Washoe, claiming to have taught it more than 300 signs.

Terrace’s own experiment was forged in a spirit of heated debate about language and behaviour that was raging through academia in the 1960s and 70s. A disciple of the behaviourist BF Skinner, Terrace wanted to disprove the theory of Skinner’s great rival, the linguist Noam Chomsky, that humans are uniquely ‘hard-wired’ to develop language. Even the choice of his chimp’s name, Nim Chimpsky, was designed to cock a snook at Chomsky.

In search of a surrogate mother for his chimp, Terrace turned to one of his former graduate psychology students – and a former lover – Stephanie LaFarge. ‘Herb wanted to do something equivalent to Galileo and Freud in creating a paradigm shift for human beings,’ LaFarge says. ‘That’s who he is: very arrogant and very ambitious.’

Things didn’t work out as planned – you can read the article or see the film to find out why. But here are the conclusions that Terrace came to about the possibility of chimpanzee-human language:

Terrace remains unrepentant about the experiment and its findings. He is presently working on a new book, with the provisional title of Why a Chimp Can’t Learn Language. Chimps, he believes, as Nim demonstrated, are highly intelligent but they do not have what is called ‘a theory of mind’.

‘No chimpanzee – no animal – has ever engaged in conversation. It’s always been “gimme, gimme, gimme”. They’re very astute readers of body language, as Nim showed. But a chimp does not have any reason to think of its own mind, or that somebody else has a mind.’

Not only would a chimpanzee not be able to construct a meaningful sentence of ‘man bites dog’, Terrace says, but ‘he would have no interest in communicating that. A chimp is never going to say, “This is a beautiful sunset”, or “That’s a lovely suit you’re wearing.”’ In short, they will forever remain a closed book.

Terrace ends up agreeing with Chomsky and concludes that there is something unique about the mental and linguistic abilities of human beings.

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I was teaching philosophical ethics yesterday and came across these quotations I’d saved up about the possibility of human freedom.

Isaiah Berlin

The first, from Thomas Nagel, simply describes what a hard-core version of determinism looks like:

Some people have thought that it is never possible for us to do anything different from what we actually do, in the absolute sense. They acknowledge that what we do depends on our choices, decisions, and wants, and that we make different choices in different circumstances: we’re not like the earth rotating on its axis with monotonous regularity. But the claim is that, in each case, the circumstances that exist before we act determine our actions and make them inevitable. The sum total of a person’s experiences, desires and knowledge, his or her hereditary constitution, the social circumstances and the nature of the choice facing them, together with other factors that we may not know about, all combine to make a particular acting in the circumstances inevitable. This view is called determinism… [quoted in Alban McCoy, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Christian Ethics, 34-35]

The second quotation, from Isaiah Berlin, is about how freedom is in fact a presupposition of ordinary personal and social life, whether we like to admit it philosophically or not:

The whole of our common morality, in which we speak of obligation and duty, right and wrong, moral praise and blame – the way in which people are praised or condemned, rewarded or punished, for behaving in a way in which they were not forced to behave, when they could have behaved otherwise – this network of beliefs and practices, on which all current morality seems to me to depend, presupposes the notion of responsibility, and responsibility entails the ability to choose between black and white, right and wrong, pleasure and duty; as well as, in a wider sense, between forms of life, forms of government, and the whole constellations of moral values in terms of which most people, however much they may or may not be aware of it, do in fact live. [Liberty, 324]

If you want to follow all this up, you can read Alban McCoy’s very helpful chapter about determinism here on Google Books.

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I’ve just seen the Facebook film, The Social Network. It works. It shouldn’t, because we all know the story: guy invents Facebook, transforms human self-understanding, and makes a few billion in the process. But it does. Partly because the lesser known sub-plot is turned into the main narrative arc: did he steal the idea and dump on his friends? And partly because the heart of the story, the genesis of Facebook, is such a significant moment for our culture (and perhaps for human history), that it would mesmerise a cinema audience no matter how badly filmed.

It’s Stanley Kubrick trying to film the emergence of human consciousness at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It’s more a screenplay than a film. I had to concentrate so hard on the dialogue and the ideas that I hardly took in the visuals. This is classic Aaron Sorkin, whose West Wing scripts have more words per minute and ideas per episode than anything else on TV in recent years.

I’m also a fan of Ben Mezrich, who wrote the novel on which the screenplay is based. I read his Bringing Down the House a few years ago, a great holiday read about how a team of MIT geeks took their card-counting skills to Vegas and beat the casinos. And it’s true.

Anyway. Go and see the film. It’s a great story and a great cast, directed with unobtrusive style by David Fincher. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that it captures one of those rare historical moments, that we have actually lived through, when our understanding of what it is to be human shifts quite significantly.

It’s too easy to talk about geography (“First we lived on farms, then we lived in cities; now we live on the internet”). We could have ‘lived on the internet’, even with the interactivity of Web 2.0, without it changing our understanding of ourselves. The same people, but with more information and quicker methods of exchanging it. Facebook has turned us inside out. We used to learn and think and search in order to be more authentically or more happily ourselves. We learnt in order to live. Now we create semi-virtual selves which can exist in a semi-virtual world where others are learning and thinking and searching. We live in order to connect.

But even this doesn’t capture it properly, because people have been connecting for millennia, and at least since EM Forster’s Howards End. With Facebook we don’t just want to connect, we want to actually become that connectivity. We want to become the sum total of those friends, messages, events, applications, requests, reminders, notifications and feeds. Personhood has changed.

Two thousand years ago, through the incarnation, the Word became flesh. In our time, through the internet, the flesh became Facebook.

Time to switch off the computer.

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One of our Lenten ‘disciplines’ in the seminary is to eat Thursday lunch in silence. What this means in practice is: no talking; a spiritual book is read for about 15 minutes; and whenever the particular chapter is finished we spend the rest of the time listening to the ambient noises in the dining room.

I’m certainly not the first to write about this, but you do notice a lot of things when the noise of chatter dies down. The sound of cutlery on crockery, of the boiler in the basement, of chopping in the kitchen next door. The detailing around you: the grain in the wooden table, the words ‘stainless steel’ stamped into some (but not all) of the knives. Time itself changes. I’d never realised how long, in the silence, it can take someone to eat just half an apple.

Tenderly touch - Un delicado contacto - Zärtliche Berührung by alles-schlumpf.

People, above all, are transformed. In a strange way you can be more present, not less, to another person in silence. Words can sometimes become an unintentional smokescreen to meeting another, and the sheer physical reality of the human being (and even their inner life) can be appreciated in a new way. Yes, words can reveal a person; but a person is more than their words — and that’s easy to forget.

The book we are using, by the way, is The Saints’ Guide to Happiness: Everyday Wisdom from the Lives of the Saints by Robert Ellsberg — which I highly recommend for personal reading.

Here’s a preview from the Macmillan website:

A noted spiritual writer seeks answers to life’s big questions in the stories of the saints. In All Saints –published in 1997 and already a classic of its kind –Robert Ellsberg told the stories of 365 holy people with great vividness and eloquence. In The Saints’ Guide to Happiness, Ellsberg looks to the saints to answer the questions: What is happiness, and how might we find it?

Countless books answer these questions in terms of personal growth, career success, physical fitness, and the like. The Saints’ Guide to Happiness proposes instead that happiness consists in a grasp of the deepest dimension of our humanity, which characterizes holy people past and present. The book offers a series of “lessons” in the life of the spirit: the struggle to feel alive in a frenzied society; the search for meaningful work, real friendship, and enduring love; the encounter with suffering and death; and the yearning to grasp the ultimate significance of our lives. In these “lessons,” our guides are the saints: historical figures like Augustine, Francis of Assisi, and Teresa of Avila, and moderns such as Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Henri J. Nouwen. In the course of the book the figures familiar from stained-glass windows come to seem exemplars, not just of holy piety but of “life in abundance,” the quality in which happiness and holiness converge.

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Andrew Marr examines three recent sci-fi films (Avatar, District 9, and Surrogates) and draws some conclusions about how people understand themselves in the West.

avatar 阿凡達 阿凡达 by 邪恶的正太.

Avatar image by Juehuayin

He detects a lack of confidence in the whole human project emerging from these films. It’s not just that we face particular problems and are not sure how to overcome them. It’s that we are wondering whether there is any point at all in trying to overcome them. So it’s not the present situation of humankind that is in question, but the very meaning and purpose of being human. “Where there is no vision, the people perish…”

[Plot spoiler coming] It’s interesting that the only way of ‘redemption’ for human beings at the end of Avatar is to renounce being human.

See if you agree with Marr’s assessment:

They are all anxiety films, even hysteria films, but they have a special edge. The bad guys seem to be human beings in general, and our corporate-capitalist system in particular. Avatar self-doubt pits a humanity that has ravaged their home planet against the indigenous blue pixies of the lush Pandora. There are “good humans” of course, a minority of geeky biologists and a disabled man, but we are left in no doubt about the insanely greedy and aggressive tendencies of most of the bipedal inhabitants of grey and battered Earth…

Though they are dark films, they are in a different category from the familiar cheery genre of apocalypse- soon movies, such as the recent (and hilariously awful) 2012. Nor are they like the earlier aliens-are-coming films, from Independence Day to Mars Attacks, in which it’s up to humanity to repel boarders. Indeed, that’s the point; recent film-making has switched the good guys and bad guys around. These films say that humans are greedy, stupid, rapacious and often lazy. They say we are infinitely suggestible, prone to being moulded by corporate interests, and at risk of being captured by our own technology.

They are, in short, films with a strong dose of human self-hatred running through them. This is anger and satire, directed against the main forward thrust of Western life, as mass entertainment…

But I do think the historians of a century ahead, writing about our times, will use the films in our cinemas right now to discuss the decline of the West. They will talk about a radical lack of self-confidence in the project of enlightenment-science-plus-corporate- capitalism, a spectacular loss of nerve. They will observe how fear about the coming “singularity” in computing power, remorse about wars in Asia and environmentalist horror about rainforest destruction and species extinction combined to shake the West’s belief in its destiny. And then they will contrast all that with the brash confidence, even triumphalism, of the Chinese film industry as a set piece contrast in how art imitates life.

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I had a magical moment yesterday. I was at the British Museum with some friends. They were there to see the Egyptian mummies, but I was keen to visit the stone tools that have been selected as the first exhibits in a new Radio 4 series: “A history of the world in 100 objects”. [You can listen here].

I walked into the room, and a member of staff had some objects out on the table in front of her: A chopping tool, that would have been used to cut meat and smash bones to extract the marrow, and two handaxes. I assumed they were modern copies. But they were authentic — and we could touch them!

I need to stop myself using too many exclamation marks here. I held in my hand, the same hand that is typing this post, a chopping tool that was about 1.8 million years old, and a handaxe from about 1.2 million years ago — both found in the Olduvai gorge in Tanzania. What a staggering thought, that this object in my hand was crafted and used by some early hominid nearly two million years ago.

The shape of the chopping tool was almost identical to that of a computer mouse. It was long, curved and smooth on the top, to fit the palm of the hand; the bottom was rugged for smashing, but more or less flat; and there were even slight indentations on the two long edges where the the curve met the base (just like a mouse) so the thumb and fingers could get a grip.

Stonehenge HDR Panorama by V for Photography.

I’ve held a Roman coin before, and many years ago as a child (when the site was completely open to the public) I ran my hands along the side of one of the stones at Stonehenge — making that connection, taking me back a few thousand years. But this connection over so many hundreds of thousands of years was something of quite a different order, and I catch my breath just thinking about it.

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Kate Wong brings us up-to-date on the latest research into the Neandertals in this month’s issue of Scientific American.

I’ve always been fascinated by ‘Neandertal Man’ as he/she used to be called. We think about what it would be like to meet aliens. (Well, I think about what it would be like to meet aliens!) Would we be able to communicate? Would we be able to understand each other? Yet here in our own back yard, in Europe and the Near East and much of Asia, modern human beings were living side-by-side with another hominid form, meeting and presumably trying to communicate, only 30,000 years ago. I refrained from saying ‘another human species’ because the great and still unresolved question is whether we belonged to distinct species, and whether or not modern humans and Neandertals could interbreed. And despite the theories about genocide (by humans), climate change, and diet – we still don’t know why they became extinct about 28,000 years ago.

Grottes de Lascaux II by davidmartinpro.It seems that they had jewellery and bone tools and made sophisticated weapons; but modern human beings had the edge – in their social organisation, in the efficiency of their physique, and in their sheer intelligence and creativity. ‘The boundary between Neandertals and moderns has gotten fuzzier’, writes Christopher B. Stringer – but there is still a boundary. There is something radical and new about human intelligence, a leap and not just a lurch, that gives rise to art, creativity, sophisticated language, morality, and some more reflective kind of self-consciousness. And, interestingly, one of the key markers for paleoanthropologists is the emergence for the first time among human beings of symbolic customs surrounding the burial of the dead. Human intelligence seems to go hand in hand with an appreciation of the significance of death.

Neandertals, we presume, in some way asked questions about how to live; human beings, as far as we can tell, are the only creatures to ask questions about the meaning of that living, and the possibility of living beyond death.

Prehistoric Painting by Klearchos Kapoutsis.

[A wonderful book that first got me interested in human uniqueness in relation to Neandertals is Becoming Human by Ian Tattersall, OUP 1998. It’s probably a bit old now, but it is still in print]

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