7/21/2006

Anthropology, Psychology, and John Hawks

Cognitive sciences and anthropology share many of the same topics of interest, but often differ vastly in terminology, methodology, and perspective. In fact, with the exception of blogs like Mixing Memory, which successfully integrate research from cognitive psychology and philosophy, cognitive psychology is generally quite isolated from the other social sciences.

One exception to the rule is a blog maintained by John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin Madison, whose posts frequently integrate ideas from anthropology and cognitive psychology. For example, in the past few weeks he has covered topics as diverse as the origins of altruism, lateralization of linguistic functions in the brain, the temporal organization of goal-directed behavior - many of which would not be out of place on this blog.

John recently wrote about teaching behaviors recently observed in primates (meerkats, specifically); John floats the idea that some teaching behaviors may require internal simulations of another's mental state ... in other words, theory of mind. I took the opportunity to ask for more detailed information on his perspective on theory of mind in the context of teaching.

In your recent post about Meerkats, you conclude that primates are "successful at using the limited communications to model other individuals." But you also quoted the following section: "viewed from a functional perspective, teaching can be based on simple mechanisms without the need for intentionality and the attribution of mental states." In other words, natural selection would convey an advantage to animals that trained their children, and so would have allowed for the emergence of a "teaching curriculum" of sorts in which no theory of mind is necessary; it could be entirely instinctive.

John Hawks: "It clearly is entirely instinctive for the ants. My thinking is that most people have vastly overestimated how complicated "theory of mind" has to be. What the ants have is an ability to respond appropriately to signs that the learner emits, no intentionality on the part of either. I don't think we need to assume that the meerkats do any more than this, nor do I think they have access to any more information about the learner's mental state than the ants do. They just need to be able to respond appropriately to signs that the learner is emitting."

This is related to one of my "hobby horse" topics: comparing our romanticized views of human cognition with our almost derogatory interpretations of startlingly human-like behaviors in animals (e.g., teaching, language use, etc).

John Hawks: "I basically agree. Humans do differ in one respect: we have much greater communication bandwidth. So human teachers have access to more signs emitted by learners, and can shape their teaching more accordingly. But I don't think there is necessarily anything special about human cognition in this regard; to my mind "theory of mind" is a kind of catchall category that invites "ghost in the machine" interpretations.

So why do I think primates are modeling based on limited information?

It's because primate communication isn't very different (at least in its bandwidth) from any other mammals, or even the ants. To the extent that primates do interesting things with communication (like coupling vocal and visual, or gestural-procedural), it mostly takes
looks like error-correction (like sending the same message through multiple channels). So if you're going to evolve a better means of modeling other individuals, you pretty much have to do it all within the brain; there just isn't going to be much more to go on as far as signs emitted by other individuals."

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