Science and Storytelling

Adam Gopnik, one of my favorite writers at the New Yorker, recently published online a negative review of Jonathan Gottschall’s new book, The Storytelling Animal. I haven’t read Gottschall’s book and I don’t know anything more about it than what Gopnik reveals, so I won’t defend it. However, though characteristically insightful and well written, Gopnik makes a few troubling points that I thought I’d comment on.

The crux of Gottschall’s book seems to be that storytelling makes people more empathetic and thus was selected for in human evolution. Gopnik writes,

Gottschall’s encouraging thesis is that human beings are natural storytellers—that they can’t help telling stories, and that they turn things that aren’t really stories into stories because they like narratives so much. Everything—faith, science, love—needs a story for people to find it plausible. No story, no sale.

He continues,

But this claim, itself hardly momentous, then opens onto something sadly like a forced march of the platitudes: We all like stories. When we don’t have a story we make one up—that’s why the juxtapositions of film editing work. People usually like stories to have ‘morals’ at the end. Religions are so successful because they tell moralish stories, though, to be sure, some of their stories are nice and some are not nice at all. Different people like different kinds of morals in their stories. Hitler loved the heroic stories of Wagner, for instance. That was too bad. (‘The musical stories that Hitler most loved did not make him a better person,’ Gottschall writes.) On the other hand, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote an influential story about the evils of slavery. That was good.

For Gopnik, the theory is merely boring. He treats the claim that humans are natural storytellers as a shallow and uninteresting claim. The statement may be obvious, but the explanation of why this should be would is far from clear, given the quantity of time and resources that people throw being entertained. To him, the interesting question is what makes certain stories good and others bad. He writes,

The interesting questions about stories, which have, as they say, excited the interests of readers for millennia, are not about what makes a taste for them “universal,” but what makes the good ones so different from the dull ones, and whether the good ones really make us better people, or just make us people who happen to have heard a good story.

Questions about those small differences seem not to have occurred to Gottschall. There is not a single reference in Gottschall’s book to such students of the mechanics of storytelling as William Empson, Samuel Johnson, Lionel Trilling, Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, or Randall Jarrell, all of whom brooded long and hard upon stories and their subjects.

However, why should we care even about the good stories. Isolating which foods are good and bad for us tells us little about why it is that we must eat. The questions are of course related, but there is certainly a distinction. Continue reading


Pliny the Elder on Memory, ~77 CE

Naturalis Historia, Bk. VII

Chap. XXIIII: Examples of memorie.

Translated by Philemon Holland (1601)

AS TOUCHING MEMORIE, the greatest gift of Nature, and most necessarie of all others for this life; hard it is to judge and say who of all others deserved the cheefe honour therein: considering how many men have excelled, and woon much glorie in that behalfe.

King Cyrus was able to call every souldior that he had through his whole armie, by his owne name. L. Scipio could doe the like by all the citizens of Rome. Semblably, Cineas, Embassador of king Pyrrhus, the very next day that he came to Rome, both knew and also saluted by name all the Senate, and the whole degrees of Gentlemen and Cavallerie in the cittie. Mithridates the king, reigned over two and twentie nations of diverse languages, and in so many tongues gave lawes and ministred justice unto them, without truchman: and when hee was to make speech unto them in publicke assemblie respectively to every nation, he did performe it in their owne tongue, without interpretor.

One Charmidas or Carmadas, a Grecian, was of so singular a memorie, that he was able to deliver by heart the contents word for word of all the bookes that a man would call for out of any librarie, as if he read the same presently within a booke. At length the practise hereof was reduced into an art of Memorie: devised and invented first by Simonides Melicus, and afterwards brought to perfection and consummate by Metrodorus Scepsius: by which a man might learne to rehearse againe the same words of any discourse whatosever, after once hearing.

And yet there is not a thing in man so fraile and brittle againe as it is, whether it be occasioned by disease, by casual injuries and occurrents, or by feare, through which it faileth sometime in part, and otherwhiles decaieth generally, and is cleane lost. One with the stroke of a stone, fell presently to forget his letters onely, and could read no more: otherwise his memorie served him well ynough. Another, with a fall from the roufe of a very high house, lost the remembrance of his own mother, his next kinsfolke, friends, and neighbours. Another, in a sicknesse of his forgot his owne servants about him: and Messala Corvinus the great Oratour, upon the like occasion, forgot his owne proper name.

So fickle and slipperie is mans memorie: that oftentimes it assaieth and goeth about to leese it selfe, even whiles a mans bodie is otherwise quiet and in health. But let sleep creepe at any time upon us, it seemeth to be vanquished, so as our poore spirit wandereth up and down to seeke where it is, and to recover it againe.

(Source; paragraph breaks added for reading ease)

The Lives of the Scientists: Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Evolutionist.

Jean-Baptiste-Pierre-Antoine de Monet de Lamarck was born on Aug 1, 1744 in Picardy, France. He was the youngest of 11 children in a noble family known for being devoted to France’s military. Although several of his brothers were sent into the army, his father decided that he would have a career in the Church. When his father died in 1760, he left his religious education and joined his brothers in the French Army.

France was near the end of the Seven Years War with Germany. He arrived at the front just before the battle of Fissingshausen. The French were compelled to retreat, and all of the officers were killed, after which Lamarck was forced to assume command. After the end of the war, he became a lieutenant. He spent five more years in the army during peacetime, garrisoned in Toulon and Monaco. While in Monaco, however, at the age of 22, he sustained a serious neck injury while play-fighting with another soldier who had lifted him by his head, causing severe inflammation of the lymphatic glands. This required that he left his post in the military and travel to Paris, where he underwent surgery that left him with deep scars.

He attempted to begin a new career by taking courses in medicine. During his time at school, he developed a growing interest in botany which he shared with his new friend, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with whom he would go on botanical excursions. He decided to adjust his career choice and he began a 10 year course in botany, after which he published a botanical treatise entitled Flore Francaise. This book brought him immediate fame around France, as it was published in the heyday of the French Enlightenment, when philosophy and natural history were common topics of discussion among the educated class. In 1779, he was inducted to the Academy of Sciences.

After several years of holding lowly positions at the Jardin du Roi (later called the Jardin des Plantes) with little or no salary, he was appointed two one of two chairs of zoology in 1793 at the newly created Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, with a focus on invertebrates. The other, focused on the better known vertebrates, was awarded to Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who was only 22. Lamarck, then 49, was given the position largely because there were no other candidates that were suitable. After receiving his post, he virtually abandoned botany and dedicated himself fully to the study of invertebrate biology, which were at that time virtually unstudied in any systematic way (sometimes referred to as les inconnus, or the unknowns).

During his career, he published several books on various scientific topics, including presentations of his theory of evolution and others on meteorology and chemistry, none of which were received well by his scientific colleagues. His views were particularly ignored after Cuvier became the most famous biologist of his time, since Cuvier believed in the fixity of species. François Arago tells in his memoirs of a sad encounter in which Lamarck, in his old age, presented Napoleon with a copy of his Philosophie Zoologique and Napoleon responded “What is this? Is it your absurd Météorologie with which you are disgracing your old age? Write on natural history, and I will accept your work with pleasure. This volume I only accept out of consideration for your gray hair. Here!” and he handed it off to one of his aides. Lamarck tried to explain that is was a work of natural history, but before he could finish, he burst into tears.

He died at the in 1829, at the age of 85, and was buried in an unmarked mass grave.

[Source: the Introduction by Hugh Elliot]

The Cultural Intelligence Hypothesis

We diverged from our last common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos about 6 to 8 million years ago. For around 60 million preceding years, since our divergence from the rest of the mammalian line around the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs, our lineage had lived as tropical primates largely similar to those alive today. Humans are markedly different from the rest of our primate relatives, however. In a very short time, we were able to colonize virtually every habitat on the earth amenable to life. We were able to do this due to our unique ability to develop and transmit cultural ideas which allowed us to rapidly accumulate the technological abilities needed to behaviorally adapt to radically new environments. Cultural adaptation allowed us to shortcut the millions of years that would otherwise have been required for natural selection to adapt our body and behavior to the radically different environments that we came to inhabit.

Since our last common ancestor with the chimpanzee and bonobo line (who themselves diverged only about a million years ago), our brain has undergone a drastic growth. Although our brains seem to contain all of the same stuff as the brains of other primates, it is now about 3x the expected size for our body weight based on brain/body ratios of living primates. We have also developed technologies that far exceed those of of the chimpanzees and bonobos, who’s tool-kits are impressive when compared against other animal species but scarcely compare our own.

We might expect then, as many have, that our larger brains have led to greater intelligence across-the-board. This seems to be supported by our technological history when compared to that of chimps and bonobos. However, cognitive evolution should be expected to adapt a species to be able to perform the kinds of tasks that are important in evolutionary terms. In the time in which our brains were developing into the unusual form that they now display, we were living in a habitat similar to those of the chimpanzee/bonobo line. We both had to forage effectively, avoid predation, and navigate our social structures. Most of our cognitive resources did not need to exceed those of chimpanzees and bonobos, who are already highly intelligent.

Our intelligence rests on a large cultural endowment. None of us could ever have invented all of our technology in a lifetime, or even the limited technology of a small group of hunter-gatherers. Most of our technological advancement relies on an even more fundamental “cognitive technology,” such as language, numerical and measurement systems, and navigational concepts such as the cardinal directions. Without having been born into societies with these cognitive technologies, developing complex physical technologies would be next to impossible. This has led many researchers to argue that our superior general intelligence is an off-shoot of our advanced cultural cognition, rather than that our cultural intelligence is an off-shoot of a superior general intelligence. Without our cultural endowments, we would be, in most ways, cognitively identical to the apes.

Continue reading

Chimpanzee Warfare

In the early 1970s, several members of the Kasekela chimpanzee community at Gombe National Park, Tanzania – made famous by Jane Goodall’s pioneering study of wild chimpanzee behavior – split off and founded a new community referred to as the Kahama community (Goodall 1986). From 1974 to 1977, the larger Kasekela community repeatedly raided the Kahama territory, and by 1977, all six of the adult Kahama males and two adult females had been brutally murdered or had disappeared. The group’s remaining females joined other neighboring groups.

Similarly, between 1970 and 1982 at the Mahale National Park – a lesser known site started by another true pioneer of primatology, Toshisada Nishida, who passed away this last summer – the K-group lost all six of its adult males and one adult female, though there was evidence that one of the adolescent males at the time survived into the 1990s (Nishida et al. 1985). None of the attacks were observed by researchers, nor were the remains ever found, but it was suspected that the disappearances were due to attacks by the larger neighboring M-group. In the process, the K-group territory was gradually taken over by the M-group, and most of the K-group females eventually joined the M-group.

These are extreme examples in which entire groups were eliminated – not unlike genocide, though on a scale appropriate chimpanzee society. The methods by which they’re carried out, however, are all too common in the relations between chimpanzee groups. One of the leading causes of death among chimpanzees is death at the hand of another, both between and within groups. In 1986, Goodall reported that 30% of all of the deaths at Gombe were from fights between groups, and in a recent study of the causes of more recent chimpanzee deaths at Gombe, 36% of deaths were attributable to violence – within and between groups – which was the greater than any other factor (Terio et al. 2012). Infanticide is also common, generally by males of other groups, but within-group coalitionary infanticide by females has also been reported (Muller 2007).

Continue reading

Lucretius on Human Origins, 1st c. BCE

Wherefore, again, again, how merited
Is that adopted name of Earth- The Mother!-
Since she herself begat the human race,
And at one well-nigh fixed time brought forth
Each breast that ranges raving round about
Upon the mighty mountains and all birds
Aerial with many a varied shape.
But, lo, because her bearing years must end,
She ceased, like to a woman worn by eld.
For lapsing aeons change the nature of
The whole wide world, and all things needs must take
One status after other, nor aught persists
Forever like itself. All things depart;
Nature she changeth all, compelleth all
To transformation. Lo, this moulders down,
A-slack with weary eld, and that, again,
Prospers in glory, issuing from contempt.
In suchwise, then, the lapsing aeons change
The nature of the whole wide world, and earth
Taketh one status after other. And what
She bore of old, she now can bear no longer,
And what she never bore, she can to-day.

In those days also the telluric world
Strove to beget the monsters that upsprung
With their astounding visages and limbs-
The Man-woman- a thing betwixt the twain,
Yet neither, and from either sex remote-
Some gruesome Boggles orphaned of the feet,
Some widowed of the hands, dumb Horrors too
Without a mouth, or blind Ones of no eye,
Or Bulks all shackled by their legs and arms
Cleaving unto the body fore and aft,
Thuswise, that never could they do or go,
Nor shun disaster, nor take the good they would.
And other prodigies and monsters earth
Was then begetting of this sort- in vain,
Since Nature banned with horror their increase,
And powerless were they to reach unto
The coveted flower of fair maturity,
Or to find aliment, or to intertwine
In works of Venus. For we see there must
Concur in life conditions manifold,
If life is ever by begetting life
To forge the generations one by one:
First, foods must be; and, next, a path whereby
The seeds of impregnation in the frame
May ooze, released from the members all;
Last, the possession of those instruments
Whereby the male with female can unite,
The one with other in mutual ravishments.

Continue reading

The Earliest Evidence of Controlled Fire and Cooking found in an Early Acheulean Cave Site in South Africa

Cooked food features into the diet of every human culture. Indeed, some anthropologists such as Richard Wrangham at Harvard have argued that the acquisition of cooking was the catalyst that allowed for the development of many of the unique physical and behavioral adaptations of the hominid line since Homo erectus such as smaller molars and jaws, a larger body size with less sexual dimorphism, a larger brain, and a further focus on bipedality with a reduction in the upper body features that allowed earlier hominids to more easily climb and move about in trees (Wrangham et al. 1999; Wrangham 2009).

Cooked food has many advantages over raw food. First, cooked plant food is softer and thus easier to both chew and digest. Cooking meat also kills many of the pathogens. There are also many foods that can’t be consumed by humans unless they are processed and cooked, such as many tubers that are rich in starch. Wrangham has argued that cooking was a form of ‘pre-digestion’ that allowed the digestive system to expend less energy in digestion. Cooking would have allowed people to exploit many new kinds of resources, as well as allow them to expand into new habitats, which may have contributed to the colonization by Homo erectus of most of Eurasia. Some other interesting recent evidence is that in most cases, the great apes – albeit captive apes that are provisioned in a sanctuary and regularly receive some cooked food – also appear to prefer cooked food over raw food as well, suggesting that paleolithic hominids would also have preferred cooked food if when it was discovered (Wobber et al. 2008).

The argument that cooking fundamentally changed the body and behavior of the human lineage is known as the cooking hypothesis. It’s one of the contenders attempting to account for many of the unique derived features in the human lineage. Among others are the savanna hypothesis and the meat hunting hypothesis, that argued that these features were adaptations that came from an increased focus on a open area savanna habitat or from an increased dietary commitment to hunting, respectively. Continue reading

Mark Pagel on Evolution, Culture, and Language

This last week I’ve been working my way through Mark Pagel’s new book, Wired for Culture, published a few weeks ago. I have a long way to go, but I’ve noticed that many of the points made in the book are also reflected in the TED talk that he gave last summer:

From what I understand, Pagel’s rough outline for the evolution of language, culture, and cooperation is that we first had an evolutionary advance in our ability to learn directly from other people through observation. This made it possible for people to observe somebody else’s technological development and acquire it for their own use. This is beneficial for the observer, since they are then able to acquire useful behaviors without going through all the trouble of working them out on their own, which could potentially save someone from fatally trying the wrong thing. Continue reading

New Evidence of Symbolic Thought in Neanderthals

It is a good week for defenders of the Neanderthals—a species long maligned for having fallen short of human thought, and as a consequence, having lost the competition between our species. While I don’t necessarily assert that Neanderthals did have similar cognitive abilities to their Homo sapiens kin, the arguments against that possibility have always struck me as shallow. For decades, anthropologists have argued that the gap between the rich array of human artifacts to the sparser array of those of the Neanderthals—specifically those artifacts which have no discernible utility that are traditionally interpreted as symbolic—has shown that the Neanderthals did not have the propensity for symbolic thought, language, or complex cumulative culture. There is a relevant old adage in science, however, that says that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’

After all, how would we know if Neanderthals spoke, created symbols, or passed on rich cultural traditions? We are confident that the human groups living at the same time did, during the lower and middle paleolithic, in which the Neanderthals endured their downfall from Eurasian dominance. We have uncovered troves of artifacts from anatomically modern humans that are best explained as having only cultural or symbolic significance, or in any case were characterized by their non-utility. The engraved pieces of ochre and bone, for example, found in Blombos Cave, or the engraved pieces of ostrich egg shells found in Diepkloof on the southern coasts of South Africa, as of now have no better explanation than that they are the same sorts of symbolic artifacts produced by modern human groups. Archaeologists argue that these artistic implements were probably used to either distinguish people of different social groups, or perhaps people of different social classes within the same social group, or perhaps both. These South African artifacts date back to a time when Neanderthals were still dominant in Europe, before the last wave of fully modern humans left Africa, such as those that would have occupied Blombos and Diepkloof. Continue reading

Time and Space in Pormpuraaw

A longstanding question in cognitive science is how the brain represents time. Unlike with vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, there is no external input that our brain can use to keep track of time (in the absence of clocks). Instead we have only the memory of how events are ordered in time. How is it then that we represent and think about that which has no concrete representation?

Many scientists have noticed that the language of time is shared with the language of space. People commonly refer to events moving forward, having long conversations or short meetings, and or to time moving quickly or slowly. Graphic depictions of time are also organized spatially. Clocks represent time as traveling circuitously around a disc, calenders represent time as a table, and time-lines represent time as flowing from one direction to another. This has made researchers wonder if time the representation of time using space is simply a matter of visual and conversational convenience or if it extends to how time’s representation in the brain.

One of the leading researchers in this field is Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University. She argues that the pattern of spatial metaphors is asymmetrical since we use space to represent space much more than we use time to represent space. This gives grounds for the hypothesis that perhaps representations of time recycle, in a sense, the existing mechanisms originally meant to represent space. She has performed a number of studies that have largely confirmed that hypothesis. She has done this through the use of temporal ordering tasks, in which participants organize images representing steps in a process into a logical order, and by 3D ordering tasks in which has participants indicate the spatial direction that they imagine preceding or following events to occur (for example, “If today is right here, where is tomorrow?”). Continue reading