Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The Conceptual Divide Between Biology And Culture

Washoe, the first of the signing apes, had been regularly bathed. Sometimes between the ages of one and a half and two years, she picked up her doll, filled the bathtub with water, dumped the doll in the tub, took it out and dried it with a towel. In later repetitions she even soaped the doll. This is imitation, but it also must be a form of representation—indeed, of pretence. (Jolly 2000, 291)

Biological evolution is a well-developed and widely understood field of enquiry, whereas cultural evolution is significantly less well understood. Even more poorly understood perhaps, are any conceptual distinctions we might reasonably make between biology and culture. For instance, one area of clear divergence can be discerned through an analysis of the concept of intention. Nothing outside of culture ever arises as a consequence of intention because intention is a thoroughly social disposition. The following discussion is intended to explain this claim.

To do something for reasons, whilst not the only purposeful form of behaviour (I will return to this point), relies upon being capable of giving reasons, of explaining your motivations. If we cannot give reasons for our behaviour, then our behaviour cannot be said to be intentional. Unlike most human beings, bacteria do not have reasons for their behaviour. We can readily explain bacterial behaviour by way of reasons, but these reasons can only be provided and understood by creatures capable of using conceptual categories.

Some theorists and researchers believe that intelligent animals possess and use simple concepts and that it is therefore fair to assume that these creatures may be able to reason to some degree. The counterarguments are too lengthy to detail (some are available here), but it should be clear that the ability to use conceptual categories must necessarily depend on more basic competences, and it is my view that these fundamental nonverbal skills provide a more plausible explanation for intelligent behaviour than the conceptual classification and manipulation necessary for reasoning.

On this view, we can say that a dog may not have reasons for its intelligent behaviour, but it may well have expectations. I will take it as given then, that intelligent behaviour (action) is a form of behaviour that necessarily involves predictive abilities on the part of the agent. Bacteria have no predictive capacities and cannot anticipate anything, therefore bacteria do not qualify as intentionally directed agents.

Whilst I agree with Mead (1934) and Hacker (2013) that intellectual powers are the  preserve of verbal communicators, I contend that it is also reasonable to attribute genuinely purposeful—and therefore intelligent—capacities to creatures capable of nonverbal communication. Communication, as I have argued elsewhere (here), is an intentional activity, performed with an expectation of a result. Unintentional behaviour can be interpreted in intentional terms (Dennett 1987), but since it lacks intention, it has more in common with the behaviour of weather systems or the motions of celestial objects than it does with the actions of communicators.

Communication then, marks a vitally important conceptual divide between biology and culture. Intention, agency, perception, imagination, learning and even consciousness itself, all arise as a consequence of socially formed skills in the use of representations: of communication.
Whilst communication is a transaction typically involving others, it nonetheless develops from more rudimentary behavioural dispositions that are not—in the first instance at least—intentional. Mimicry is a behavioural tendency observed very widely in nature, but this need not imply that the imitative mating choices of female guppies (Dugatkin 2000), for example, are intentional. Likewise, there is no reason to suppose that the imitative behaviours of newborn humans are intentional either. Intention emerges through the mechanisms of social feedback as certain behaviours are reinforced by carers, parents and peers.

Earlier versions of this view can be found to various degrees in the work of Pragmatist philosophers like Mead (1934), Dewey and Bentley (1949) or in the sociogenic theory of Vygotsky (1933, see also Leudar 1991):

The Vygotskian perspective sees imagination as a learned thought process originating in collective social interactions and eventually differentiating so that it can serve either personal wish-fulfilment or be used in creative problem-solving in art and science. (Smolucha and Smolucha 1986)

More recent theorists have also come to similar conclusions through the influence of Wittgenstein and the Ordinary Language school of philosophy (Melser 2004, Hutto 2008 and Brook 2008 and 2014). Like several theorists in this tradition, I hold the view that to understand consciousness, we first need to understand what it is to pretend (Austin 1958, Anscombe 1958, see also Carruthers 2006).

[A]s children interact with more knowledgeable play partners they learn further pretend play skills, such as using object substitutions and visual isomorphisms to create or extend pretend play scenarios. Children also learn how to direct play activities by renaming the objects (calling the laundry basket a ‘boat’) and by framing the activities as pretense (“Let’s pretend we’re pirates”). Gradually, the verbalizations and the sensory/motor templates that accompany the object substitutions, are internalized as imaginative figurative thinking. (Smolucha and Smolucha 2012).

Often when we pretend, we do so in the absence of something. We can pretend to dance with an absent partner, to rock an absent baby in our arms or to eat an absent item of food etc. In each case we rely on performative actions to trigger responses on the part of others that would otherwise be had in the presence of the absent object. We are extremely adept at such forms of performative communication, to such a degree in fact that we commonly overlook the role played by our skills of pretence in the formation of mind. Mind then, can be regarded as a repertoire of techniques (communicative techniques in particular) that have been learned through practice and can be demonstrated. Moreover, these techniques can be pretended and thus can be entertained to the point where they need not be performed at all, merely imagined.

According to philosopher John Searle (1983), all actions are intentionally directed. Several, if not all of the theorists I have mentioned would agree with Searle on this important point. Brook (2015) for instance, makes a sharp distinction between behavioural actions and behaviouristic responsiveness. On this view, the mechanistic behaviours of simple organisms do not qualify as actions for precisely the same reasons that the behaviours of parts of organisms do not qualify as being intentionally directed either. Simple organisms, organs, cells, chemicals and atoms do not have interests and wants. We commonly find it informative to describe them as if they do, but if we wish to understand the fundamental difference between the behaviour of simple organisms, organs cells etc. and the more sophisticated intelligent actions of intentionally directed agents, then we need to be extremely clear about this distinction: the distinction between biology and culture.