Some evidence for the cultural intelligence hypothesis

Posted September 11, 2007 by jomodo
Categories: Great Apes, Pragmatics

“Humans have many cognitive skills not possessed by their nearest primate relatives. The cultural intelligence hypothesis argues that this is mainly due to a species-specific set of social-cognitive skills, emerging early in ontogeny, for participating and exchanging knowledge in cultural groups. ”

Some elegant experiments on human children, chimps and orangs suggest that we posess some specialised social-cognitive skills… – See article in Nature 

And this discussion on the blog.

Simulating the evolution of communication with evolving bots.

Posted March 9, 2007 by jomodo
Categories: Uncategorized

Here is interesting article with a video showing communicating bot behaviour.

BBC documentary on the Flores skeleton on Google Video

Posted February 18, 2007 by jomodo
Categories: Uncategorized

Watch the documentary here…

Origins Revisited on BBC radio

Posted February 12, 2007 by jomodo
Categories: Uncategorized

Listen to some of the world greatest paleoathropologists discuss their most recent discoveries. The past few years has seem some spectacular finds refining our knowledge of human evolution. Listen to the programmes here…

Our Mimetic Mind – Mirror-neurons and Theory of Other Minds

Posted November 27, 2006 by jomodo
Categories: Uncategorized

In his book Origins of the Modern Mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition (Harvard, 1991) Merlin Donald proposed that there was a distinct stage in the development of human communication marking our entrance into the symbolic world. This stage he called Mimetic Culture: 

Mimetic culture: The watershed adaptation allowing humans to function as symbolic and cultural beings was a revolutionary improvement in motor control, the “mimetic skill” required to rehearse and refine the body’s movements in a voluntary and systematic way, to remember those rehearsals, and to reproduce them on command. Following this development, Homo erectus assimilated and reconceptualized events to create various prelinguistic symbolic traditions such as rituals, dance, and craft. – from to Wikipedia

In light of the recent discovery and description of the mirror-neuron system the existence of mimetic abilities could be explained as something even deeper than the physical rehearsal of movements as Donald proposed but as the virtual rehearsal of movements.

A mirror neuron is a neuron which fires both when an animal performs an action and when the animal observes the same action performed by another (especially conspecific) animal. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of another animal, as though the observer were himself performing the action. These neurons have been observed in primates, in some birds, and in humans. In humans, they have been found in Broca’s area and the inferior parietal cortex of the brain. – from Wikipedia

It seems that Mirror neurons are the neurological mechanism underlying our ability to make representations – it is our memetic organ. I believe that this ability had to be in place before our ability to aquire and use languages could evolve. Human languages are particularly suited for telling stories. One do not need grammatical language to give warnings or even to communicate your intentions. Grammatical language is, i believe, first and foremost a means of externally representing (relating) other states than the here and now – to tell stories. It is also important to note that one do not need grammatical language to ‘tell’ stories. Stories can also be communicated through other mediums like mime, dance, and more recently also by moving pictures. This narrative ability seems to be made possible by the existance of mirror-neurons.

To want to relate a story a person must first of all have a theory-of-mind. This is the realisation that other people’s minds are filled with different knowledge and experiences than that of my own. Only then does the motivation to tell somebody else about something they might not know or to ask somebody else about something i do not know come into existence.

Recent research is suggesting that our ability to imagine other’s mental states and intentions is made possible by the existence of a mirror-neoron system within a network of neural regions that comprise the ‘social brain’: the orbito-frontal cortex (OFC), superior temporal gyrus (STG) and amygdala.

The human brain is endowed with structures that are active both during the first- and third-person experience of actions and emotions. When we witness someone else’s action, we activate a network of parietal and premotor areas that is also active while we perform similar actions. When we witness the disgusted facial expressions of someone else, we activate that part of our insula that is also active when we experience disgust. Thus, the understanding of basic aspects of social cognition depends on activation of neural structures normally involved in our own personally experienced actions or emotions. By means of this activation, a bridge is created between others and ourselves.  […]Social cognition is not only thinking about the contents of someone else’s mind (see, [21,63]). Our brains, and those of other primates, appear to have developed a basic functional mechanism, a mirror mechanism, which gives us an experiential insight into other minds. This mechanism could provide the first unifying perspective of the neural basis of social cognition.

 from the seminal paper – A unifying view of the basis of social cognition – by Vittorio Gallese, Christian Keysers, and Giacomo Rizzolatti

We humans  have the ability to emphatise with other beings’ experiences because we have the ability to simulate, re-live or mirror their experiences in our own brains. Simply put: When seeing somebody else’s pain – pain neurons within our own brain is mirrored. Because of this ability to put ourselves into somebody else’s shoes we can inver the other persons’ intentions.

Article in progress…

Some further reading:

MIRROR NEURONS and imitation learning as the driving force behind “the great leap forward” in human evolution – By V.S. Ramachandran

PBS Television ande radio programmes on mirror neurons

Broken Mirrors: A Theory of Autism – By Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Lindsay M. Oberman In Scientific American

Telling stories

Posted October 5, 2006 by jomodo
Categories: Information theory, Linguistics, Philosophy, Pragmatics, Semiotics

kabbo“(After walking) I must first sit a little, cooling my arms; that the fatigue may go out of them, because I sit. I merely listen, watching for a story, which I want to hear; while I sit waiting for it; that it may float into my ear. These are those to which I am listening with all my ears. While I feel that, I sit silent. I must wait listening behind me, while I listen along the road; while I feel that my name floats along the road; they (my three names) float along to my place. I will go to sit at it; that I may listening turn backwards (with my ears) to my feet’s heels, on which I went; while I feel that a story is the wind.”


– //Kabbo a /Xam shaman as recorded by Lucy Catherine Lloyd and Wilhelm Heinrich Immanuel Bleek

In Studying the descent of modern human languages we should not loose sight of the uses of language and communication.  Is there, for instance, things that can only be done with grammatical language and not with more primitive forms of communication?


A good example of such an argument is that of Robin Dunbar that hominid vocalisation evolved to facilitate social grooming. Now we primates can reassure each other from a distance. So what kind of things can we accomplish with language that cannot be done with other means or is significantly enhanced with the use of language?


I propose that the main advantage that language provides above other communication systems is that of re-presentation. Evoking other states than that of deictic immediacy – telling stories.  A monkey ‘telling’ his friends that there is a eagle in the sky is not telling  his friends about eagle flying by, it is warning his friends about the eagle. Even if the monkey is lying about there being an eagle in the sky with the intension of getting his friends away from his food he is not giving false information he is making a false warning. The monkey is not trying to deceive his friends he is trying to get his friends away from his food.


Our ability to tell stories does not seem to be dependent on language nor the other way round. It seems rather to be a relatively independent ability that has more to do with our ability to imagine other states and other minds. It seems to be an independent ability because stories can be told with other means than spoken language. Silent movies being a case in point. Having said this, there do seem to be an intimate relation between language development and the emergence of this imaginative ability but i believe this is not neccessarity a causal or structural relationship. It might be that our ability to imagine other states and minds provided the impetus (the reason) for developing sophisticated languages.

Solipsism and Other Minds – The Red King’s Dream

Posted September 13, 2006 by jomodo
Categories: General, Information theory, Linguistics, Pragmatics, Semiotics


`He’s dreaming now,’ said Tweedledee: `and what do you think he’s dreaming about?’
Alice said `Nobody can guess that.’
`Why, about you!’ Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. `And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you’d be?’
`Where I am now, of course,’ said Alice.
`Not you!’ Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. `You’d be nowhere. Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!’
`If that there King was to wake,’ added Tweedledum, `you’d go out– bang!–just like a candle!’
`I shouldn’t!’ Alice exclaimed indignantly. `Besides, if I’m only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?’
`Ditto,’ said Tweedledum.
`Ditto, ditto!’ cried Tweedledee.
He shouted this so loud that Alice couldn’t help saying `Hush! You’ll be waking him, I’m afraid, if you make so much noise.’
`Well, it’s no use your talking about waking him,’ said Tweedledum, `when you’re only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you’re not real.’
`I am real!’ said Alice, and began to cry.
`You won’t make yourself a bit realer by crying,’ Tweedledee remarked: `there’s nothing to cry about.’
`If I wasn’t real,’ Alice said–half laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous–`I shouldn’t be able to cry.’
`I hope you don’t suppose those are real tears?’ Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.

– from Alice through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll – Chapter 4 – Tweedledum and Tweedledee

In short solipsism is the belief that I am all there is. That everything is but a figment of my own imagination. Even though this it is certainly possible to have such a belief especially in cases of extreme isolation (see solipsism syndrome) few of us seriously believe that this can be true. This is because our world/dream are populated by other beings like myself who can very well also be having similar all-encompassing dreams. I would then just be a character in someone else’s dream. In this way the possibility of solipsism is negated in our everyday experience.

The problem of how we can know of the existence of other minds has kept the philosophers busy for centuries. The problem was first stated by Descartes (Cogito ergo sum) and further elucidated by Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein initially believed that solipsism is the necessary conclusion of philosophy. In short his argument was that my knowledge of the world is limited by my language. I cannot know anything outside of my language. Later Wittgenstein made an about turn on this position when he realized that all language is public and that there is no such thing as private language. These counterintuitive difficulties of philosophy (paradoxes and solipsism) is created in the false belief that language can exists as an entity without context and without users. Language seems to get a life of it’s own when it is written down but this is illusionary as all language needs speakers (writers) and listeners (readers) for it to become more than just doodles or echolalia.

There are also some other ways to refute or at least circumvent solipsism:

1 – Kill the solipsist. Unfortunately the solipsist himself might not be convinced by this method 🙂

2 – One can imagine the existence of a truthful god who is beyond one’s own dream. This was Descartes’ way out. In this way we become characters within the Lord Vishnu’s cosmic dream, that is the shared world of Maya/illusion/phenomena. At least here we all live within the same dream and do not have to worry if other people live in totally different and incommensurable universes.

The notion of this universe, its heavens, hells, Mother Earth and everything within it, as a great dream dreamed by a single being in which all the dream characters are dreaming too, has in India enchanted and shaped the entire civilization. – Joseph Campbell

3 – So what if everything is just part of your (and my) cosmic dream?! What difference does it make? We still experience pain and suffering whether we are being dreamt or not. In this way one can see that solipsism is non-sensical, i.e. devoid of meaning because it makes no difference to my (and I presume also your) life. It is similar to the idea of an eternal return in which I will someday far in the future again sit here and again write these exact words as I have done an infinity of times before. Of this idea also I can only say – so what?! If there is no difference between my incarnations it is of no consequence. It is not as if I can remember a previous cycle and try and do things better this time round.

4 – Ultimately I believe that solipsism is refuted by the possible existence of other (cosmic dreaming) minds within my own dream universe.

This refutation was (I believe) first stated by Heinz von Foerster with his analogy of the man with the bowler hat:

He [the solipsist] insists that he is the sole reality, while everything else appears only in his imagination. How ever, he cannot deny that his imaginary universe is populated with apparitions that are not unlike himself. Hence, he has to concede that they themselves may insist that they are the sole reality and everything else is only a concoction of their imagination. In that case their imaginary universe will be populated with apparitions, one of which may be he, the gentleman with the bowler hat.
According to the Principle of Relativity which rejects a hypothesis when it does not hold for two instances together, although it holds for each instance separately (Earthlings and Venusians may be consistent in claiming to be in the center of the universe, but their claims fall to pieces if they should, ever get together), the solipsistic claim falls to pieces when besides me I invent another autonomous organism. However, it should be noted that since the Principle of Relativity is not a logical necessity, nor is it a proposition that can be proven to be either true or false, the crucial point to be recognized here is that I am free to choose either to adopt this principle or to reject it. If I reject it, I am the center of the universe, my reality are my dreams and my nightmares, my language is monologue, and my logic mono-logic. If I adopt it, neither me nor the other can be the center of the universe. As in the heliocentric system, there must be a third that is the central reference. It is the relation between Thou and I, and this relation is IDENTITY: Reality = Community
– Heinz Von Foerster, “On Constructing to Reality”, in W.F.E. Praiser (ed.), Environmental Design Research, Volume 2, Dowden, Hutchinson and Rose, 1973, pp. 44-45.) – Article online here…

Evolution continued..

Posted August 16, 2006 by jomodo
Categories: General

We certainly live in precarious times. We are creating our own calamities at a furious rate and it is obvious things gotta change – we have to keep on evolving! I believe that just as we have all the resources to have a massively negative impact on the world so we have the resources to create a massively positive effect.


Some of the best efforts in extending our life here on earth is the Long Now Foundation. One of their projects is to build a monumental 10,000 year clock – serving as a symbol to making a long future for ourselves and encourage long term thinking.


Visionary symbols can certainly provide a reminder to humanity that we must start thinking in the same long terms as the old Pharoes who’s message of a long future is still legible after nearly 5 millenia.

BBC ‘interviews’ Kanzi and Sue Savage Rumbaugh

Posted August 3, 2006 by jomodo
Categories: Great Apes

Just a very sweet interview with our cousins the bonobos!

 Listen here… 

Strandlopers and river apes

Posted July 18, 2006 by jomodo
Categories: Paleoanthropology


It is interesting that so many of the oldest sites of modern human remains is coastal, for instance; Klaasies River Mouth (Tsitsikamma Coast – South Africa), Border Cave (Indian Ocean Coast – South Africa), Omo I & II (ancient Omo River delta where it once entered Lake Turkana – Ethiopia).

The idea that humans evolved in close proximity to water has been dubbed the ‘Aquatic Ape Theory’. Even though this theory might be over-stating the case I believe it should not be ignored out of hand. The evidence of early shell middens (Klaasies River & Hoedjiespunt – 40 000-120 000 bp) associated with the earliest of humans proves that (at least some) humans lived from the bounty of the oceans and lakes. Interesting also is that the oldest evidence of human beautification is that of sea-shell beads.

One can imagine a scenario of bands of people living very much like the ‘strandlopers’ (trans. ‘beachwalkers’ – a people that have been living along the Cape coast when the first european explorers arrived in the 17th century) that getting the best of both worlds – terrestrial and aquatic.

Unfortunately coastal areas does not get preserved well through the ages. Still there is quite a bit if evidence that human had a maritime lifestyle going back for at least 10,000 years according to Professor Jon Erlandson. According to him the maritime capabilities of ancient humans have been greatly underestimated. See this article on BBC on coastal humans.

There is some interesting correlations between adaptations for an amphibious lifestyle and speaking in languages:

  • Fine control over our breathing – It might be possible that our fine breathing control could initially have evolved to allow us to dive under water rather than for vocalisation. There is indication that this fine control evolved with later homo Erectus. The practice of Pranayama whereby higher states of consciousness is achieved through breathing exercises might very well have an evolutionary dimension in the origin of religious experience.

  • The easy life – The richness of marine food sources could have implied an easing up of the ‘struggle’ for survival. Living in superabundance would free up a lot of time for making music, dancing, singing AND telling stories. Having free time to experiment with life must have been a very powerful impetus for cultural evolution. Of course marine diet is not the only explanation for a state of superabundance.

BUT there is another explanation for most of the features attributed to us being amphibious; and that is that our immature form took evolutionary precedence – neotony. The classic example of neotony is that of the Axolotl: a salamander who’s aquatic larval form became the evolutionary successfull form without the individuals ever metamorphosising into a into a terrestrial adult form. In my mind one should consider both these explanations. This kind of neotony also occurs with domesticated animals where a domestic dog is none other than a neotony of a wolf. In this sense we humans are nothing but domesticated apes. (I say this tongue-in-cheek as we probably selected for cuteness in breeding our domestic animals).