1.30.2004

What Science Can Do For You!

The January 16, 2004 issue of Science had some amazing articles. It also featured a book review by none other than Rudy Rucker (who declared David Foster Wallace’s new work, Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞, “a train wreck of a book”). Marc Lavine describes Mark E. Eberhart’s Why Things Break: Understanding the Way It Comes Apart in such a way as to make a book of Materials Science (told in a biographical manner) appealing to anyone, especially its “getting society to recognize the compromises among safety, reliability, cost and the need for all objects to fail at some stage in their lifetime.”

These are not the article I wanted to talk about.

David Premack asks “Is Language the Key to Human Intelligence?” Drawing off a number off articles--some of which is original research found within that issue, some of which was his own--he makes a strong case.

Humans, he says, have six symbolic code systems: genetic, spoken, written, numeric, musical notations, and choreography (the first two have evolved, the latter four were created).

Recursive language, which he describes as layers of words that can be understood despite being far apart as in the "If/then" statement where one set of words depend on another set. Monkeys cannot learn recursive language, which he says explains why that kind of language has not evolved for them.

Chimpanzees do not call to get attention but pound on resonant surfaces or, if separated from another, look silently until they spot that other and rush toward him. Vocalizations are, therefore, reflexive in its usage--as are their facial expressions. He mentions that chimps could conceivably, to create a language, pound on resonant surfaces or use rocks (a scenario which echoes how the men of science communicate in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels--but this leaves a similar problem).

While many species can copy objects, few can copy motor functions as human infants can--except chimps (although they do require training). However, that training won’t come from the chimp’s Mama since she does not teach, correct mistakes, or even look at what her children are learning. What takes a human days or weeks to learn can take a chimp ten years.

Chimpanzees can do analogies of perception (two different sized objects look similar in shape) and function (two actions perform similar functions). They can also call up the name of an object, which is similar to what humans do by talking about things not present. Chimps are limited to a few hundred words. Moreover, their words experienced sensorily, incapable of using analogies to make words.

Most animals are limited in flexible intelligence such as bees that dance, nuthatches that locate hundreds of caches of acorns, and beavers that build dams. You can’t mix and match these abilities as they have evolved as adaptive survival mechanisms. But humans are more flexible.

Flexibility manifests in other areas: While those half-wit baboons sit regally, chimps can lie down in various postures. The analogy to humanity is clear: if you want to be smart, slouch. Forget what your Mama taught you.

Chimps can imagine known actions or objects to solve problems, but they cannot recombine imaginary objects and actions it has not observed which humans can do. When chimps play, they translate it into technology: the childhood game of sticking straws in holes is useful for retrieving termites from their mounds. Baboons cannot learn this trait despite watching chimps perform it. They come in after the chimps leave and scrape up the leftover termites. This may be analogous to human experiments: by playing, we learn new attributes of, say, fiction. Hence, the importance of experiment in fiction is clear.

The last and most crucial point [from The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, pg 758-60] is that emotional expression uses the right hemisphere, but linguistic expression uses the left. This means that, setting aside emotional nuances, linguistic acts are governed by the logical half of the brain. In other words, we should feel free to use reason while uncovering the structure and purpose of language.

This would lead one to wonder why literary theorists don’t use science more to understand what they are attempting to describe. Although much has been uncovered intuitively and reasonably in the Greek sense, by ignoring science, literary theory may be lagging behind other human pursuits.

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