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International Workshops

Past International Workshops

Workshop 1: The Boundaries of Humanity: April 29-May 1, 2016

The first international workshop on "The Boundaries of Humanity" brought together academics and experts across disciplines and institutions to discuss central themes of the project. Summaries of the six major sessions, guest speaker bios, and related readings are listed below.


 

Session #1: "The genetic contribution of archaic humans to modern populations" 

Speaker Bio:

  • Fernando Mendez is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Bustamante Lab at Stanford University. His major interests are theoretical, statistical and methodological aspects of population genetics, especially as applied to humans. His main topic of interest is population admixture, with particular interest in archaic admixture and adaptation following admixture. He is also interested in the effects of natural selection in assessments of global genetic variation.

Synopsis:

  • Our understanding of the relationship among ancient human populations has changed in recent years based on new genetic evidence of the persistence of archaic genetic variation in modern humans. This variation was present only in human lineages that were previously thought to have gone extinct without contributing to the gene pool of modern humans.
  • ‪We now have the ability to study the DNA present in ancient fossil remains, including those coming from populations that no longer exist, like Neanderthals and Denisovans. Neanderthals made a genetic contribution to all non-African populations. Part of that contribution also arrived indirectly to Africa due to back-migration of modern human populations. In turn, the genetic contribution of Denisova-like humans is currently observed in populations in Asia, and especially in populations from Australia and Melanesia.

  • ‪For admixed populations, including those of modern humans receiving archaic variants from archaic humans, we can estimate the time since the admixture event by examining the length distribution for chromosomal tracts of different ancestries. Due to crossover events that accumulate over time, tracts get progressively shorter as generations pass.

  • ‪These findings broadly inform our understanding of who we are as a species: our ancestors have experienced several events of admixture, including some involving diverse populations, some of which are now extinct. We used to think that our origins were simple, but the general picture is more nuanced, and we are still learning the biological impact of our archaic genetic heritage.

Recommended reading:

  • Sankararaman, S. et al. (2014). The genomic landscape of Neanderthal ancestry in present-day humans. Nature 507: 354-357. 

Session #2: “The concept of homology and its meaning in the human-animal relationship” |  Philip Sloan 

Speaker Bio:

  • Phillip Sloan is Professor Emeritus in the Program of Liberal Studies and Graduate Program in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Notre Dame. In the Program he taught regularly in the Seminars, the Natural Science sequence, and the Intellectual History tutorials. Originally trained in biology and biological oceanography, with a specialization in evolutionary biology, he received his doctorate in philosophy, with a specialization in the history and philosophy of science. His research area is the history and philosophy of the life sciences in the modern period with publications on several aspects of the life sciences.

  • His research and writing have been on the history of evolutionary theory, Enlightenment natural history, and intellectual history. His most recent work has been focused on the history and philosophy of genetics and molecular biology. Professor Sloan is a Fellow and past President of Section L of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and he has been closely involved in the Notre Dame Initiative on Adult Stem Cell research. He is the coeditor of and contributor to Creating a Biophysics of Life: The Three-Man Paper and Early Molecular Biology (2012); Controlling Our Destinies: Philosophical, Historical and Ethical Perspectives on the Human Genome Project (2000); and Darwin and the Twenty-First Century: Nature, Humanity, and God (in press, University of Notre Dame Press, exp. 2015). His current book project, Mastering Life: The Molecular Revolution in Biology, focuses on the conception of life in recent biology and its bioethical implications.

​​​Synopsis

  • A more thorough synopsis is available here.

  • The concept of “homology” is central to the human-animal horizon as seen from perspectives in evolutionary biology, primatology, evolutionary psychology, and physical anthropology.

  • Historically, the concept emerged to describe underlying unity of forms by Etienne-Geoffroy St. Hilaire (1772-1844), but was criticized by Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) who argued for the integrity of organic form and the impossibility of genuine connection of forms.

  • Richard Owen (a comparative anatomist who lived from 1804 to 1892) first made the distinction between “analogy” and “homology,” and these terms were re-interpreted by Charles Darwin in his theories where he took Owen’s concept of the archetype as a literal historical ancestor of derivative groups whose genealogical connections could be explored through anatomical homologies.

  • Darwin extended the concept of homology to non-anatomical “interior” properties of animals and even humans, emphasizing the human-animal commonality.

  • Sloan advanced this historical consideration of homology and the human-animal horizon, arguing that the entry of the genus Homo into its new, actively-constructed niche (constituted in major part by the implications of obligate bipedalism for culture, language, tool manufacture, art, religion, and self-reflection) renders the use of the concept of “inner” homologies questionable.   

  • Darwinian evolutionary history was seen as a necessary, but not sufficient, explanation of the emergence of the human phenomenon.

Recommended reading:

  • Sloan, P.R. (2016). Drilling Down on Homologies: How Far Does Evolutionary Relationship Explain the Human-Animal Horizon? Unpublished manuscript. 

  • Bohr, N. (1966). Light and life. In Blackburn, R.T. (ed) Interrelations: the biological and physical sciences. 

  • Sloan, P.R. (2012). How was teleology eliminated in early molecular biology? Studies in history and philosophy of biological and biomedical sciences. 43. 140-151. 


Session #3: “Given intelligence is convergent then why are humans unique?” | Simon Conway Morris

Speaker Bio:

  • Simon Conway Morris is Professor of Paleobiology in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge.  His focus of research concerns the study of the constraints on evolution, and the historical processes that lead to the emergence of complexity, especially with respect to the construction of the major animal body plans in the Cambrian explosion. His work is central to palaeobiology, but is also of great interest to biologists and bioastronomers, as well as the wider community.

  • Arising from his interest in the Cambrian explosion, he wrote the book “Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), on the broad topic of evolutionary convergence, emphasizing the parallel evolution of sensory systems (e.g. vision, olfaction, echolocation), and also intelligence, especially in the primates and cetaceans. This book has made a considerable impact, as it throws severe doubt on a number of fashionable presuppositions in evolution.

Synopsis:

  • Evolution happens.

  • Received wisdom is that evolutionary outcomes are unpredictable and one can imagine counterfactuals of apparently equal plausibility.

  • Convergent evolution suggests otherwise, at least locally.

  • This applies to cognitive landscapes and amongst corvids and apes a striking degree of convergence in sophisticated mentalities.

  • Neanderthals also show convergence with humans in terms of self-expression/symbolic realization (alternatives such as imitation/trading are less likely).

  • All other animals approach but do not achieve what humans identify as Theory of Mind, analogical reasoning etc, and in a number of ways (e.g. hyper-sociality, mimicry, additive technology, religion) humans are patently unique. Why?

  • One approach to this question is numerosity, a feature found in many animals. Extrapolation of numerosity (which is a sensory process that follows the psychophysical Weber-Fechner law) to mathematics is regarded as invalid, and the same arguments may apply to music and language. All are interrelated, but  in their own ways are indicative of abstract realities that are independent of evolution, albeit accessed by evolutionary products like you and me.

  • The implication is that the universe is not entirely material and humans are unique in knowing this.

Recommended readings:


Session 4: “Fishing for the genomic secrets of human evolution" | David Kingsley

Speaker Bio:

  • David Kingsley is Professor of Developmental Biology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  He is passionate about vertebrates. He is fascinated about how nature can take cartilage and bone and mold it into the different sizes and shapes seen in both living and fossil animals.

  • “How do you take the same tissue type and exquisitely control its formation, growth, and patterning to produce useful structures that allow animals to hop, swim, fly, or walk upright, as in humans?” Kingsley asks. To satisfy his driving curiosity, for more than two decades Kingsley has been studying the genetic mechanisms controlling vertebrate skeletal formation and evolution. In that time, he identified key genes controlling bone and joint formation in mice; uncovered molecular mechanisms for major evolutionary changes in stickleback fish; and showed that similar mechanisms are used repeatedly when similar traits evolve in very different animals, including humans.

Synopsis:

  • How do new traits evolve in nature? Can we find particular genes and mutations that underlie the dramatic differences in morphology, physiology, and the nervous system that have evolved in ourselves and other organisms?  Are evolutionary mechanisms predictable, or are there many different ways of evolving new traits?  For many years the answers to such questions were largely unknown. However, new methods are revolutionizing our ability to find and verify the genetic and genomic basis of evolutionary differences in natural species.  

  • Dr. Kingsley summarized results from genetic crosses, genome-wide sequencing analysis, and animal model studies that have revealed how dramatic morphological changes have evolved in fish and human populations through regulatory changes in key developmental control genes. Interestingly, the same mechanisms tend to be used repeatedly when similar traits evolve in many different vertebrates, now making it possible to study one of the most fascinating biological problems of all: what is the molecular basis of becoming human?

Recommended readings:

  • Kingsley, D. (2010) "Genetics, geology, and miracles." In P.R. Grant, B.R. Grant, eds. In search of the causes of evolution. From Field Observations to Mechanisms. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ. 

  • L.F. Franchini, K.S. Pollard (2015). "Genomic approaches to studying human-specific developmental traits." Development, 142: 3100-3112. 


Session #5: “Representations and Misrepresentations of Human Embryo Manipulation Strategies: Insights from Evolutionary Developmental Biology" | Stuart Newman

Speaker Bio:

  • Stuart Newman is Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy at New York Medical College.  The research interests of the Newman laboratory center around three main program areas: cellular and molecular mechanisms of vertebrate limb development, physical mechanisms of morphogenesis, and evolution of developmental mechanisms. Other areas of interest include protein structure-function relationships and the social and cultural aspects of biological research and technology.  He is co-editor, with Gerd B. Müller, of Origination of Organismal Form: Beyond the Gene in Developmental and Evolutionary Biology (MIT Press, 2003), with Santiago Schnell, Philip Maini and Timothy Newman of Multiscale Modeling of Developmental Systems (Elsevier, 2007)), with Karl J. Niklas of Multicellularity: Origins and Evolution (MIT Press, 2016), and co-author, with Gabor Forgacs, of Biological Physics of the Developing Embryo (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Synopsis:

  • According to the reigning paradigm, biological identity is uniquely associated with genomic content. New results from evolutionary developmental biology, however, have called this view into question. While the origination of the animal body plans in the late Precambrian-early Cambrian periods (beginning ~600 million years ago), and their characteristic morphological motifs (multiple tissue layers, body cavities, segments, appendages, and so forth), were indeed associated with new genes and newly recruited functions of ancient genes, the formative mechanisms also included condition-dependent physical processes of meso (middle)-scale materials.

  • This introduced an inherent plasticity into embryonic development, allowing genetic circuitry to become rewired over the course of evolution despite the general conservation of morphology and physiology in genealogically related organisms. This has led to a disconnection between phenotype and the details of the genotype such that different classes and species within a given phylum, and even different individuals within a given species, differ with respect to the genes they employ to accomplish the same tasks.  This further implies that the specificity of humans among the primates, and of individuality among humans, cannot be reduced to genetic differences. Moreover, the notion that organisms can be rationally redesigned by engineering of their genomes as if they were machines is made untenable by these considerations.  

Recommended readings:

  • Newman, S. (2014). Deceptive Labeling of a Radical Embryo Construction Technique. Huffington Post Online. 

  • Knoepfler, P. (2016). New chat with George Church on CRISPR’ing people, Zika, weapons, & more. The Niche: Knoepfler lab stem cell blog. 


Session #6: "Major transitions in the evolution of mind: From sentience to symbols" | Terrence Deacon

Speaker Bio:

  • Terrence Deacon is Professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. His interests center on brain development and evolution, origins of language, biocultural evolution, and emergence.  His research has combined human evolutionary biology and neuroscience, with the aim of investigating the evolution of human cognition. His work extends from laboratory-based cellular-molecular neurobiology to the study of semiotic processes underlying animal and human communication, especially language. Many of these interests are explored in his 1997 book, The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of Language and the Brain.

  • His neurobiological research is focused on determining the nature of the human divergence from typical primate brain anatomy, the cellular-molecular mechanisms producing this difference, and the correlations between these anatomical differences and special human cognitive abilities, particularly language. In pursuit of these questions he has used a variety of laboratory approaches including the tracing of axonal connections, quantitative analysis of regions of different species brains, and cross-species fetal neural transplantation. The goal is to identify elements of the developmental genetic mechanisms that distinguish human brains from other ape brains to aid the study of the cognitive consequences of human brain evolution.  

  • His theoretical interests include the study of evolution-like processes at many levels, including their role in embryonic development, neural signal processing, language change, and social processes, and how these different processes interact and depend on each other. Currently, his theoretical interests have focused on the problem of explaining emergent phenomena, such as characterizing such apparently unprecedented transitions as the origin of life, the evolution of language, and the generation of conscious experience by brains. This is fueled by a career-long interest in the ideas of the late 19th-century American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce and his theory of semiosis. His new book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, explores the relationship between thermodynamic, self-organizing, evolutionary and semiotic processes and provides a new technical conception of information that explains both its representational and normative properties.

Synopsis:

  • Both Baldwin’s and Waddington’s ideas contribute additional insights to our understanding of how selection shapes phenotypes.

  • The phenotypic landscape can be differentially exposed to selection pressures. Sometimes changing conditions expose phenotypic traits to new selection pressures (Waddington), and sometimes relaxed selection (e.g. due to behavioral flexibility) can free traits from selection allowing them to drift (Baldwin).

  • Relaxation processes are exemplified in molecular biology by the effects of gene duplication allowing one version to drift while a backup copy maintains its basic, central function. This can involve protein-coding genes (which brought us multiple versions of hemoglobin, ) or regulatory genes (we.g. Hox genes that control body segment development).  

  • In both cases this results in a general evolutionary sequence of duplication → redundancy → degradation → complementation often resulting in novel synergistic interactions between copies.

  • This logic of duplication and differentiation also extends to body structures because regulatory gene duplication (e.g. Hox genes) can result in body structure duplication. As a result multiple, redundant body parts (e.g. appendages) can evolve with respect to each other to produce synergistic variations on a structural theme. Thus legs, claws, mouthparts, and antennae can be differentiated from the same structural plan to complement each others’ function.

  • The same mechanism also works within a species among groups of individuals in colonial organisms like termites where they can duplicate each other’s functions, cooperate, and generate selection to become complementary in function to each other.

  • A related effect can be produced by functional duplication from outside the organism. For example the loss of the ability for higher primates (including humans) to endogenously synthesize vitamin C evolved as a consequence of regular consumption of fruit by the ancestors of primates. The result of duplicating this function, previously provided by a gene (GULO), allowed the gene to become non-functional thereby making us dependent on dietary vitamin C.

  • The resulting vitamin C dependency initiated the evolution of other traits that helped guarantee reliable fruit ingestion (e.g. gene duplication producing 3-color vision for detection of fruit ripeness),

  • In a related case, 250 years of domestication of a songbird called the White Rump Munia relaxed selection affecting its innately specified song (which was critical for mate attraction and territory defense in the wild). But song specificity was irrelevant to the reproduction of its domesticated descendant, the Bengalese Finch. As a consequence there was loss of innate constraint on song structure. As a result social transmission of song became more important and singing came to involve more brain structures.

  • Analogous processes may have influenced human language evolution, causing innate cognitive biases to degrade leading to a greater role for social transmission and the recruitment of widespread brain systems to synergistically support language functions.

  • Greater cognitive and behavioral flexibility was a likely side effect that contributed to complex mnemonic and novel emotional capacities.

     


Workshop 2: Language, Information, and Intelligence: April 20-22, 2017 

Workshop 2: Boundaries of Humanity Spring Workshop: April 20-April 22, 2017

The second international workshop on "The Boundaries of Humanity" brought together academics and experts across disciplines and institutions to discuss the theme of language, information, and intelligence. Summaries of the seven major sessions, guest speaker bios, and related readings are listed below.


 

Session #1: "When humans are no longer the smartest things on the planet" | Trevor Blackwell

Speaker Bio:

  • Trevor Blackwell PhD, is a computer programmer, engineer, and entrepreneur based in Silicon Valley. As a graduate student at Harvard, he worked on randomized network protocols and randomized compiler optimization and published the proceedings of ACM SIGCOMM, IEEE Infocom, and Usenix. Since then, he founded Umbrella Research in 2001, which developed the Anybots brand of telepresence robots, now operating as a separate company, and Dexter, a human-sized two-legged walking robot. He is now a partner in Y Combinator, a new kind of venture firm specializing in early stage startups.

Synopsis:

  • Assuming that machines will one day be able to perform many of the tasks that currently require human intelligence, what will the world be like when hundreds of machines of this nature (equally if not more intelligent than most humans across most domains of interest) become readily available to anybody with a few thousand dollars?
  • This talk imagines such a world, and considers potential benefits and risks, particularly risks around the concentration of too much power among a single entity and certain mis-use cases (building weapons and  launching cyberattacks).  Human value and moral consideration will be necessary to direct machines in an ethical manner.
  • On machine consciousness, if it’s even possible: it’s not obvious why creating more consciousness is a good thing. Indeed, it may be a very bad thing; if we create conscious computers, we need to worry about whether we are treating them well and it’s probably better not to do that. It’s also not clear there is an immediate practical use for simulating feelings, though we may discover a variety of interesting uses (e.g. test subjects with psychology research).  Whether machines ever could be conscious was a matter of much debate, with some arguing that a nervous system that generates feelings is essential for consciousness.
  • Discussion also centered around various types of intelligence.  Some conclusions included: (1) there are many types of intelligence, and machines are likely to be incapable of certain forms (social intelligences in particular) at least for a very long time and (2) people tend to underestimate the extent to which their particular form of human intelligence is immune to simulation in machines.

Session #2: “Human Symbolic Nature” |  Terrence Deacon 

Speaker Bio:

  • Terrence Deacon, PhD, is Professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. His interests center on brain development and evolution, origins of language, biocultural evolution, and emergence.  His research has combined human evolutionary biology and neuroscience, with the aim of investigating the evolution of human cognition. His work extends from laboratory-based cellular-molecular neurobiology to the study of semiotic processes underlying animal and human communication, especially language. Many of these interests are explored in his 1997 book, The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of Language and the Brain.  His new book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, explores the relationship between thermodynamic, self-organizing, evolutionary and semiotic processes and provides a new technical conception of information that explains both its representational and normative properties.

​​​Synopsis

  • The human brain lacks any novel structures: everything is homologous to brain structures in other animals. They are bigger and are quantitatively restructured in a modest way.
  • The modern concept of information has been stripped of its reference to significance, meaning, and value. Instead, it has been made to refer only to signal properties and their analysis.  Modern information theory focuses on the meaning in syntax (the manipulation of symbols) instead of the meaning of the symbols themselves. Thinking in these terms makes us miss a big part of the story of how human cognition works.
  • Humans accomplish the non-trivial task of transfer learning or analogical reasoning (which is difficult for animals) to make sense of language and symbols that are ungrounded from their referents.
  • Once human communication (and thus human cognition) advanced from iconic to indexical to full symbolic referential forms, language (or language-like) behavior became critical to hominid life. From that point forward, hominid brains had to adapt to this niche that they themselves created.
  • From our linguistic niche, language has shaped many unique features of our humanity: 1) a new synergistic form of memory that links procedural and episodic memory with language (articulation and syntax are procedural while semantics are episodic) to give us narrative, 2) human symbolic “savant” syndrome in which humans compulsively expect to interpret phenomena symbolically (leading to the ubiquity of the bilayered world phenomena, having implications for religion and our interpretation of coincidence), and 3) uniquely human emotions such as awe, nostalgia, righteous indignation, aesthetic appreciation, humor, irony, eureka, etc. which draw on the combinatorial freedom of symbol tokens (which reduce the salience and intensity of their emotional correlates).

Session #3: “Humanity, Animality, Communality, and Humanism” | John Haldane

Speaker Bio:​

  • John Haldane, PhD, is the J. Newton Rayzor Sr Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, and Professor of Moral Philosophy and Senior Fellow of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs, University of St Andrews – also Chair of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, London. His primary philosophical interests concern 1. Central issues in philosophy of mind, 2. The history of philosophy, 3. Theoretical and normative issues in social and political philosophy, ethics, and aesthetics, and 4. Artistic, educational, and theological issues. Haldane has been a prolific contributor to public discourse on philosophical issues, including television programs such as The Heart of the Matter: God Under the Microscope, Newsnight, and Twenty Four Hours on the BBC. He has also produced work for ITV and PBS. In addition to his former position as a regularly contributing columnist, Haldane has offered opinions and contributed articles to periodicals including The Times, Daily Telegraph, The Scotsman, New Statesman, The Herald, Sunday Herald, Mail on Sunday, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Contemporary Review and Economist Information Strategy.

Synopsis:

  • What differentiates humans and nonhuman animals?
    • We can understand the content of an animal’s experience by observing how it reacts to changes in its environment.
    • Whether animals think requires disambiguating two senses of the word “think:”  1. Images are imagined by an imaginer, or having mental experiences of things not immediately present or 2. A stricter sense, where thought objects are intelligible structures stateable as propositions. Humans think in both senses of the word.  Indeed, humans are capable of directing their thought toward natures as such through abstract reflection.  There is no evidence that animals are capable of such a feat though we can attribute to them percepts: sense capacities to discriminate objects based on their empirical characteristics.
    • Concepts, of which humans are capable, distinguish objects independently of their appearance, depending on their nature or properties. (Considered were concepts such as renate and cordate or trilateral and triangle).
    • Humans can also do conceptual reflexivity where we direct our cognition to concepts themselves: thinking about what it means for something to be a particular concept.
  • Is it a difference of kind or degree?
    • It’s a difference of kind: percepts only apply to sense experience while concepts do not require a spatio-temporal connection to their content and are concerned with natures.  Intellectual activities are uniquely human and apply to intelligibles – abstract natures – while sense activities relate to sensibles – empirical features.
    • Mental representation: is an adequate reductionist account possible? Dennett and others have attempted to dispatch with the regressive homunculus problem, but his approach gives intentionality to low-level functions.
    • Instead, cognitive content should be thought of as having two types: conceptual or perceptual and extents: simple or complex.
  • What aspects of human nature might we actually share with animals?
    • “We are animals and as such are part of nature. However, we   are also thinkers and doers; and in   virtue of being conceptually  - and rationally-structured our thoughts and deeds both have semantic meaning and are liable to normative assessment as true, rational, insightful, illuminating, confused,   unreasonable, false, etc.”
    • We do, however, share percepts, which are a step above basic patterns of sensation.
  • On  human  flourishing:  what  physical  constitution,  social  conditions,  and  cultural   configurations promote the fullest human flourishing?
    • The functioning of an organism as a whole can be evaluated in reference to a notion of well-being appropriate to the species.
    • We get norms of human flourishing from our nature; these norms are objective and can be determined with the human sciences and moral philosophy.
    • Our view of human nature from a philosophical anthropological approach will determine what we consider to be flourishing and thus what measures and interventions are justified to support that flourishing (e.g. an individualistic or collectivistic account of human nature).  In fact, citizenship and collaboration make possible certain human goods not available to the individual.
  • On our human future: “What role will our ideas, perspectives, and technological powers play as we go forward into our human future?”
  • Two perspectives on the human are relevant to questions of what we should do with our technological powers: 1. From the microphysical base up to the whole functioning organism (persons). In this view human behavior could be entirely explained in terms of simpler processes. And 2. From personal existence down to the physio-chemical basis. In this view, the whole human being, the person, is ethically prior.
  • From view 1., we might focus on genes and perfecting them. From view 2., we would be mostly concerned with the effects on people as wholes. And most current philosophical psychology emphasizes a significant degree of anti-reductionism: psychology has its own structures and principles and is not wholly reducible to the underlying physics.
  • Full personhood depends on interaction with others. Thought is connected with language which is connected with sociality.
  • Persons and their psychologies cannot be reduced to genes.
    • Traditional media barriers are also coming into question with advances in information technology. Traditional media relies on transmitting information in a content-bering ‘sensible object’ that are isolable and inert. Now, the medium of delivery is less distinguishable from the content itself.

Session 4: “Affect, Intelligence, and the Boundaries of the Human" | Antonio Damasio

Speaker Bio:

  • Antonio Damasio, MD, PhD, is University Professor, David Dornsife Chair in Neuroscience and Professor of Psychology, Philosophy, and Neurology at the University of Southern California. Damasio has made seminal contributions to the understanding of brain processes underlying, emotions, feelings, decision-making and consciousness.  He is the author of numerous scientific articles (his Google scholar H Index is 144; over 129,000 citations) and his research has received continuous Federal funding for 30 years.  He is the recipient of many awards (including the Grawemeyer Award, 2014; the Honda Prize, 2010; the Asturias Prize in Science and Technology, 2005; and the Signoret Prize, 2004, which he shared with his wife Hanna Damasio).  Damasio is a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, and the European Academy of Sciences and Arts. He has been named “Highly Cited Researcher” by the Institute for Scientific Information, and also holds Honorary Doctorates from several Universities.

Synopsis:

  • Many in the public interpret evolution to be diminishing humans, and if human uniqueness is diminished, our political and moral systems may be degraded in kind. The humanization of non-human animals is important to a degree, but detrimental if it degrades the exceptional position of humans.
  • Human exceptionalism rests not on one particular faculty, but rather an integration of many qualities that leads to an emergence. In particular, we have an enormously expanded intellectual ability (including symbolic capacities) and expanded episodic memory (including narrative capacity and an ability to bring our minds to the past and future). When that is combined with the complexities of our feeling states, we get uniquely human experiences.
  • “Intelligence” in the sense of AI and robotics neglects an important component: affective intelligence.  This includes feelings and experiences of emotion (which are different things).
  • There are two layers of feeling production:
    • 1. The experience of one’s interior world, generated by the viscera and biochemical pathways. These don’t require external provocation.
    • 2. Provoked feelings from external stimuli
  • Affect, emotions, feelings, homeostatic states, drives, and motivations: these areas of our physiology have been systematically neglected by cognitive science and neuroscience, which have been overly concerned with the world outside (perception, reasoning, language).
  • Emotions are essential to our reasoning.

Session #5: “Computation and the brain" | Christos Papadimitriou

Speaker Bio:​

  • Christos Papadimitriou, PhD, is the C. Lester Hogan Professor of Computer Science at UC Berkeley.  Before joining Berkeley in 1996, he taught at Harvard, MIT, NTU Athens, Stanford, and UCSD.  He has written five books, including standard textbooks on Combinatorial Algorithms, the Theory of Computation, and Computational Complexity, and many articles on algorithms and complexity, and their applications to optimization, databases, control, AI, robotics, economics and game theory, the Internet, evolution, and the brain.  He holds a PhD from Princeton, and eight honorary doctorates.  He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences of the US, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Engineering.  He is the recipient of the Knuth prize, the Goedel prize, the EATCS award, the von Neumann medal,  and in 2013 the president of Greece named him commander of the order of the phoenix.  He has also written a book of essays (in Greek) and three novels: Turing, Logicomix, and Independence (2017).

Synopsis:

  • Algorithms, though pertinent to the brain and useful as metaphors, do not comprehensively describe what the brain does.
  • In 1937, Alan Turing defined computation and gave birth to the field of computer science, particularly by providing the limitations of what a computer can’t do.
  • David Marr, founder of computational neuroscience, proposes a three-step process for understanding: 1. Specifications (what a thing does), 2. Algorithm, 3. Hardware.  
  • We can apply this approach, as Ison et al (2016) did.  They monitored a particular neuron, saw that it fired when the participant was shown the Eiffel Tower but not when shown Obama. Then Obama and the Eiffel Tower were shown in conjunction for some trials. After these, the neuron would fire for Obama alone (suggesting it “learned” this association). This gives us the specifications of what the neuron does (what it responds to).  To discern the algorithm and the hardware underlying that specification, Papadimitriou’s group published a paper explaining how cell assemblies in the medial temporal lobe representing symbolic memories are formed, recalled, and associated.
  • Artificial deep neural networks do not function in the same way the brain does: neural nets rely on highly connected layers of neurons with weighted connections that go backward and forwards and are randomly dispersed among the nodes. Synapses in the brain can’t have their connection strength modulated in the same way.

Session #6: "Human Meaning-Makers" | Mark Johnson

Speaker Bio:

  • Mark Johnson, PhD, is Philip H. Knight Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon. His co-authored book with George Lakoff entitled Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought (Basic Books, 1999) investigated the changes in our conception of philosophy that come from taking seriously the way meaning, concepts, thought, and language are tied to bodily experience. His particular interests focus on the ways in which patterns of our sensory-motor experience play a crucial role in what we can think, how we think, and the nature of our symbolic expression and communication. In his latest book, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (Chicago, 2007) he delves even more deeply into aspects of embodied meaning and cognition that have traditionally been ignored or under-valued in mainstream philosophy.

​Synopsis:

  • First-generation cognitive science was language-oriented, where languages were considered formal symbolic systems. Meaningless symbols could be given meaning when placed in relation to states of affairs in the world: mind-independent objects, properties, and relations.
  • Second-generation cognitive science integrated feeling and emotion into understanding thought, bringing the body to mind.
  • “The meaning of an experience is what it affords us by way of related experiences, whether past, present, or future. Even beneath and beyond conceptual and propositional structures, meaning becomes manifest through pervasive unifying qualities, particular qualities, and affect contours of felt sense that are both the stuff and processes of human meaning-making.”
  • Consider the following five embodied dimensions of meaning:
    • 1. Qualities arising from a qualitative world giving rise to qualia in our conscious experience
    • 2. Pervasive qualitative unity that gives qualities meaning from the situation around them. Situations are felt as a whole pervasive qualitative unity – our felt sense of our situation. The meaning of this is understood when things suddenly “make sense” after some clue clarifies a confusion situation.
    • 3. Affect contours are the movement and pace of our affective (felt) experience, described in terms such as “speeding up, slowing down, halting, floating, hopping, fleeting, etc.”
    • 4. Image schemas emerge from the ongoing interaction between our bodies/brains and the affordances in the environment, giving rise to meaning patterns such as: verticality, balance/unbalance, container, front-back, right-left, near-far, center-periphery, compelling force, iteration, and scalar intensity.
    • 5. Conceptual metaphors, our understandings of abstract domains through mappings from source domains (sensory, motor, social), are realized in the brain via direct neural connections from sensory and motor areas to areas involved in planning and reasoning via inference. An example conceptual metaphor is states as locations.
  • One theory of meaning arising from brain architecture is as follows: “At the core must be the most integrative concepts, formed through the fusion of many elements through the dense web of interconnection. This fusion of highly processed sensory and motor information... together with direct motivational influences from the hypothalamus, would create a syncretic form of experience. Meaning is rich, deep, with elements fused in a holistic matrix... charged with visceral significance. Emanating outward – from this core neuropsychological lattice – are the progressive articulations of neocortical networks. Finally, at the shell, we find the most differentiated networks…” (Tucker, Mind from Body, 179).
  • There are four levels of value organization. Taken from the bottom up, they are: organic functioning and well-being, intimate interpersonal relations, complex communal interactions and institutions, and our quest for meaning, growth, and self-cultivation.
  • “Nothing is meaningful in itself” – meaning requires an object or event that points to some experience that is significant for some living organism.
  • Meaning operates via the aesthetic dimensions of experience, and language is derivative from that visceral base of meaning.
  • No computational program can capture how humans experience and make meaning unless it can enact those aesthetic dimensions of meaning.
  • To Damasio’s “no body, never mind” Johnson would add “no meaning, no mind”, “no feeling, no meaning”, “no feeling, never mind”.”

Session #7: "Infant language learning is ‘gated’ by the social brain" | Patricia Kuhl

Speaker Bio:

  • Patricia Kuhl, PhD, holds the Bezos Family Foundation Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Learning and is Co-Director of the UW Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, Director of the University of Washington’s NSF Science of Learning Center, and Professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is internationally recognized for her research on early language and bilingual brain development, for pioneering brain measures on young children, and studies that show how young children learn. She presented her work at two White House conferences (Clinton White House in 1997 and Bush White House in 2001). Dr. Kuhl is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Rodin Academy, and the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Acoustical Society of America, the American Psychological Society, and the Cognitive Science Society.

​Synopsis:

  • Monkeys and chinchillas are capable of drawing sound boundaries (such as that between the /ba/ and /pa/ sounds) in the same way that human infants can. However, although human infants also exhibit this boundary phenomenon, they do not hold it exclusively. That is, human infants respond more flexibly to linguistic and social exposure in their early environment during a “sensitive period” for language (phonemes around 10-12 months, words around 1-3 years, and grammar around 6-8 years). During this sensitive period, infant brains respond to linguistic and social cues by computing a statistical distribution of sounds, and as the infant does this, its discrimination of sounds from languages that it does not hear worsens. Therefore, the language learning environment drives the physiological changes that underlie language development, allowing infants to discriminate between sounds in their native language(s) long before they can interpret the meaning of them.
  • Social agents play a key role in the language-learning environment. For example, “Motherese,” the term used to describe the way that mothers around the world speak to their babies, aids learning by exaggerating acoustic cues and increasing infant attention to language.
  • A number of experiments were done to determine under what circumstances infants (roughly 8 months old) will learn phonetic contrasts from a non-native language. They can be learned from a live tutor but not from a televised recording of a tutor’s session (unless they share that television time with another infant, providing interpersonal arousal). These findings suggest that the social arousal resulting from the presence of another human –  whether it be a mother or a playmate – is key to language development.
  • The average change from universal citizen (where infants can discriminate between all phonetic contrasts) to linguistic specialist (where they show marked deficits in non-native phonetic contrasts) happens between 8 and 10 months.
  • Given the importance of social experience in human language development, we might consider whether it is possible to design non-human entities that provide a sufficient social environment for language learning. Human-like “social robots” that can smile, turn their head, accept a toy with a pincer, and speak basic sentences have been shown to engage children, whereas non-social robots do not. Future work will help illuminate whether we can develop social robots that effectively mimic the complexity of human sociality – a potentially distinct human feature that robots may never achieve – that is needed for human language development.

 


Workshop 3: Culture, Cognition, and Boundaries:  April 27-30, 2017

The third international workshop on "The Boundaries of Humanity" brought together academics and experts across disciplines and institutions to discuss the theme of culture, cognition, and boundaries. Summaries of the seven major sessions, guest speaker bios, and related readings are listed below.


 

Session #1: "Thinking about Human Universals" | Melvin Konner

Speaker Bio:

  • Melvin Konner, MD, PhD, received his graduate degrees from Harvard University, and is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Program in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University. He spent two years among the !Kung San (Bushmen), and has taught at Harvard and then at Emory, for over 40 years. He teaches courses on human biology, human brain/behavior relations, biological approaches to childhood, human nature, medicine and society, and the anthropology of the Jews. Konner is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Program in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology, Emory College of Arts and Sciences.

Synopsis:

  • There are many universals that all humans share. Not all of these universals are unique to humans; only a subset are not shared by animals.
  • These universals can be broken down into five different types: those that are characteristic of all normal adults; those that are characteristic of all members of a specified age or sex class; those that are characteristic of all populations; those that are characteristic of some members of all populations; and those that are characteristic of all cultures.
  • There are many examples of these universals, drawn from studies of different human and animals groups. Studies of hunter-gatherer groups show that nearly all infants share the same reflexes. Studies of infants show that nearly all smile by 28 weeks, an act that is later associated with social behavior. While blind infants may be delayed, these social smiles do still occur. Studies of chimps and humans show the shared universal of inter-group aggression; while studies of bonobos show that they share humans’ high sociality and complex behavior.
  • Through the examination of the neural circuitry and muscles underlying these universals, as well as through genetic sequencing, these universals may help us understand our evolutionary development and the underlying sources of our modern behavior.

Session #2: “The Boundaries of Humanity: The Emergence of Modern Human Cognition” |  Ian Tattersall 

Speaker Bio:

  • Ian Tattersall, PhD, is a paleoanthropologist and an emeritus curator with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He was born in the United Kingdom, and grew up in eastern Africa. He trained in archaeology and anthropology at the University of Cambridge, and earned his PhD from Yale University.  Currently, his major research focus is on how modern humans acquired a unique style of thinking, and how we managed to dominate the planet while other human species went extinct.

​​​Synopsis:

  • Symbolic thought is the ability to use discrete symbols to describe interior and exterior worlds and it is a feature unique to homo sapiens. Other animals have complex thought but cannot imagine or create multiple alternatives through rearranging these symbols as humans can.
  • Symbolic thought developed during human evolution. There are two theories for this development. The first theory posits that the development of this skill was gradual, while the second argues that the change was abrupt. The former theory implies that we are fine-tuned by nature while the later suggests that our behavior is emergent and thus we have greater discretion over it.
  • The development of symbolic thought was evidenced by the invention of new technologies to meet demands, rather than the repurposing of old technologies. This change was much more rapid than previous conceptual changes.
  • Because the change was so rapid, genetic changes, rather than long-term natural selection, is likely the cause. These genetic changes likely resulted in neural innovations that created the potential for symbolic thinking. A behavioral stimulus, likely the spontaneous invention of language, then triggered the development of symbolic thought.
  • Language has been shown to develop spontaneously, as in communities of deaf children, and would have spread rapidly in a species that had the biological prerequisites for language. Additionally, human mouths were more suited to speaking than those of neanderthals.
  • Therefore, the modern human condition is not biologically specified; instead, we have open behavioral flexibility.

Session #3: “Language, Culture, and Cognition” | Lera Boroditsky

Speaker Bio:​

  • Lera Boroditsky, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD and Editor in Chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology. She previously served on the faculty at MIT and at Stanford. Her research is on the relationships between mind, world, and language (or how humans get so smart).  Her research combines insights and methods from linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, and anthropology.  She has been named one of 25 Visionaries changing the world by the Utne Reader, and is also a Searle Scholar, a McDonnell scholar, recipient of an NSF Career award, and an APA Distinguished Scientist lecturer.

Synopsis:

  • We must operationalize and be specific when discussing terms like “language” and “thought,” and in a multitude of psychological experiments, we observe a wide variety of influences from language on thought. For example, how a language describes time relative to space (e.g. moving from in front of us to behind us, or from above to below, from left to right, or vice versa) changes individuals’ bodily experience of time in various linguistic groups studied. Furthermore, literate English-speaking patients with left neglect in space (having experienced a stroke in the right parietal lobe) also neglect the “left” side of time (the past) when tested on recall on past/future items relative to a certain point in the past.
  • We need the same rigor when researching emotion, and when emotion is carefully operationalized, we observe that the so-called “primary emotions” are not always observed to be universal, natural categories in all cultures where they have been studied.
  • What is included in the innate or universal human cognitive repertoire?  Counting and numbers are likely not among this set, and language itself may or may not be, depending on what we mean when we say “language.”
  • We can formulate ideas that go well beyond our immediate sensory experience, up to the level of concepts like “justice” or “time-travel” or “atoms” or “imaginary numbers.” This is uniquely human.
  • As a final example, language can serve as an attentional coach, dividing up a stream of events into discrete units (of varying length and combinations), and directing attention (depending on the language) more toward objects, actors, aspects of the context, intentionality, etc.  For example, we can change how monolingual English speakers remember events simply by exposing them to large amounts of agentic (she burned the toast) or non-agentic (the toast burned) language.

Session 4: “Cooperation and Cultural Transmission" | Michael Tomasello

Speaker Bio:

  • Michael Tomasello, PhD, is Co-Director, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany and James F. Bonk Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. His research interests focus on processes of social cognition, social learning, and communication/language in human children and great apes.  His books include First Verbs (Cambridge University Press, 1992); Primate Cognition (Oxford University Press, 1997); The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (Harvard University Press, 1999); Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition (Harvard University Press, 2003); Origins of Human Communication (MIT Press, 2008); Why We Cooperate (MIT Press, 2009); A Natural History of Human Thinking (Harvard University Press, 2014); and A Natural History of Human Morality (Harvard University Press, 2016).

Synopsis:

  • Human cultural transmission is utterly unique in the breadth and speed of uptake in cultural innovations.  We share and copy and improve on each others’ designs and cultural innovations in a cultural “ratchet effect” that leads to cumulative culture (and cultural evolution)
    • This process is undergirded by three psychological processes:
  • Imitative learning: an actor (who may not even know they are being watched) is imitated
    • Humans uniquely engage in social imitation where they imitate for the purposes of fitting in with a group (conforming) not just to achieve an instrumental goal. Toddlers even exhibit strong conformity, denying the evidence before their eyes (à la Asch’s conformity experiments), in order to agree with the rest of the group.
    • Humans, uniquely, will switch strategies to an alternative, equally-successful strategy of solving a problem if they see it working for others, even if their own solution produce the same end result. Chimps in experiments never switch, even if the alternative strategy yields more reward.
    • The overall motives of this imitation in humans is joint intention in order to affiliate (due to imitation leading to liking and helping) and collective intention (identification with a group, conformity to fit in - uniquely human aspect of imitative learning)
    • Instructed learning: instructor intends to teach a pupil
      • Teaching pedagogy is unique to humans among primates (lions also do deliberate teaching).  Intentional teaching is when the parent’s goal is that the child learns.
      • Human universal: some form of instruction where the adult intends that the child learns; altruistic motive (for the benefit of the pupil); instructor reads intentions/beliefs of pupil (knowing they lack knowledge or skill). This is cooperative.
      • Promiscuous normativity: The outcome measured is when children watch somebody else do something and are willing to protest if that action isn’t being done the “right way.” Children use normative language: “wrong way to do it.”  Children observe a single instance and then generalize it.  They hypothesize there are general rules in the culture and quickly adopt those rules. The pupil infers that the instructor is conveying general cultural knowledge and rules, not just their individual preferences or experiences.
    • Collaborative learning: collaborators are on an equal basis learning from each other
      • In our discourse, our motives aren’t actually to get to the truth of the matter. We give reasons in order to convince others, to win the argument.  This is the cause of errors in rationality as described as Khanneman and Tversky.
      • Tomasello argues this motive comes later, but earlier in evolution, in shared hunting tasks, for example, we give predictions/reasons in order to get it right.  We go with the best reason/argument because we are in a mutualistic enterprise with shared success.  Later on we start gaming the system and lying.  We have to have cooperative communication first.
      • Again, collaborative learning requires joint and collective intentions. We have to understand beliefs, have joint attention to each other’s beliefs (perspective taking), and then we have reason-giving grounded in shared beliefs. Common-ground assumptions are needed in order to argue. Non-common-ground assumptions require justification and explanation.
  • A strong motivation for all of these types of collaboration, imitation, and instruction is the ability to identify and fit in with your in-group.

Session #5: “Commitment Signaling, Sacralization, and the Human Social Organism" | Jeff Schloss

Speaker Bio:​

  • Jeffrey Schloss, PhD, is Distinguished Professor of Biology and T. B. Walker Chair of Natural & Behavioral Sciences at Westmont College. He has been a Danforth Fellow, a Crosson Fellow at the University of Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion, a Plummer Fellow at St. Anne’s College Oxford, and a Witherspoon Fellow in Theology & Science at Princeton’s Center of Theological Inquiry.  His scholarly interests include evolutionary accounts of life history strategies, cooperation, and moral & religious cognition, including the philosophical entailments of these theories. Collaborative volumes include Altruism & Altruistic Love (Oxford, 2002), Evolution and Ethics (Eerdmans, 2004),  The Believing Primate (Oxford, 2010), and Darwinian Perspectives on the Moral Sentiments (Transaction, 2014).

Synopsis:

  • Human prosociality can be considered one of the major evolutionary transitions, along with transitions from prokaryotic to eukaryotic cells, unicellularity to multicellularity, asexual to sexual reproduction, and solitary to social group organizations.  As with these earlier changes, we are now obligately cooperative, though whether we truly represent an evolutionary transition depends on what our organismic telos is. 
  • Our uniqueness is that we are in the midst of an incomplete transition: we are in many ways best understood at a more macro level than an individual human (as a prosocial group entity), but we haven’t completely lost our reproductive autonomy (as mitochondria within eukaryotic cells have).
  • Many studies on cooperation and defection shows that humans still have anti-social tendencies: antipathy towards out-groups and cheating against in-groups. These anti-social tendencies are kept in check through mechanisms such as punishment, third-party policing, reputation management and monitoring, and even through mechanisms reliant on religion.
  • In particular, humans have special responses to ecstatic group experiences as well as experiences of great beauty (which could even be scientific equations).  In these activities we relinquish ourselves to something greater, and in doing so find great fulfillment and enjoyment.  Participating in the sacred and immensely beautiful is the orchestrating property of human sociality.  This capacity not just to envision a “we” but to ascribe valued status to that “we” in light of a moral economy or cosmology that supports it: this is distinctive of our human experience and central to our humanity.

Session #6: "Mind Reading and the Human Knowledge of Persons" | Eleonore Stump

Speaker Bio:

  • Eleonore Stump, PhD, is the Robert J. Henle Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louis University, where she has taught since 1992. She has published extensively in philosophy of religion, contemporary metaphysics, and medieval philosophy.  Specifically, some of her works focus on knowledge of persons, narratives, the medieval worldview, and a multi-perspective approach to free will.  Her books include her major study Aquinas (Routledge, 2003) and her extensive treatment of the problem of evil, Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (Oxford, 2010). She has given the Gifford Lectures (Aberdeen, 2003), the Wilde lectures (Oxford, 2006), and the Stewart lectures (Princeton, 2009). She is past president of the Society of Christian Philosophers, the American Catholic Philosophical Association, and the American Philosophical Association, Central Division; and she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is currently serving as the President for the Philosophers of Jesuit Education.

​Synopsis:

  • Among the many interesting questions in philosophy of mind, a few stand out as particularly relevant to our purposes:
    • What kind of capacities characterize the human mind?
    • What are their analogues among the beasts?
    • What neural systems are correlated with these capacities?
  • As a foray to exploring some of these questions, we can consider mind reading as a distinct human capacity.
  • Mind-reading is sometimes conceived as a third-personal endeavor in theory theory or a first-personal endeavor in simulation theory.
  • However, mind-reading is perhaps best understood as a second-personal process that yields non-propositional knowledge: it’s direct, intuitive, and generally reliable. It includes affective as well as cognitive components.
  • Low-level mind reading includes imitation, protocol-conversation, turn-taking, and emotion-sharing in infants.
    • We have the neural circuitry to engage in this process and it allows us to form early bonds and connections crucial for our survival.  
  • High-level mind-reading includes the transmission of knowledge through testimony.
    • This requires a second-personal process of assessing the trustworthiness of the testifier.
  • Humans may even engage in mind-reading with some inanimate things: natural objects like streams, forests, etc.
  • Overall, what makes us human and how we progress from infancy to adulthood starts in the second-personal.  That second-personal connection drives everything else, including the acquisition of language.  This connection activates an intrinsic joy and pleasure to it through which everything else that is human emerges.

Session #7: "Hierarchic Transitions in Evolution" | Terrence Deacon

Speaker Bio:

  • Terrence Deacon, PhD, is Professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. His interests center on brain development and evolution, origins of language, biocultural evolution, and emergence.  His research has combined human evolutionary biology and neuroscience, with the aim of investigating the evolution of human cognition. His work extends from laboratory-based cellular-molecular neurobiology to the study of semiotic processes underlying animal and human communication, especially language. Many of these interests are explored in his 1997 book, The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of Language and the Brain.  His new book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, explores the relationship between thermodynamic, self-organizing, evolutionary and semiotic processes and provides a new technical conception of information that explains both its representational and normative properties.

​Synopsis:

  • This talk considered questions such as:
    • 1.Is there evidence for degenerative processes in human evolution?
    • 2.How could degenerative neural effects have altered human cognition?
    • 3.Could our language competence be a result of a loss of innate biases?
  • Arguing that humans are a self-domesticated species and a degenerate species (more “open” and behaviorally/cognitively flexible than other apes), Deacon suggests that selection (unmasking) and relaxation (masking of selection pressures) allow for a general evolutionary sequence of duplication → redundancy → degradation → complementation often resulting in novel synergistic interactions between copies.
  • This logic of duplication and differentiation also extends to body structures because regulatory gene duplication (e.g. Hox genes) can result in body structure duplication. As a result multiple, redundant body parts (e.g. appendages) can evolve with respect to each other to produce synergistic variations on a structural theme. Thus legs, claws, mouthparts, and antennae can be differentiated from the same structural plan to complement each others’ function.
  • Analogous processes may have influenced human language evolution, causing innate cognitive biases to degrade leading to a greater role for social transmission and the recruitment of widespread brain systems to synergistically support language functions.
  • Language is a niche we’ve constructed: a complex, symbolic, cultural niche, and it has radically changed us .  It is the human paradigmatic example of a generic process throughout all evolution where autonomy at one level is given up so that higher-level synergies can emerge.  This transition is at least a precipitating event in explaining the human transition (perhaps incomplete) from “I” to “we.” (Deacon 2017)