Sunday, 25 June 2017

Cry of the wolf - Apes, wolves, culture and intentions

Melvin Burgess' children story, Cry of the wolf, tells the tale of a man whose quest is to kill the last wolf alive in England.  One female survives, wounded by The Hunter, but she survives long enough to teach her sole surviving cub a few skills before she then is killed by the man. The cub is raised by a human family, but being a social animal he waits in vain for the scent of another wolf. 

When I consider how badly we treat other intelligent beings here on earth I am rather pleased that Extraterrestrial Intelligence continues to  elude us.  It would be better if we were at peace with ourselves, and that we care for our living planet before we blunder about in the nether reaches of the universe.

Tragically, when we have found other intelligent life here on our planet, we have tended to do it harm rather than give it respect.  Nonetheless we have a notion and a sense of fairness and justice, else we would not agonise over the problems this presents.  We have an increasing understanding about our planet and that we should protect it from the harm our activity may be doing.  Our intelligence, and our capacity to make reasoned choices enables us to do this.  Hopefully it will enable us to repair the damage we have done.

We are not alone in having a sense of fairness and justice. It is present in other cooperative mammals.  The results of a recent study suggest that Wolves also have a sense of fairness, or at least of inequity.

Wolves hunt, raise pups, and defend their territory cooperatively.  Equity is important in maintaining cooperative behaviour in the group.  Iniquitous treatment leads to aversive behaviour with withdrawal of cooperation.  This sense of fairness has long been seen in studies of non-human primates.  The psycho-social environment of members of a group in non-human primates has cultural complexity that profoundly influences behavioural development.   Such cooperation doesn't involve an incident by incident 'what's in it for me' assessment.  It is socially developed and socially maintained.  Mutual cooperation maintains social cohesion, not self-interest.  
 
Our planet is teaming with intelligent life. Problem solving is ubiquitous on earth.  It would be easy enough to regard organisms as mere automata - or gene-driven machines.  But this, I think, is a woefully inadequate understanding of living things, and of so much of animal life.  We have a strange view of ourselves as the only intelligent beings.  But even for us,  the gene-centred view of our being prevails. So much so that many question our capacity to make purposeful decisions.  That seems odd given I am writing this with the purpose of refuting such a view.  

Some groups of Apes use stones to crack nuts.  This use of tools is learned and culturally transmitted to others.  They will make choices about what stones are best for cracking nuts.  They will sometimes share good stones with other members of their group, but they will also covet a good stone, or keep one safe.  Apes also use tools to extract water to drink.  This is also culturally learned behaviour.  They have social intelligence, and they are able to make social decisions.  The use of tools is indicative of purposeful behaviour: the stone is selected and modified to best crack nuts.  

Nothing excites debate more than the question of whether we can or do make truly altruistic decisions, or whether all our behaviour is gene-directed self interest.  Altruistic behaviour is dismissed, where demonstrated, as being merely reciprocal. It is said to be self-interested action that preserves 'our' genes in the 'gene pool'.   It is odd then that I should write this to persuade you otherwise.  My genes did not write this. I did.  Your genes are not reading it. You are. 

The contention of behaviour driven by 'selfish genes' has left a powerful imprint on our politics and our economics. It underpins the neoliberal view of society as an aggregate of individual self-interested behaviour.  The operation of markets has been built on this notion.  It is used also to justify the iniquitous exploitation of others by a few. It has transformed the very nature of 'freedom' into a freedom to exploit. It is a strange notion of 'freedom' that is predicated on biogenic determinism.

Yet there is another view.  Our actions are not driven by genes.   We can, and we do, act with reason. Just as the apes select and modify good stones to crack nuts, so we also produce elaborate and technically complex tools.  We use these tools with purpose. Furthermore, we make assumptions about the reason of others. When I see Jack and Jill go up the hill and then come down again carrying a pail of water, I make an assumption that they went up in order to fetch the pail of water.  I might be wrong, or I may be right in my assumption.  That isn't really the issue here. What is at issue is that it is a reasonable assumption.  It follows reasonable logic.  Nor was Jack and Jill's behaviour caused by their genes, any more than it was caused by the feet with which they walked up the hill, or their hands with which they carried the pail, although in describing how they did what they did involved all of these.  

We might also hold this assumption about Jack and Jill's purpose with greater certainty if we knew that Jack and Jill needed or wanted water. That would certainly provide a motive or driver for the action. We might also know that the source of water was up the hill. 

My statement about 'why' Jack and Jill went up the hill makes a lot of interesting assumptions about behaviour, not least of which is that it is purposeful. It assumes that actions are or can be intentional. 

You might think it odd that anyone would doubt this. But they do, and I suppose the problem is best summed up in another question: where does this intention come from?  

In answering this we often end up with a distinctly unsatisfactory dualism - body and mind - as if the two were somehow of different  stuff, or no stuff at all.  Descartes had this problem.  If we are machines, robotic beings, then how could we have minds with intentions, thoughts and actions? He made a curious exception for humans - that we are machines with souls. This became a major distinction between humans and other animals.  It was all very unsatisfactory.

The modern gene-centred view has substituted another dualism - a bit of the machinery within the machine that drives the machine.  In this case genes.  This leads to the same problem.  If bits of the machine drive other bits, then how can there be free will?  And if there is no 'free will' then how can any behaviour truly be said to be intentional? 

The answer I think lies in logic.  Organisms are logically functional problem solving entities. They are open processes engaged with their environment, not closed systems like machines. 

Intention isn't a stuff. It is disposition. Thought isn't a stuff.  It is a continuous process.

So what then of our quest to find alien intelligence?

If we were to find extraterrestrial life then I think we would judge it intelligent not only by how well it solved problems but also by whether it had intentions.  Only by intention can we understand the cry of the wolf.

An extended version of this article can be heard on The Thin End podcast.


Acknowledgements.

My thanks to Denis Noble and Eva Jablonka for wonderful discussions that led to this post and accompanying podcast.










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