Blargh Blog

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Santayana and Tomasello

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana's oft-quoted line is nearly as oft-misinterpreted, taken out of context to mean that we must learn the lessons of history so that tragedies will not be repeated. In context, it is clear that Santayana was talking about something else: progress cannot take place if we keep reinventing the wheel. The quote in context:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience. In a second stage men are docile to events, plastic to new habits and suggestions, yet able to graft them on original instincts, which they thus bring to fuller satisfaction. This is the plane of manhood and true progress.
I've previously posted on this topic in blog comments. Now, I have something to say beyond this bit of aphoristic trivia. Namely, it looks like Santayana was on to something.

I have just started reading Michael Tomasello's The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition as part of the that Chris is orchestrating. Tomasello starts his book with a puzzle: human beings were able to evolve remarkably quickly, changing from typical primates into the species that we know and love in under 6 million years (and perhaps under 2 million years or even under a quarter of a million years). Tomasello says "There is only one possible solution to this puzzle", and he does not mean divine intervention. The answer is cultural transmission: "One reasonable hypothesis, then, is that the amazing suite of cognitive skills and products displayed by modern humans is the result of some sort of species-unique mode or modes of cultural transmission." Tomasello explains, though in a less pithy and quotable way than Santayana:
The evidence that human beings do indeed have species-unique modes of cultural transmission is overwhelming. Most importantly, the cultural traditions and artifacts of human beings accumulate modifications over time in a way that those of other animal species do not, so-called cumulative cultural evolution. Basically none of the most complex human artifacts or social practices - including tool industries, symbolic communication, and social institutions - were invented once and for all at a single moment by any one individual or group of individuals. Rather, what happened was that some individual or group of individuals first invented a primitive version of the artifact or practice, and then some later user or users made a modification, an "improvement," that others then adopted perhaps without change for many generations, at which point some other individual or group of individuals made another modification, which was then learned and used by others, and so on over historical time in what has sometimes been dubbed "the ratchet effect" (Tomasello, Kruger, and Ratner, 1993). The process of cumulative cultural evolution requires not only creative invention but also, and just as importantly, faithful social transmission that can work as a ratchet to prevent slippage backward - so that the newly invented artifact or practice preserves its new and improved form at least somewhat faithfully until a further modification or improvement comes along. Perhaps surprisingly, for many animal species it is not the creative component, but rather the stabilizing ratchet component, that is the difficult feat. Thus, many nonhuman primate individuals regularly produce intelligent behavioral innovations and novelties, but then their groupmates do not engage in the kinds of social learning that would enable, over time, the cultural ratchet to do its work (Kummer and Goodall, 1985).

In other words, humans evolved the ability to learn from history, which, as Santayana suggests, is what has allowed for the flourishing of human civilization. Rather than setting civilized man apart from children and savages, however, this ability set our ancestors apart from other animals, most notably the other great apes.

I will have more to say about this as I read beyond the first half of the introduction.


At September 17, 2005 2:32 AM, Blogger Genius said...

Not entirely sure why it is so amazing that we moved from chimps to humans so fast. Nor exactly how what is being described here solves that problem.

Of course it is good that we can learn from history but if you put 50 young children in the wild and they formed a tribe without any acess to modern technology/history would they have no cognition? or monkey level cognition?

not sure...


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