Tag Archives: comparative

What’s this for? The teleological instinct

We are in Budapest again for April/May 2015. Everyone in the CEU Cognitive Science Department has moved to a splendid 19th century town house close to the CEU main buildings. The Babylab has extended its space, and, no question, it feels and looks like the best in the world. Here’s a conversation we had with Gergely Csibra, director of the Cognitive Development Centre. His incredibly distinguished list of publications has earned him a wide influence. We were having lunch with him  in a typical small Hungarian restaurant in the city centre. After the difficult business of choosing the most typical Hungarian dishes – Rakott krumpli for me and Pörkölt for Chris – our conversation turned towards books we would like to write, and moreover, are committed to write.

UF: So, Gergö, what are your books going to be about?

GC: One of them could be about our propensity for teleological thinking.

UF: Ah – you have been thinking about this for a long time!

GC (lifting the elaborate serviette holder standing on the table): a human being would immediately ask, what is this for?

UF: So?

GC: The point is that only humans would ask this question. All animals are programmed to pursue certain goals, and they are able to select the best means of achieving the goals. But humans can start with the means and then ask about the goal they can achieve.nuts&bolts

CDF: We wonder a lot about purpose and meaning.

GC: We even ask “what’s the meaning of life?”

UF: We keep asking, even if there is no answer. Continue reading What’s this for? The teleological instinct

CDF: We often love the means even more than the goals: look at this amazing tableau from the National Museum which proudly displays the huge variety of bolts made by a factory. We embellish tools and work on them to make them beautiful beyond the merely functional. Also, there is a whole chain of actions that is provoked: we make tools to make tools. We are very inventive about this.

GC: But actually, humans are not very inventive. Innovation is rare. Instead of finding new means to achieve an end we tend to consider the opposite: what can this old object or action be used for?

CDF: Innovation in ends may be rare. But not in finding uses for an object. You can easily find 101 uses for a brick, as required by a well-known psychological test.

GC: People have invented lots of tools that were rubbish. Just occasionally somebody produces something that turns out to be really useful.

UF: Can you imagine individual differences in teleological thinking?

GC: Not really. It’s not a skill, it’s a motivation. Even an obsession.

UF: Lets consider this then: Can you imagine what a person would be like who lacks this motivation?

GC: Interesting… I don’t know.

UF: Would this be the case with severe depression? To depressed people nothing makes sense and they are not interested in making sense either. Life has no meaning.

CDF: A depressed patient lacks motivation for anything. So this is not a good example. We’d have to think a bit more about what kind of pathology could create an absence of this particular lack of curiosity in what things are for.

UF: I wonder. We are also constantly asking questions about the names of things, what’s this cake called, this flower, this bird? Could this be related to theteleological instinct, if I’m allowed to call it that?Budapest Central Market Cakes

GC: It could be. The name may often give a clue to the function or purpose of something. This is because both names and object functions are culturally determined.

UF: Ah – now we come to a key concept in social cognition, culture. Cultural knowledge is built on the expectation that all things have a meaning, and exist to serve a purpose. The serviette holder is for holding serviettes. The serviettes are for protecting my clothes from food being spilled. And here I am trying to tack a very flimsy piece of paper into my skirt. I better be careful because it wouldn’t serve the purpose very well!

CDF: Some people would claim we have an urge to attribute causality. Would you separate causal thinking and teleological thinking?

GC: They’re supposed to be completely different explanations – think of Aristotle’s efficient and final cause -, but often they can be translated into each other. There’s this interesting thing about Darwin: he turned the teleological questions into causal explanations.

CDF: Something like this: Natural selection by fitness creates (causal) the functions that animals have (teleology)?

GC: He attempted to explain how teleological functions are brought about by blind forces of selection.

CDF: I wonder if clever animals using tools have teleological thinking.

GC: Animals use tools for the immediate ends they are motivated to pursue. They never have any lasting interest in the tool. Humans do. They take the tools with them in case they need them again. They even value objects for their potential use in the future. Even if they have no idea what use they could be put to.

CDF: When the bicycle was invented it was at first not a very useful tool to get from one place to another.

UF: We are always asking for the meaning of things, but we are never satisfied by the answers. Perhaps that’s what religion ‘is for’: it’s something that is always ready to satisfy the need to get answers to the big questions, especially giving reasons for terrible suffering – perhaps it’s meant to teach you a lesson; to punish you; or,  to make you a better person.

GC: I don’t think religious behaviour is any more teleological than other behaviour. It’s a drive that is present in very young children long before they are exposed to religion.

UF: What about science? I presume here you don’t ask what something is for, but what made it happen? Science is about causes, not purposes.

CDF: But even scientists, being human, are still highly attracted  teleological thinking.

GC:There are a number of papers by Deborah Kelemen on teleological bias in domains such as biology or religion, and in science.

CDF: There’s an interesting study where she tested physicists in speeded conditions. In this case they were more likely to endorse teleological than causal explanations of natural phenomena. Just like everyone else. To quote from the abstract: ‘Specialization as a scientist does not, in itself, … ameliorate scientifically inaccurate purpose-based theories about the natural world.’

UF: Isn’t this teleological bias helpful for developing technology?

GC: Teleological thinking serves not so much the development of new technology as the learning or understanding of existing technology.

UF: One downside is that there are unforeseen side effects. As you say, tools can often lead to things that were not envisaged before, and not even intended.

GC: Tools allow us to create new options. This is not the case when animals are using tools. Their options are unchanged by the tools.

UF: I look forward to your book. It is such a fruitful idea and we need to relate it to social cognition.

GC: The idea is not new, but I think it has not received as much attention as it deserves. I have thought about this topic for a long time. Whether I will make it a book or just a paper – you will see it in a year’s time.

Image credit: hungariangirl.com: Cakes in Budapest’s Central Market Hall

How to be smart

Are humans the smartest species? What does it mean to be smart?

CDF: I am very interested in your suggestion that we should think about specific packages of behaviour for different species that are determined, to some degree, by their environmental niche. This brings me to a question I have often thought about. We often assume that humans differ from other species simply because we are smarter. But what do we mean by smart? Perhaps I can anticipate your answer: What is smart in one niche might be foolish in another. For example, we assume that being able to delay gratification (not eating the marshmallow immediately) is smart, but it would be very foolish in a volatile environment where no one can be trusted.

Continue reading How to be smart

RR: Being smart must include surviving and producing surviving offspring – just think about the opposite.

CDF: In this sense, in the long run, bacteria will turn out to be far smarter than humans.

RR: There is more to being smart: we usually mean something specifically cognitive. Evolution involves adaptation but in a stable environment this can lead to specialization that becomes maladaptive when the environment changes. Being large may be advantageous because it means you may be able to overwhelm your enemies. But the package of being large means you take a long time to grow, produce a few offspring that need looking after and therefore you need to live a long time. This makes your species vulnerable to environmental fluctuations. Bacteria are smart because they reproduce very quickly and can adapt rapidly to environmental change. So, in the battle between antibiotic-wielding humans and bacteria, the bacteria tend to win. The mega-fauna did well in a stable environment, but do not cope well with human-induced environmental change and many will soon be extinct.

UF: I am glad that we are not giants.

RR: Humans are not giants, but they are mega-fauna. They are exceptionally successful as mega-fauna because their best adaptation is adaptability itself. Humans have adapted, behaviourally, to many different terrains and climates and have changed the terrain to suit themselves. They have also changed the climate, but haven’t quite adapted to that yet.

SmartTestSo it is cognitive and behavioural flexibility that makes humans smart. Cognitive flexibility allows humans to learn a lot which makes them even more behaviourally flexible and therefore even smarter.


UF: How on earth did humans evolve to have this adaptability? Can you briefly sketch out how this might have happened?

RR: We need to talk about selection and the Baldwin Effect.

This describes the way that learned products of cognitive flexibility  – good survival tricks – become genetically determined in a species by selection, rather than by inheritance of acquired characteristics. Here is an example: When proto-humans increased their communication skills as proto-speech, individuals with useful cognitive apps in this new social environment e.g. being good at remembering the order of sounds, being good at hearing inflections, would be favoured. This goes on over many generations and eventually a large collection of language-useful apps would be embedded in the human brain.

Now as to the mechanisms involved – this is complicated. We have to consider what genes do. Genes always compete against their alternative alleles and never do anything for the good of the species. But genes have the products of other genes, in their own body and other bodies, as part of their environment, such that complex competitions and co-operations will develop between genes. Picture how different personality types may win or lose depending on the environment. Sometimes pessimists survive catastrophe, and sometimes optimists advantageously exploit opportunities.  So a mixture of different cognitive styles (think collections of cognitive apps) will exist in a population in an equilibrium, which will fluctuate with environmental events.

Being a lot smarter than other people has survival value but it has one obvious disadvantage; in a social species being different can be difficult.


Acknowledgements: ‘Culture-fair test’ modified Danish cartoon, source unknown; ‘Leaps & Bounds’, Punch Magazine vol 4 p 273 June 10th 1893

Are bees better than humans?

To distract me from dangerous goings-on outside my window, where men are cutting down tall trees, Chris & Uta have asked me about the social lives of marmosets. This is not really altruism on their part. They will use the information for their book.

CDF: We want to know about the origins of human social cognition. Where should we look? Bees and ants? Other primates?

Continue reading Are bees better than humans?

RR: I think you need to look at all and any species and work out the packages of behaviour that different species use.

UF: What do you mean by packages of behaviour?

RR: Behaviour, and social structure, depend on the constraints of environment and evolution and both boil down to reproductive success. Does the species have to get through a cold winter? Does the species live up trees? It is factors like these that will determine whether the species produces a large number of offspring with low parental investment or a low number of offspring with high parental investment. These strategies come as packages and much social structure follows therefrom.

UF: So, is reproductive behaviour, mating and nurturing the young, at the biological root of social behaviour?

RR: This is where we find differences between species, because of the constraints I just mentioned. Old World monkeys tend to have a hierarchical mating system. Here males compete with other males for access to large numbers of females – though it all gets complicated with alliances and pay-offs. New World monkeys tend to live in more or less monogamous families – though it all gets complicated with adultery and incest. New World monkeys tend to live up trees, like birds, which are also usually monogamous so perhaps trees matter.

UF: Are humans more similar in their mating strategy to New World monkeys?

RR: Humans exhibit different strategies in different societies depending on food supply and other external threats. We can infer a lot about Human ancestral social behaviour by the fact that males are slightly bigger than females. This size difference occurs in any species where males compete with other males for resources and for females. The ultimate aim here is to win wars, get rid of other males, and acquire as many available females as possible. Of course, the size difference in humans is not large compared to the difference in some species. This implies a long history of more family based behavioural packages as well.

UF: Mike Tomasello’s lab has a vast number of studies comparing the joint interactions of great apes and those that happen between human children. There are similarities, but one of the main differences seems to be that, while human social interactions are basically cooperative, those of chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utan’s are mostly driven by competition. Tomasello’s conclusion is that great apes are extremely limited in their cooperative capacities, and this is their essential difference to humans.

CDF: But unlike chimpanzees, Marmosets seem to be extremely cooperative, showing, for example, cooperative breeding. Is this true?

marmosets RR: Kin selection explains many aspects of superficially altruistic behaviour. Co-operative breeding in marmosets usually means assisting in the rearing of the offspring of relatives because of the family structure of groups of marmosets. But an owner of a captive breeding colony of marmosets will often attempt to cross foster a neonate when the breeding female of one family has had just one baby and the breeding female of another family has just had triplets. This is often successful because the family can’t be sure that the newcomer is not related to them (and marmosets aren’t very good at counting either). In the wild, quite a large troop will contain mainly related animals. So a certain amount of general co-operation could be sustained by kin selection.

Several additional explanations have been put forward to explain co-operative behaviour in co-operative breeding species such as marmosets. These are all plausible, but none are truly altruistic since they increase the reproductive success or survival of the protagonist.

* Helpers that have cared for other infants have greater reproductive success when they become parents than individuals that do not have previous infant care experience. This is undoubtedly the case for marmosets.

* Unrelated helpers can gain the benefits of living in a social group, such as communal foraging or protection against predators. This requires the unrelated individual to be accepted by the group and this usually only occurs when the incomer arrives as a potential breeding partner.

* Males that display involvement with infants are more likely to obtain subsequent mating with the female they assist. This is unlikely since the male is usually assisting in the rearing of his own offspring (so has access to the dominant female) or his own sibs. The dominant female suppresses ovulation in her daughters and thereby prevents incest in the rest of the family.  “No hanky-panky please.”

UF: Social learning is something that happens in almost all animal species. It seems possible to us that this learning has shown a sort of step change in evolution in humans. This is to do with learning by deliberate teaching, a two-way process. Is this plausible? How would evolution explain such a step change?

RR: The difficulty in getting a hand-reared orphan animal to be accepted by, mate with and rear offspring with, members of their own species shows how important social learning is for survival. Evolution will favour parents who behave in such a way that offspring learn social behaviours. In New World monkey species, the fathers and older siblings contribute to the rearing of the next litter and, in captivity, offspring reared alone by just their mother are rarely able to rear offspring themselves. The difference between ‘behaving in such a way that learning in offspring occurs’ and ‘teaching offspring’ is one of intention by the parent and so the step change (if there is one) will lie in the evolution of several cognitive ‘apps’, e.g. ‘appreciation of the existence of the future’, such that intentions can develop. New ‘apps’ have emergent functions made from the amalgamation of smaller ‘apps’.

UF: I love your use of the term ‘app’ for a special cognitive adaptation!

CDF: The importance of learning by teaching is that it offers a mechanism for culture to accumulate over generations. Culture seems to be the one specialised niche for humans.

RR:  Intentionality will always speed up cultural development, but animals have cultures too. Diet and food-finding practices are cultural in that they differ between groups of the same species.

The trees are down now! Good. I can go out again.

CDF & UF: Thank you, Ros. We’ll be back and quiz you more about processes in the evolution of behaviour.

Photo acknowledgement: