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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Volitional Control of Communicative Behavior

Chimpanzees, like most other animals, have some involuntary vocalizations and behaviors. We have them, too. Human babies cry when they are hungry, wet, in pain, or otherwise in distress long before they have developed a theory of mind and know that this will help them to communicate what they want. Human adults cry out when they are tortured, even if they try to keep silent. We laugh when something seems funny, and sometimes we can't stop ourselves, even though it gets us in trouble. Often we end up having to clap our hands over our mouths in order not to alert others to what we really think. Chimpanzees do that, too.

Chimpanzees have highly expressive faces, and their expressions speak volumes. Sometimes they are contemplative, and their eyes, like our own,  are windows into their souls. But are all the faces and sounds they make, especially the ones directed toward us, entirely involuntary? A recent article by William Hopkins, Jared Taglialatela and David Leavens suggests that chimpanzees do have more control over their vocalizations and facial expressions than most scientists have given them credit for. Here is the abstract.

Abstract of article that is available here: Do Chimpanzees Have Voluntary Control of their Facial Expressions and  Vocalizations
Do chimpanzees have voluntary control over their communicative acts? I agree with Hopkins, Taglialatela and Leavens that they do. Where my thinking somewhat diverges is from their expressed thought that humans must have developed language after they achieved greater control over their vocalizations than chimpanzees currently have.  I don't think that communication requires a theory of mind or voluntary control in order to take place. If anything, voluntary control by the individual member of a community over his communicative acts is what leads to deceit and tend to bring about the breakdown of the system.

Take bees as an example.

Bees can communicate to one another a location of valuable food sources. On my property right now, the Virginia Mountain Mint is blooming in profusion. At first, a single bee discovered this.

But in no time at all other bees arrived, and they appeared to be working side by side.

Even though bees can communicate information to one another, this does not necessarily mean that they are self aware or that they have a theory of mind. The transmission of information through a code can happen in inanimate systems, too, such as computers. DNA code, which is biological and not man-made, transmits information to future generations without any conscious being to interpret it. If human language is a code, we did not necessarily need to know we were transmitting information to other humans before we began using it. On the contrary, only after we gained the knowledge that others were heeding our cries did we learn to manipulate them by feeding them false information.

Not all bees are eusocial. Sometimes the communication system breaks down, and the surplus is not managed properly. and then... the colony collapses, and individual bees go their separate ways. I wrote about this at length here:

The Evolution of Selfishness

Any involuntary reflex that nature gives us to communicate to others can also be faked. Once we realize we might gain something by faking it, we can -- and do -- manipulate the information that we feed to our conspecifics. Human babies discover their power over caretakers and start crying even when their basic needs are met in order to get more attention at around six months, about the same age when they learn to tell apart different people and start to develop stranger anxiety. Developing a theory of mind leads to deception and manipulation. Of course, the age varies with the individual and the baby may not do it at all, if he is autistic. Human females fake orgasms in order to curry favor with their lovers, as Nora Ephron memorably dramatized in her script for "When Harry Met Sally."  People fake injury in order to get out of work. All of these actions are counterproductive from the collective perspective of the "good of all mankind", but they exploit the fact that individual members of society have conflicting interests.

While it is possible to fake a cry when the reason for it is not present, it is much harder to suppress an involuntary reflex when the triggering event happens, even if it compromises the self-interest of the individual. The involuntary cry did not necessarily evolve to help the individual emitting it. It was designed to alert others. In my novel, Theodosia and the Pirates, Jean Laffite explains the natural function of the pleasure cry to Theodosia."“It was not given to you in order to serve you. It was
given to serve your husband."

Theodosia and the Pirates

Chimpanzees have involuntary food vocalizations in order to alert other chimpanzees to the presence of a food source. These vocalizations evolved naturally in order to help the chimpanzee tribe to survive. If they did not have survival value, the vocalizations would not have been retained, because these cries can endanger the individual by drawing the attention of predators. The benefit to the group must outweigh the risk to the individual, or else this chimpanzee trait would not have survived. However, alerting other chimpanzees to the presence of a food source may cause a chimpanzee who is lower on the feeding hierarchy to lose out on a tasty treat, and so clever chimpanzees, despite experiencing the involuntary urge to cry out at the sight of good food, clap their hands over their mouths.

It is very important to understand, for purposes of determining which form of communication came first, that while involuntary vocalizations help to automatically transmit information to others in the group, they no longer work that way as soon as the individual finds he can control and manipulate them. Hence, theory of mind, self awareness and individuation create havoc in the code and lead to a breakdown in the collective transmission of information. Learning to control our vocalizations and facial expressions leads to fake smiles and false cries, not to better coding.

Chimpanzees, in my experience, have a far more developed theory of mind than humans and are much more socially aware. They read body language very well, can anticipate our actions before we take them, and  they learn to prevaricate before they even acquire language. It seems that their involuntary reflexes, vocalizations and displays are hard-wired so strongly precisely because any control a chimpanzee has over his communication immediately leads to deception.  I think that human language is productive as a means of communication only to the extent that humans are more naive and less socially motivated than chimps. In comparison to chimpanzees, humans come off as autistic and less aware of others' true motives, and hence they are less manipulative and share information more freely.

On the other hand, despite all his hard-wired behaviors, Bow shows the ability to master himself at least long enough to warn me that a display of dominance is about to take place.He will very gently nudge me aside, so that he will have enough room to show how very big and strong he is -- without actually hurting anyone. I think that is very evolved. Don't you?

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