Father’s Day Musings on Cognitive Evolution


If you wiki the term “concept”, you can read for 1/2 hour on the different attempts at definitions of what a concept is: an idea, a mental representation, an abstraction… offered by philosophers, linguists, cognitive psychologists and others who have weighed in on the topic over the centuries. Often the term “concept” is used interchangeably with “category” in both academic and popular writings.

For my own purposes in thinking about what is unique in human cognition and how it evolved in us, I differentiate animal mental representations from ours, as theirs being strictly “categories”, based on perceptual similarity alone, without any abstract relations included. From all my reading on the subject of comparative psychology and animal behavior, it appears we humans have true concepts of things it seems which are mental representations very similar to other animal’s perceptual categories, but with a virtually unlimited set of abstract relations added onto these basic perceptual categories. Animals categorize objects and other critters and people, and respond based on similarity in sight, sound, and smell. We do too, but add in all manner of un-observable, abstracted relations to the perceptual info creating full-blown concepts.

In addition, we also have concepts that are not of real things in our environment but that are purely abstract ideas themselves: “justice” “equality” “symmetry” “love” “above” “before” “obnoxious” and “baroque” to name a few. And unlike animal categories it seems we can add to our conceptual ontology continuously with new objects and abstract relations to form an ever-growing, possibly unlimited set of things which we discover, or create ourselves. “Selfies” and “selfie sticks” and the “Cloud” and the “LHC” (Large Hadron Collider), come to mind as wholly new concepts of artifacts we only recently created. And they are complex concepts that one could describe and associate other concepts with, almost indefinitely it seems. “Texting”, sexting”, “super symmetry” and “entanglement”, are behaviors of people and sub-atomic particles that were unknown when I was a kid being all new concepts packed with a rather unlimited number of associations to other concepts we keep in our heads. Psychologists call this apparently unlimited and infinitely interconnected set of ever-growing concepts the semantic network: where meanings of things and their relations trigger other concepts and their relations. It may be the source of our creativity, as well as our unique descriptive and problem-solving skills that allowed us as humans to occupy the “cognitive niche”.

An example of this distinction is the concept of “cat”. Your dog and your cat have a category of “cat” based on critters (and objects) that look, smell, sound, and act like “cats”. Your dog will respond characteristically to any given cat-looking thing (statues or stuffed cats included at times), very different than how he responds to you or other people, or to dogs and other critters. There is no evidence your dog has any sort of mental representation beyond this perceptual category of “cat.” There’s no evidence his cat category include abstract relations and descriptions such as “carnivore” “feline” “furred” “cuddly” “aloof” “meows” “eats mice” “stalks prey” “playful” “animal” “vertebrate” “mammal” “black ones are bad luck” “Siamese ones are snotty” “killed off by Schroedinger”…you get the idea. These ideas all go into our full blown concept of cat, and we could go on with those abstracted associations (all concepts themselves) for hours if we put our minds to it. Dogs and other animals not only exhibit no evidence of having concepts, but there is no theory offered as to how their brains might have acquired conceptual ability in their evolution.

We offhandedly say of someone “they have no concept” when we are describing someone gullible, clueless, not really hip to what’s going on. That term fits all too well when we watch a dog or another animal be utterly fooled by a statue of a person or another critter…They just don’t “get it”:

Why not?
Because the dog has no concept, as you or I, or a 3 year-old does of what a live human being is. The statue presents the dog perceptually with a human form that is sufficiently similar to the humans he sees every day, and they sometimes play fetch with him. He doesn’t know what live or dead or fake is, or what a statue is. No concept(s). The dog may give up eventually as the statue never responds, but there is no evidence the dog eventually catches on to “Oh, I get it, that’s not a real person!” as even the most dim-witted of humans would do. The dog doesn’t know what “real” is, or a “real” person from a “fake” one. “Real” is just another abstract concept that isn’t a “real” thing (it was there, I HAD to take it). Show me a “real” in your environment, or describe what a “real” is, there’s no such thing. “Real” is an abstracted concept. (Now there’s a nice-spatial-movement metaphor concept in itself: “abstracted”, as if we draw out that distinction literally from something else, pull out an otherwise un-observable relation, so we can “see it”…which is another metaphor we use to describe “understanding).” “Seeing is understanding” is one of the most common of metaphors. We use spatial and force metaphors to create many of our abstract concepts, but that IS a whole ‘nother essay to be sure..and a fascinating one. There is some excellent research from cognitive science and linguistics in just the last few decades on metaphor.

So the dog is easily fooled, and the regular and characteristic mistakes many animals make like the dog being fooled, belie their lack of true understanding of things. They appear to operate on strictly perceptual information that is not also represented with abstract ideas. YouTube is full of dogs, cats, and other critters being “fooled” by fake people or critters. For another example, frogs in the lab will fling their tongue at any dark, fly-sized object, moving at the right trajectory and speed that a real insect in its environment would normally present. They are easily fooled by a small black piece of cardboard that looks and moves like a fly. They have no concept of “fly” or “insect” or “edible insect” or “food”. We do. And they don’t need any conceptual understanding to survive in their environment. Their perceptual processing and response is very successful, as it is and has been for most animals that have ever evolved on earth. Our conceptual intelligence is definitely the exception.


Another classic example of lack of concept with minimal perceptual similarity being quite enough for an animal, even intelligent primates, is shown in the classic attachment experiments of Harry Harlow and rhesus monkeys. A wire framed mom monkey with a rigid face of flashlight parts and a terry-cloth body was as good as a real live monkey mother to elicit comfort and normal attachment behavior from a rhesus macaque infant, allowing the monkey to develop normally in every way. Watching the monkey attachment experiment footage one wonders:
“How can the monkey be fooled? The fake mom’s face never changes, the body doesn’t move, it makes no sound. Doesn’t he notice she isn’t real?”
Great question! And the answer is “No”. The baby monkey doesn’t notice anything is wrong, the fake mother is as real to him as a real monkey mom. The fake mother is preceptually similar enough in the right ways, overall shape and body with a face on top, a warm body to cling to…and that’s enough. Infant and mother monkeys rarely make any eye contact anyway in the wild: neither do chimps and the other apes. Continual eye contact and social facial expression exchange and of course accompanying verbal communication is a human behavior, evolved only in us. (I wonder when that one evolved—but that’s another entire essay in itself). Much of our behavior is an exception, added onto prior behaviors and cognition we share with all the other animals, none moreso I think than our conceptual abilities.


Homo heidelbergensis
And I am fascinated by just how we might have got that conceptual ability, and when. Our primate cousins and most likely our common primate ancestor didn’t do concepts, (there is no evidence any animal does, more on that later). I would wager our ancestor Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) at 3 million years ago with a chimp sized brain and not even simple stone tools, did not have our modern conceptual ability. Nor do I suspect that the longest lived Homo species, H.erectus around from nearly 2 million years ago until the last few hundred thousand years B.P., had our conceptual abilities. We first see what I think of as solid evidence of concepts, spatial concepts at first it seems, in the finely worked, purposely bilaterally symmetric handaxes of the last 300-500,000 years produced by H. heidelbergensis . More on that later too as it is the subject of the new book that this essay and the one on the “cognitive niche” will be included in, having the working title of: Tools, Concepts and Consciousness.

Our brains not only expanded but rewired and restructured on the basic mammalian-primate plan to produce a uniquely intelligent creature with a metabolically expensive brain. Our intelligence and consciousness allows for a wealth of innovative behaviors that has made us so successful in that cognitive niche. We produce behaviors in language, teaching, manufacturing, and theorizing: understanding the processes of the world unseen by any other animal. And behaviors are performed by muscles moving. Even pure thought, our thinking always involves, motivates, and produces some later behavior.

“Brains are for movement.” Daniel Wolpert (TED talk).

Running a behavior of some kind, moving muscles to run, chew, talk, make tools, swim, chase, build skyscrapers, do math equations, dance, teach, split the atom, play piano, etc., etc., requires movement. All cognition, whether it is just perceptual processing and responding to stimuli with simple associative learning, that we share with the animals, or our unique conceptual human thought, is ultimately meant to produce a behavior, a muscle contraction, a movement in response to an external stimuli (threat, environment, sights, smells, etc.), or to an internal motivation (thirst, hunger, sex, curiosity, problem solving, scientific inquiry, etc.). Many different non-conceptual levels of brain power accomplish adaptive movements for all animals that are plenty good enough to exist in any environment, any niche. Bigger brains aren’t always necessary for evolutionary success. In fact they are the exception. Higher intelligence is not an endpoint. There are no endpoints, no goals, no teleology in evolution. Whatever works well enough to survive is what evolution produces. Big brains and conceptual intelligence are just one more way to be a successful critter, that we just happened to evolve. Our behaviors, our movements, using our hands, and our tools (as extensions of our hands) are also incredibly unique. We write and solve math equations, carve hieroglyphs, run a screwdriver, pilot planes and huge earth moving machines, make test tubes and test tube babies…it is phenomenal the range of unprecedented movements and behaviors the human animal produces. This is not normal, folks. Something as simple and mundane as making clothing and doing laundry…what other animal does even that? All those behaviors, all those movements mundane and otherwise, unique to humans, are all produced by our brains and our conceptual abilities.

The dumb lowly opossum with a brain like a chicken liver, isn’t very intelligent nor advanced neurologically over basic brain functions, can do but a little of basic associative learning, doesn’t have a whole lot of cortical movement control (waddles like a primitive reptile), but its genus has over 100 living species and they have been around with this simple body-brain-behavior design for over 65 million years…Way longer than us with our big brains. And it lives on all continents like we do. Not bad, for a very stupid critter.

So pace researchers like the primatologist Franz De Waal, who question: “Why didn’t the other apes develop our intelligence?”
I truly think they are looking thru the wrong end of the telescope. It is not why didn’t other primates get as smart as us, all other animals didn’t either, the vast, vast majority of animals living and long dead didn’t need to, to be successful. The question should be, “Why are we such an exception?” Out of the millions of species alive today and the hundreds of millions that may have ever lived and are extinct, we are the only ones with a conceptual intelligence. It is an expensive metabolic path to feed a big modeling, thinking,brain with higher cognition and language. We and our brains are a one-off, like the elephants trunk. Other animals dont breathe, drink, and manipulate their environment all thru their noses! So to paraphrase De Waal et al., why not ask “Why didn’t every animal evolve a trunk?” Which is absurd, of course.

SONY DSC

Other species cognition, with very simple associative learning, simple fixed call systems for communication, and unconscious simple mapping of their environment such as the body maps in the superior colicullus, that run visual responses, perceptual modeling and behavior anticipation is again, highly adaptive and plenty good enough for most environmental niches. Humans have a conscious conceptual modeling way beyond the simple perceptual categories we share with the other animals. Our conceptual abilities are the one-off, like the elephants trunk which also evolved once.

So to restate, I define category as a mental representation based on perceptual similarity, in sight, smell, movement. A concept is much more. The literature in cog psych, comparative behavior, philosophy, and popular usage often conflate concept and category, leaving both-ill-defined. For me, a concept is a category with un-observable relations added and only humans appear to have concepts.
So how did we get this unique and qualitatively different conceptual-modeling cognition?

We are not just a primate, but a bipedal one. Bipedalism happens now and then in almost all types of critters (birds: ostriches, T-Rex in dinosaurs, the kangaroo in marsupials,) but we are the one primate who stood up habitually, who already had grasping hands with opposable thumbs, and detailed forward facing, color, stereoscopic vision. It still took a few million years of bipedalism in our upright ancestors to then get to Lucy’s near-fully human hands. She did not have chimp or monkey hands anymore, but then another million or more years of hand-brain coordination making and using simple stone tools went by, before we get to real brain expansion with Homo habilis and then especially brain and significant body change in Homo erectus. H. erectus was one hell of a successful creature for nearly 2 million years, moving out of Africa, populating much of Eurasia, with limited human skills, no symmetric handaxes, no Cave Art, no compound tools, no machines, no civilization. Erectus’ level of cognition sans concepts worked just fine for 10x longer so far than modern H. sapiens have been around with our much higher level of conceptual cognition.


I think, the later tools changed everything after 500,000 years B.P., and especially just in the last 50,000, in that they kicked off the conceptual abilities in our brains, starting with simple spatial concepts, which are the basis of all of our elaborate abstract concepts, thinking, language, and advanced social cognition like Theory of Mind (ToM). The spatial concepts of next to, in, on, before, after, equal, L/R, symmetry…and the force concepts of propulsion, contact, support, movement…I suspect all these concepts came from the later complex tools. And it didn’t happen overnite, it still took nearly 500,000 years to get to modern human cultural behaviors which themselves accumulated mostly just in the last 40,000 years beginning with Cave Art. 1/2 a million years is a long time, and so is 40,000. Think about it.

Civilization is barely 4-5,000 years old. The pyramids, constructed around 3,500 B.C. were as ancient to the Romans already as the Romans and their structures like the Coliseum and aqueducts are to us, yet those time spans that seem so immense to us are a drop in the bucket compared to the over 2 million years of simple tool making prior to symmetry appearing, and another 500,000 years before Cave Art showed up. Then consider another 30,000 years or so before towns and cities and agriculture.

We ended up in the cognitive niche, modeling the world in our heads using concepts: a much more elaborate and accurate model of the world than the simple perceptual categorization of animals, which allows us to figure out how to live in any environment. Which allows us to see problems. Which allows us to theorize and probe deeper, expanding our conceptual understanding…exponentially, in the last 200 years of dedicated scientific inquiry.

Animals react to and can solve some simple problems if they are simple enough and fit their cognition. Chimps can unravel things, but don’t read your emotions like your dog, your dog can’t unwrap his leash and will die of starvation 10ft. from food, a crow can bend a paper clip and fish out food, a chimp can use a curved stick to do the same, but only if we bend it for them. Many animals like them all have some impressive but singular, limited cognitive abilities, We have a general problem solving skill because we can abstract the similar relations in any situation, and model the casual processes of both objects and our own hand actions (our tools are just extensions of our hands) in our heads, and figure out what will work. We see problems and processes in nearly everything, animals don’t. They react to the here and now stimuli they are presented with. So, this model of the world in our heads full of people, objects, animals, and events in space and time (abstract concepts unique to us, derived from spatial primitive concepts) is a one-off, and it got there only thru our equally unique trajectory as a bipedal primate, with hands, human hands which built our huge and uniquely wired human brains, which evolved to see and produce spatial relations like “equality” and “symmetry” and “before” and “after” which we then used to create abstract concepts of time, space, metaphors of all sorts, which run our language and advanced social cognition and social behaviors.

Our cognitive modeling intelligence is just one more way to solve the puzzle of adaptation. But it is a rare one, and contingent on all the steps outlined above in the past 6 million years since we went bipedal. To answer De Waal then; no other animal evolved our type of intelligence becasue no other animal became a bipedal primate, and went thru the long, complex, contingent, evolutionary path of bipedalism, hands, brain expansion, stone tool manufacture, and symmetric tool making that we did that gave us conceptual intelligence.

Monkeys have been around for 50 million years, with thousands of species extinct, and hundreds more species still alive, living all over the globe. Damn successful compared to apes, which tend to be even smarter than monkeys but are down to just a half dozen species living along a narrow band around the equator. Monkeys didn’t need to expand their intelligence to hang around and prosper for 50 million years. Possums, dumb as a box of rocks, have done quite well for 65 million years, and many critters with no brain or nervous system at all (bacteria, microbes, etc.) have done just fine also without becoming bipedal, thinking apes, or growing a trunk like an elephant.

Concepts are not the only way to get around an environment, but they are the only way to model and theorize and do possibly unlimited causal, problem identification and problem solving in any environment. Perceptual categories get you phenomenally diverse and successful adaptations. Concepts get you understanding.

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