Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A FASCINATING QUIRKY BOOK

More or less by accident, I stumbled on a curious book that I downloaded from Amazon.com for one dollar with my free Kindle App.  It is called The Origin of Science by a South African [I think] anthropologist named Louis Liebenberg.  It is like nothing else you have ever read, and for all I know the central thesis may be true.

Liebenberg is a serious expert on the hunter-gatherer culture of the Kalahari [recall, by the way, my tutorial on Ideological Critique, and my discussion of Edwin Wilmsen's wonderful book Land Filled With Flies.]  In particular, he is an expert on the hunting techniques of the Zhu [as Wilmsen calls them, and so shall I.]  The Zhu hunt by engaging in what is called persistance tracking, which is the relentless tracking and following of an animal until it becomes exhausted and drops, allowing the hunter to kill it  [until quite recently, the inhabitants of the Kalahari did not have bows and arrows efficient enough to actually hunt with.]  This is no mean feat, and sometimes involves steady running and tracking for eight, ten, or more hours in the blistering sun.  The animals [kudu, gemsbok, caraval, etc.] become overheated and must find shade to rest and cool down.  Their bodily capacity for such cooling is inferior to that of humans, which gives the hunters an edge.

The hunters must track the animals across sand, through brush, across rocky patches, finding faint tracks and distinguishing the tracks of the animal they are hunting from other animals that may cross its path.

There are several levels or styles of tracking, the most difficult of which Liebenberg calls "speculative tracking."  Sometimes, the spoor of the animal disappears completely and the hunter must form a speculative hypothesis about which direction it has gone in, based on faint evidences or tracks, a general knowledge of the behavior patterns of the species, and a kind of imaginative identification with the animal, asking himself "if I were that kudu, what would I do now?"  Liebenberg reports that there are very marked differences in skill levels among the Zhu with a large percentage of the meat being brought in by the efforts of a relatively small percentage of especially skilled hunters.

So far, so good.  Now comes the kicker.  Liebenberg asks the following question, one that has troubled evolutionary biologists for as long as there have been evolutionary biologists:  The hypothetical-deductive reasoning of modern science requires a very considerable intellectual capacity, which in turn requires a brain that is, in a manner of speaking, much too large for an animal our size.  The modern human brain is way out of proportion to the human body as compared with the brains of other mammals and reptiles [a comparison that evolutionary biologists have long carried out].  So how and why did it develop?

The point is that Darwinian natural selection eschews all teleological explanations.  No doubt the over-sized modern human brain has turned out to be enormously useful now, but it does not seem that it would have been at all useful 100,000 years ago, which is roughly when it evolved, according to the fossil evidence.

Liebenberg offers the following [somewhat speculative] answer:  the big brain of the hunters on the African savanna developed because right then and there, the ability to go beyond regular tracking to speculative tracking had immediate survival value.  It meant catching animals that would otherwise elude hunters using regular persistance hunting techniques.  And that ability, developed 100,000 years ago, is fundamentally identical with the ability that modern scientists employ in their modern research endeavors!

The book itself is the oddest combination of extremely detailed, knowledgeable descriptions of the tracking techniques and practical knowledge of the Kalahari hunters, and rather amateurish citations of philosophers of science and scientists about the structure of scientific reasoning.

Maybe I am just a sucker for the wonderful descriptions of the tracking skills of the hunters, but for a buck, you can't go wrong.

3 comments:

Carl said...

I showed this post to a friend who's a philosopher of science. He notes that the more commonly cited Cognition in the Wild (http://hci.ucsd.edu/hutchins/citw.html) advances the same thesis, and comments, "The big problem for the view is why, if scientific reasoning is 'fundamentally identical' to tracking cognition that has been part of the human cognitive endowment for 100k years, did modern science only arise in Europe in the 1500s?"

Magpie said...

Prof.

Two things. The first is related to the Liebenberg thesis: brain size has increased continuously even before Homo sapiens appeared. In this Homo sapiens only continues a general tendency initiated by our pre-human ancestors.

This is the second question (I have been reluctant to ask before, as you are now teaching Marx and I wouldn't want to interfere; if you find it inopportune, please let me know): in your Mannheim tutorial you mentioned that Mannheim conceived the "free-floating intellectual" as a workaround to the relativism resulting from the ideology problem.

This "free-floating intellectual", however, was clearly a self-serving solution. Besides, how could one defend one's perception of being a "free-floating intellectual", if one were challenged by another would-be "free-floating intellectual" with opposed views?

So, Mannheim's solution is not a very good one. But, is there any other solution?

Pleb James said...

Oh,
I had a theory that it was the ability to make fire that had both enlarged our brain (as fire is too dangerous to learn via a purely trial and error method), and made our bodies mainly hair free, as hair is less needed for warmth and is a fire hazard. I therefore dub us, as a species, 'fire monkeys'.

On the other point, George Orwell once said "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.". So, faced with another "free-floating intellectual" with opposing views, first ensure that they can see what is in front of their own nose and that you can see what is in front of yours. If both of you can, you're back to square one. However, the meeting of two such people with opposing views is very rare indeed.