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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

LIEBENBERG YET AGAIN


Last Sunday, I posted an omnium gatherum that included a response to Carl's friend, who had commented to Carl about my post on The Origin of Science by Louis Liebenberg.  This morning Carl posted a follow-up comment, also from his friend.  [I find the social structure of the Internet a trifle odd, but then I am very old.]  I am afraid I have brought on this exchange by the unclarity of my original report of Liebenberg's book, which has an extremely misleading title.  Since I find Liebenberg's central point fascinating, I am going to try again to explain it.  It has, let me say right up front, virtually nothing to do with the origin of modern science, so far as I can tell [hence the inappropriateness of the title.]

Some long time ago -- maybe half a million years, maybe only two or three hundred thousand years, I am not sure -- animals of the genus homo ranging across the East African savanna developed really big brains.  These brains were [and are] way larger than one would expect in mammals of their size.  The random mutations that produced these enlarged brains must have had significant survival value in order to take hold and become characteristic of late hominids, including of course homo sapiens sapiens, which is to say us.  Leibenberg observes that these big brains are required for scientific reasoning [and also for writing iambic pentameter, although Liebenberg does not seem to notice that], but since what we identify as advanced human culture came along way after the brains got big, that fact can have played no part in the evolution of the big brains, teleological explanations being definitely unacceptable.

Now Liebenberg is pretty clearly a novice on the subject  of the history and philosophy of science, but he is a world-class expert on the people who practice a hunter-gatherer existence in the Kalahari desert today -- people sometimes referred to as the Zhu.  When the Zhu hunt, they engage in what is called persistence tracking.  They do not lie in wait and attack animals, or charge them and shoot them with bows and arrows.  Instead they run an animal down, tracking it for eight, ten, twelve hours or more in the great heat of the desert, until the animal grows exhausted and simply lies down, at which point it can be killed.

Persistence tracking requires an enormous amount of very detailed knowledge, not only of the general habits of each species of game, but also of the most minute variations in the tracks they leave in sand or on hard clay or in brush.  Since the hunters are pursuing one particular animal, trying to exhaust it, they must be able to identify its tracks in the midst of many other overlapping tracks of the same or other species.

Furthermore [and this is Liebenberg's big boffo point], it often happens that the hunters lose the track -- the animal may run over rocky terrain, for example.  When this happens, the very most skilled hunters [not all Zhu are alike in their hunting skills] have the ability to form hypotheses about where the animal has gone, based both on general knowledge and on their reading of subtle signs.  They quite consciously identify with the animal, asking themselves, "where would I go if I were that kudu?"  Liebenberg calls this "speculative tracking."  Clearly, the ability to engage in successful speculative tracking will greatly improve the chances of making a kill, and hence of being able to survive.

Thus far, I think Liebenberg has a good deal on his side.  Now he makes his big [and very debatable] leap.  The intellectual capabilities called for by speculative tracking, he argues, which quite plausibly appeared several hundred thousand years ago, are fundamentally the same at some very basic and general level as the techniques of reasoning employed by modern scientists.  The big brains were, so to speak, ready at hand when social, historical, economic and other factors combined to produce the rise of modern science.  In effect, he says, the early hominid hunter gatherers engaging in speculative persistence tracking were proto-scientists.

If you begin with the established fact of the emergence of big-brained hominids several hundred thousand years ago and ask what specific survival skills those big brains made possible for those hominids, Liebenberg's hypothesis has a certain plausibility.

Does any of that make sense?

 

 

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