A Thread Concerning Human Understanding.

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A Thread Concerning Human Understanding.

Postby RidetheWalrus on March 29th, 2008, 5:59 pm 

- ...Our species has almost certainly not shown any improvement in innate capacity since the Upper Palaeolithic.
- ...It would be surprising if raw human mental capacity had (changed fundamentally).
- So short a time could hardly suffice for genetic changes comparable to those of earlier eras.
- ...There are many more of us upon whose talents humanity can draw and ... human achievements are cummulative.

(JM Roberts, "History of the World"; 1976)

James Flynn (on the "Flynn Effect") argues that modern humans are capable of highly abstract reasoning. Here then, we simply have a greater number of cerebral 'tools' or 'methods' at our disposal. This explains the rising IQ levels year on year.

(JR Flynn, "What is Intelligence?"; 2007)

These popular examples reflect a growing consensus; that humans are successful only insofar as they have access to good information. Perhaps this is evidenced by the technological hiatus of the Dark Ages.

Do you agree?

(N.B. The title of this thread is a pastiche of Locke's "An Essay..." and Hume's "An Enquiry...")
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Postby Forest_Dump on March 30th, 2008, 4:18 am 

I am not sure how you are working this one. How are you defining success? I know some of these guys had issues with the politics, etc. of the "Dark Ages" but that only applied to some areas (Europe) and off hand, I am not sure our species was any more or less successful there and then.
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Postby RidetheWalrus on March 30th, 2008, 10:43 am 

Forest: In this context, "success" is synonymous with "progress". Little progress is made, by definition, during a Dark Age. The point that surprises me is that, in the absence of a "databank" (in Europe this is attributed to the decline of written language), humans show no mental, technological or even cultural improvement.

And after all, do you believe that we are no more intelligent (innately) than we were 12000+ years BP? If we were to somehow lose the Internet, would we regress to a post-WWII society (or even further)? Some have argued that there exists a point at which culture and tradition take the reins of evolution. This is slightly worrying because when civilisation fails we are left with nothing but a biological scaffold, and a tenuous one at that, so it seems.
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Postby Forest_Dump on March 30th, 2008, 12:33 pm 

My point would be that you seem to be suggesting that there is some objective criteria against which we can universally measure success or progress. I am not so sure we can do that. I would agree that we see progress in some things. But I think we pay a price for that in other ways. So sure, I can agree we have progress if measured against increased technology, perhaps a longer healthier life, a greater awareness of the dangers in believing in race, etc. But I think we have paid a price in reduced wealth for most of us, longer work hours and subsequent loss of family life (including family diasporas), environmental degradation, reduced political and economic stability and independence, etc. Now which of these you might alternately judge to be progress vs. regress will probably be up to you. I'm just not sure how you would suggest that there is any kind of objective measure.

No I do not believe we have seen any indication that there has been any indication of significant increase in cognition except what might be related to increased health during development and education. Secondly, while I do not think we understand yet the connection between biology and "culture" (see the pdf I posted elsewhere), I do not see any reason to presume that we are all that free of our biological scaffolding. I just am not sure just what that biological scaffolding is.
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Postby wolfhnd on April 1st, 2008, 8:53 pm 

Cultures are like organisms they tend to age and die but they also give birth to new cultures in the process. That the evolutionary process of competition and the survival of the fittest should apply seems reasonable to me. How cultural evolution and genetic evolution interplay is not clear to me. Judging from the number of poor people in the world I can't say that I see any immediate connection. In fact the poor may inherit the earth if we blow ourselves up with nuclear weapons. This is too complex a question in my opinion.
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Postby psionic11 on April 1st, 2008, 11:06 pm 

Jumps of magnitude. That's what informed intelligence does. Feedback loops.

I would not go so far as to say that humans are ONLY successful insofar as they have access to good information. I would say intelligence (plastic adaptability to environmental challenges) enhances survivability, while (good) information enhances intelligence. Whether that "success" translates into broader sociological strategies is a complex process dependent on the politics and technology of the times. The team can get by based on numbers and established strategies, while the star player can sometimes perform equally or better than the team.

But what is your hidden point anyway? Is this some speculation into what would happen if humanity suddenly is robbed of major civilizational benefits? The classic sci-fi theme of a future Stone Age era again? Our current knowledge (by both the academic specialist and the filtered down common knowledge of the masses) of what happens why and how to influence that outcome far surpasses what we knew 10 millenia ago... it's not so much the point of whether our innate intelligence has evolved, but more a point that our self-consistent knowledge has evolved, and it is that knowledge that enables "success", not just intelligence alone. On several levels.
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Postby Mark J on May 5th, 2008, 7:10 am 

This is slightly worrying because when civilisation fails we are left with nothing but a biological scaffold, and a tenuous one at that, so it seems.


I would suggest that what has happened in the Lebanon and old Yugoslavia over the last 30 years would suggest that your worries are well founded.

I might also suggest that our progress is only progress if you define the society we live in as having progressed from its predecessor. For every new skill our children learn so quickly that we struggle with, I’d suggest that they have failed to gain others that we learned at their age as a matter of course.

I just am not sure just what that biological scaffolding is.


May I suggest hindbrain, "When the going gets tough the animal gets going".
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Postby Removed user on May 5th, 2008, 8:57 am 

Human society is greatly defined by its technology, which is as much or more a part of the ongoing culture than of the individual. Case in point: very few of us, even those versed in electrical engineering, could actually build a radio, much less a computer, from scratch (do you know how to make glass and blow a vacuum tube, smelt copper, etc.?). Take 100 humans each, from now and from, say, Athens of 2500 years ago, strip them both of their gadgets, and strand each group in a remote place for an extended period of time -- I’d bet that neither would fare as well as a similar number of Paleozoic humans would, nor advance any faster.
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Postby charles brough on October 20th, 2008, 10:41 am 

wolfhnd wrote:Cultures are like organisms they tend to age and die but they also give birth to new cultures in the process. That the evolutionary process of competition and the survival of the fittest should apply seems reasonable to me. How cultural evolution and genetic evolution interplay is not clear to me. Judging from the number of poor people in the world I can't say that I see any immediate connection. In fact the poor may inherit the earth if we blow ourselves up with nuclear weapons. This is too complex a question in my opinion.


It is as though evolution functions to increase a species ability to increase in numbers as a sort of survival security mechanism. In my work, I define "success" and "progress" in terms of the human race as being "the increase in sustainable human numbers brought about by the cultural accumulation of more accurate science and hence more effective technology." This is key to the feeling or sense that we have "progressed because we have increased our cultural heritage."

In response to an earlier post from another poster, I ask how reliable are tests that purport to show our I.Q. is increasing? I have been unable to find any evidence that our "progress" has been due to any biological change. Most of our cultural progress has occurred in the last 40,000 years. Just how much really significant biological evolution could have occurred in such a short span of time?

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Postby veraphilia on February 15th, 2009, 11:42 am 

In understanding human understanding it may be useful to look at the Savanna Principle, which is a theory proposed by Satoshi Kanazawa that "wiki: asserts that the environment that molded the human brain through natural selection is drastically different than the world humans currently live in. This disparity between what man was designed to do and what he currently can do leads to a host of societal difficulties". Although evolution via natural selection is an ongoing process, I would hesitate to think that our genetics have changed much over the course of history. What has 'evolved' since the beginning of history is the accumulated body of knowledge. With the development of writing human beings were able to transmit their knowledge and ideas verbatim from generation to generation. New generations need not learn everything all over again for themselves, or be victim of inaccurate oral transmissions. Science depends on this accumulation of 'data' in order to grow. So although our genetics (and brain) may be roughly the same since prehistory, the amount and types of information available has grown exponentially and that is certainly the basis of our 'intelligence' today.
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Postby Bill Davis on February 15th, 2009, 2:37 pm 

What is success? What is superior?

I am very effective at what I do in the world I live in. Transplant me to another part of the world and I am ignorant and incompetent. Transplant me to other places in time and I am as an imbecile.

What we often misapprehend in "ancient" cultures is just how intelligent they were. They noted with no instruments change in their environment and as such were able to know when to move across mountains to new grazing fields for their flock. They teased out metals from rock and formed it into tools. They recalled detailed stories of their ancestors without the advantages of being able to write and read. They could look at plants in the forest and identify which ones were safe to eat and which ones had shown medicinal properties.

What we tend to see in the rising "intelligence scores" is often the focus we put on the skills tested within. We should have whole sections on identifying which clay from the ground is more suited for firing to form a basin. While we are at it, add one on tracking animals based on slight disturbances in ground cover.
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Postby Forest_Dump on February 15th, 2009, 5:11 pm 

Well, I am certainly with you there. As someone who spends a lot more time outside than most, I tend to amaze students, etc., with my ability to make stone tools, spot and identify flowers and plants, birds and animals, etc. Of course, then I look like an idiot when up against a real pro like many First Nations elders. And as far as social skills go, I have yet to come across a city dweller who has the expertise of most rural folks who have had to learn how to live with and get along with the same people their entire lives. As commonly noted, if city folk don't like someone, the can easily ignore them and not know their neighbors or even just move away permanently. Now granted, more truly "egalitarian" folk will "vote with their feet" and move away as well when they don't like someone or something. But they will be far more likely to move back in a year or two and pick up as though nothing ever happened. That, in fact, is a key difference. In the city, you can ignore your family except maybe for special occasions. Many of the First Nations folks I know never really move from their families. Instead, they will count their families in the many hundreds and sometimes more than a day's travel away by car and just change which family members they will live among on a constant basis.
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Postby wolfhnd on February 16th, 2009, 2:36 am 

No matter how well learned a person may be in terms of adapting to the "natural" environment, nor the possession of countless oral histories will they ever approach the stored knowledge that is made possible by a written language. To think of knowledge as anything other than a form of intelligence where the quality and quantity of data determines adaptability is misleading. While it may be true that knowledge does not intelligence make, the absence of knowledge surely precludes intelligence above a very rudimentary form. The quantity and quality of data a culture processes and thus it's cultural IQ is independent in someways from the intelligence of the individuals that make up that culture. Much like the swarm intelligence evolution has given an ant colony, cultural evolution is not dependent on any single individuals ability to process or possess information.

There is a tendency today to ignore the great advantages bestowed on us by technology that is so cheaply acquired and readily available. Ultimately the human races survival is dependent on technological advancement more than it is on the intelligence of the peoples who comprise it.
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Re: A Thread Concerning Human Understanding.

Postby Objective on August 14th, 2010, 9:48 am 

There is a tendency today to ignore the great advantages bestowed on us by technology that is so cheaply acquired and readily available. Ultimately the human races survival is dependent on technological advancement more than it is on the intelligence of the peoples who comprise it.


I think that technology without intelligent people is impossible. The greater mass of people will always use technology mindlessly but without that small group of thinkers and doers there wont be technology. Perhaps the increasing visualization of certain technologies may even do the acquisition of intelligence damage and in that sense destroy its own creator - the human mind. Ultimately the survival of man is dependent on the mind and not on its products although the latter may help.
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Re: A Thread Concerning Human Understanding.

Postby mtbturtle on August 14th, 2010, 10:44 am 

Objective wrote: Ultimately the survival of man is dependent on the mind and not on its products although the latter may help.


A mind that fails to produce anything dies.
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Re: A Thread Concerning Human Understanding.

Postby neuro on August 14th, 2010, 1:11 pm 

mtbturtle wrote:
Objective wrote: Ultimately the survival of man is dependent on the mind and not on its products although the latter may help.

A mind that fails to produce anything dies.

or possibly the survival of man is dependent on their products not destroying the Earth:
a mind that produces what it cannot control may die as well.
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Re: A Thread Concerning Human Understanding.

Postby mtbturtle on August 14th, 2010, 5:59 pm 

neuro wrote:or possibly the survival of man is dependent on their products not destroying the Earth:
a mind that produces what it cannot control may die as well.


the Darwin Awards record their efforts. :)
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Re: A Thread Concerning Human Understanding.

Postby Objective on August 18th, 2010, 1:19 pm 

Objective wrote:
Ultimately the survival of man is dependent on the mind and not on its products although the latter may help.

mtb wrote:
A mind that fails to produce anything dies.


All minds die but some leave a legacy - the mind is production manifest but that is old news i am sure. Some simply produce what is required to extend life - others produce that which makes life worthwhile.
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Re: A Thread Concerning Human Understanding.

Postby Venus on February 15th, 2014, 12:21 pm 

RidetheWalrus wrote:- ...Our species has almost certainly not shown any improvement in innate capacity since the Upper Palaeolithic.
- ...It would be surprising if raw human mental capacity had (changed fundamentally).
- So short a time could hardly suffice for genetic changes comparable to those of earlier eras.
- ...There are many more of us upon whose talents humanity can draw and ... human achievements are cummulative.

(JM Roberts, "History of the World"; 1976)

James Flynn (on the "Flynn Effect") argues that modern humans are capable of highly abstract reasoning. Here then, we simply have a greater number of cerebral 'tools' or 'methods' at our disposal. This explains the rising IQ levels year on year.

(JR Flynn, "What is Intelligence?"; 2007)

These popular examples reflect a growing consensus; that humans are successful only insofar as they have access to good information. Perhaps this is evidenced by the technological hiatus of the Dark Ages.

Do you agree?

(N.B. The title of this thread is a pastiche of Locke's "An Essay..." and Hume's "An Enquiry...")

No, I disagree.

I think that humans in the Western world are actually getting less intelligent, thanks to industrialization and 'career women'.

See for instance this article referring to a study on it:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/2 ... 93846.html
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Re: A Thread Concerning Human Understanding.

Postby pythicnome on June 20th, 2018, 12:50 am 

Trying to come at this from a different angle:
One reference point to consider is the long duration of education that is required by human infants. Originally, in part an adaptation to the larger brain/larger head vs narrow hips for upright walking, which resulted in giving birth to still immature offspring, which required their learning to be completed by their mothers and others.

As this educational process is relatively unconstrained, it is subject to cultural and societal influences. And if society and culture change in the form of innovations and increasing complexity, then innate intelligence may be open to change over time. In this sense, you could say that intelligence is an adaptation to society. And arguably, as society today requires more skills to succeed in, our innate intelligence has been increasing to match the changes in society.

The above points also suggest that you cannot compare the intelligence of a person from one historical period with another from another period. The minds were educated to solve different types and degrees of problem. There is also a "survival bias" present, in that past individuals who could not adapt to increasing social complexity, probably got bred out of the population as they would not have made good mates.

One last factor is that although the time has been too short for much genetic change, we know there has been some but beyond genetic change there have been profound changes in the sensory mechanics of cognition, especially in the last 10,000 years or so and more so within the last 4-5,000 years with the transition from oral cultures to literate cultures. Oral cultures existed for perhaps 50,000 years and relied on and developed powerful memory devices to store and transmit information. The shift to the written word changed all of that, but in the meantime much of the mental infrastructure of orality still exists - for example our love of music and dance and story-telling. But the system was for the memorization task to be assigned to a small number of people, with the majority remaining as listeners (the first audience!, the start of politics and religion and receptivity for TV!).
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Re: A Thread Concerning Human Understanding.

Postby BadgerJelly on June 20th, 2018, 2:41 am 

If intelligence was the single most important factor for survival you could easily make such comparisons.

As inelligence is only one of a multitude of interwoven threads we’re in the habit of making educated guesses and estimates about different characteristics of humans. We do this by making convenient distinctions and further refining and dividing them.

What has happened over the past few millenia is humans have started to apply their fluid intelligence to new expanded areas of interest - our reach, to others and the environemnt at large, has taken on a steady evolution through more precise expression of ideas through ever more complex and specialised language (which in turn has evolved due to like minded people being able to communicate and find each other more readily.)

If you’re interested in this then I woudl recommend studying a bit of Jung, and in more material terms to look at tricksey terms like “heritability” which are misused constantly to “prove” the exact opposite of what they say.

Another perso to look at could be Eliade (esp. work done o shamanism), but he can be incredibly dry to read!

I am guessing you’re familiar with Gazzaniga too? Not with him on everything he says, but his research is undoubtedly some of the most thought provoking and insightful.
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Re: A Thread Concerning Human Understanding.

Postby BadgerJelly on June 20th, 2018, 4:24 am 

For what it’s worth (not a lot) I have posted uneditted notes from Eliade’s “The Sacred and The Profane” if you’re interested.

Also, I did try my hand at discussing the issue of race and intelligence in order to address what you’re interested in, but I didn’t honestly expect it to go well because people get irksome about such topics - what I was trying to highlight in that thread was the knock-on effect of prenatal development and intelligence. Not that I think anyone saw it, but I was trying to say that I believe it may well be impossible to measure intelligence by demographic group without considering the effects of previous childbearers stretching back who knows how many generations (see Sapolsky for that can of worms!) This also happens to tie in with the whole issue of gender versus sex because we know in the womb that for twins sharing blood obviously expose themselves to the others hormones to some degree; and that is not even considering what the mother is eating or her state of mind and how that plays into prenatal development too.

If you at leat scratch the surface in such areas you’ll quickly realise that understanding the broader mechanisms doesn’t really help us much in working out the nuances (but it does help a little.)

Open minded skepticism is the only reasonable way to approach such publically sensitive topics - and a little courage and willingness to say something you think rather than let it fester and become a false truth in your own head.
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