Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us From Other Animals by Thomas Suddendorf

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us From Other Animals has been on my list for a while, and I finally went out and borrowed it.

Let me preface my review with a bit of background. I was raised on curriculum which was strongly Young Earth Creationist, although my father leaned toward an old earth. During my high school years, I increasingly rejected this point of view, largely because I learned more about science and realized that most - probably all - YEC materials grossly misrepresent the actual claims of evolutionary theory. In addition, most do not even address discoveries from the last 50 years, relying instead on a straw man of Victorian Era theory and science. I was also horrified by the combination of conspiracy theories and wild speculation to try to get around basic facts of the universe such as the speed of light, the distance of the stars, and the inescapable conclusion that the universe is billions of years old. As with astronomy, so with geology, and later with biology. It just became increasingly untenable to believe in either a 6000 year old earth or a 6000 year old humanity. One of the final straws was the research done in the last few decades on DNA which have done a great deal to confirm common ancestry and the “ability” of organisms to develop new and beneficial traits  (You can read more about DNA in Sam Kean’s outstanding book, The Violinist’s Thumb, reviewed here.)

With that background, perhaps it is easier to see why I am just now exploring some of the questions raised by evolution, both scientific (as in this case) and theological (as I may do in the future on this blog.) 

Here is the basic idea of this book. Humans are, unquestionably, on a completely different level of brain development than other animals. Yes, humans are animals, contrary to what some theologians say. This is one reason we can test products on animals, and why they have similar anatomy, function, and so on. This shouldn’t be all that controversial, honestly, but it seems to be. So yes, we are animals, but we are not exactly mere animals either. The very fact that I wrote this post and you are reading it should be proof of some “gap,” as the author puts it. Douglas Adams notwithstanding, there are no blog posts by dolphins, and no evidence of an equivalent have been found. Suddendorf explores exactly what this gap between us and the others consists of, how close our nearest relatives are to us in ability, and why we see a gap now.

Suddendorf is in a good position to write this book, as he helped create some of the primary research in the area of primate intelligence. A native of Germany, he now lives in Australia, teaching and researching for the University of Queensland. In this book, he describes a number of the experiments that he participated in, those done by others in his field, and ties them all together with older research. I will also say that he writes exceedingly well about what could have been boring science, which leads me to believe that he would probably be a great teacher.

I recommend reading this book in full, rather than relying on my distillation of the topic, but I do want to hit a few highlights.

First, although it comes in the middle of the book, Suddendorf’s thesis is that the various parts of the gap can be traced to two abilities that humans have. The first is the ability to build what he calls “nested scenarios.” This is more than a mere problem solving ability, it is the ability to put on whole productions in our heads. We can walk through an imaginary scenario as if it were a stage play, trying on different ideas and solutions. It is this, for example, that allows us to imagine the distant future, react to changes in circumstances, and so on. No other animal has adapted so rapidly to different environments, and he believes that this is because of this ability. I am doing a lousy job of explaining this, so go and read the book already.

The second ability is a desire to connect with other minds. Humans have built what we have not because each of us is smart enough to invent everything ourselves, but because we have connected with others across history and geography. I could not tell you how to build the computer I am typing on. Likewise, even though I understand the basics of electronics - and can explain them to you if you really want - I didn’t discover them. I read about them in books, talked about them with others, and experimented on devices created by others. I didn’t even invent the language I speak and write. Millions of other humans have contributed to it, and our common assignment of meaning to the sounds and symbols is possible because we have connected our minds together. This is evident in small children from an extremely early age. We long to connect - and we notice something “off” in those who do not share this ability. (Autism spectrum is in part diminished ability to connect minds.) As the author puts it, “We seem to need to read each others’ minds in both these ways. We have a fundamental urge to link our minds: to understand and be understood.”

Suddendorf begins the book with a basic introduction to our primate family. This includes those still living, such as the great apes, the monkeys, and humans. He also notes, however, that there were many other primates who have gone extinct, including a good number of species of hominids. Suddendorf makes the point that the “gap” is to a significant degree noticeable because we are missing the creatures that would have been in between. They are all extinct now, but they existed once. (One of the reasons I cannot go back to a YEC point of view is that we keep discovering new homind species, including this one in the last couple of years The YEC explanations don’t fit the facts, and are driven by a perceived theological need, rather than drawn from the facts.) 

After setting the stage, Suddendorf goes on to examine the skills and abilities of other primates, and correlates these abilities with the branch of the family tree they come from, and when they are believed to have split off. (In this, it is important to note, as the author does, that apes are not our ancestors, but descendents of common ancestors.)

One thing of note in this section is the fact that our closest cousins, the Chimpanzees are the only other animal species known to make plans and team up to kill their own kind. This is, of course, humanity’s greatest shame, and it is sad to see that cruelty is apparently something that develops with greater brain capacity.

Next come several chapters exploring the specifics of the gap, looking at each in turn. These are language, foresight, mind reading, intelligence, culture, and morality. Again, I won’t detail each, because the book does it better.

Rounding out the book is a look at extinct hominids, and what the fossil record has shown about their anatomy and abilities. (It is easy to forget that artifacts are often found with bones, and these can give insight into development. Likewise radiometric dating has revealed relative dates of existence for these extinct species.)

Here are some of the ideas that particularly stood out to me.

First is this quote from Aldous Huxley (author of Brave New World and grandson of Thomas Huxley, whose work in zoology was as revolutionary as Darwin’s theories.)

Thanks to words, we have been able to rise above the brutes. And thanks to words, we have often sunk to the level of the demons.

All one needs to see this in action both ways is in our ability to gain empathy through our interaction with others - and also to become a mob united by a common hatred. (This election is shaping up to be a clear example of this one…)

Next, I found Suddendorf’s section on the function of memory to be fascinating. We lawyers know all too well a peculiarity of the human mind: our memories are faulty and plastic. It is well established that humans are terrible at making eyewitness identification of strangers. Sure, we can pick a friend or family member out of a crowd, but we confuse strangers all the time - more so as they resemble us less. (All black people look alike…) But it is weird that not only do we not improve our memories with time, we also become more confident in them. Basically, we rewrite and confirm our memories.

Suddendorf makes the case that this is so because the purpose of memory (evolutionarily speaking) isn’t to make an accurate snapshot of the past, but to use the past to predict the future.

In this sense, accurate prediction is more important than accurate recall. Indeed, all memory systems are inherently future-directed, rather than oriented toward the past, as one might assume...Memory matters because of what it can do for you now and in the future.

This makes sense. We need our memories to remember where something is - say a hideout or food cache - rather than all the details of how we discovered it. If it doesn’t help us find it in the future, that information isn’t that relevant.

The next bit that I found fascinating is that for most primates, staring into their eyes is viewed as a threat. For us humans, it is a means of connecting - and mind reading. It is also a means of deception in some cases, as Suddendorf illustrates through his experiences playing soccer. The penalty kick is a mind game, kicker versus goalie, and the winner is the one who wins the battle of the mind.

Not all of our games, however, are ones we play with each other. As any computer scientist can tell you, our minds do not have spectacular computing power. We are slow, and we work on kludgy compromises to get the most out of what we physically have. What this means is that we often have shortcuts we take to reach decisions. A human chess player will never calculate all the scenarios as fast as a computer, but a human can often come to a good decision anyway, even through imperfect knowledge and calculation. This gets us in trouble sometimes, however, because our shortcuts are - in a real sense - our biases.

For example, we frequently base judgments on how easily we can call to mind relevant information and make a decision as soon as we have a satisfying answer. We therefore frequently fail to act optimally given available information. Yet we tend to be supremely (over)confident about our judgments and generally resist evidence that demonstrates we are wrong. In hindsight we are sure we could have predicted what we now know to have happened.

The chapter on Culture is interesting as well. We tend to think of “high” culture when we use the term, but it actually includes much more.

Culture in a broad sense comprises everything enduring that we learn from others; it includes the commonplace - even banal - customs, values, knowledge, and objects our societies have invented and propagated.
What is most powerful here is the accumulation of knowledge, skills, and artifacts over time. We benefit from what others have done long ago...We built on the cultural achievements of others.

Morality is also an interesting concept. I won’t go into too much detail here, but Suddendorf cites frequently to the research of Steven Pinker, whose book on the subject, The Better Angels of our Nature I reviewed here. It is outstanding, and one book I believe everyone should read.

Two things were worth quoting here, though. The first is the reference to research by Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlenberg (separately) on the development of morality in children. There appear to be three stages that represent how children make - and justify - their moral choices.

Children were presented with a moral dilemma and then asked about the reasons for their judgment. Kohlenberg found that young children focus on avoiding punishment, whereas older children, with more social experience, increasingly demonstrate an understanding that rules have to be followed for the greater good. Eventually, some of the children justify their choices by reference to internally consistent theories about moral principles.

I found this very interesting, and have been thinking about it ever since. It is my opinion, based on my experience, that Evangelical theology and teaching has been making a concerted effort to keep people from advancing in their ethics past the first stage - which is based on authoritarianism - rather than progressing to the next two steps. I may blog about that in the future if I get the time and have the inclination.

The second is also related to ethical problems. We lie to ourselves about our own behavior, holding others to a different standard than we hold ourselves. (Perhaps one reason Christ harped on the subject so much…) A recurring argument I have had with people - often religious folk - is over whether one can do great evil while being sure one is doing right. (This often comes up in discussions over the basis for morality, and how we should build our ethical frameworks.) The problem is that all of us (with maybe a few exceptions for sociopaths?) believe we are doing good when we are doing evil. We have great, compelling reasons for our worst acts. And worst of all are the things we do in the name of good.

Most evil in this world is perpetrated by people who think, at some level, that they are doing the right thing. The fight of good versus evil, when examined from both sides, is often the fight between two definitions of good. People can behave outrageously badly in the name of good. Just think of the Spanish Inquisition or modern suicide bombers. Whatever we do, we tend to find reasons for thinking we are right.

It is the uniquely human trait to reflect on our mistakes, and try to remedy them and do better. It is our ability to examine history and change our minds.

There are a couple more things I want to mention.

There is a good quick explanation in this book of how we trace DNA on both the father’s side (Y chromosome) and the mother’s side (mitochondria.) Random (benign) mutations occur at predictable intervals in portions of these, which allow tracing of populations. (People with more matches are more closely related, and had a common ancestor more recently than those with fewer matches.) This is explained in more detail in The Violinist’s Thumb, and you can find much more detail online in scientific publications.

I think that this understanding - at least on a surface level - is necessary before one can even begin to understand the science behind the relationships of various hominids - and primates. This is a fairly new field of study, and it has been a revolutionary confirmation of common descent.

The last bit I want to mention is Suddendorf’s discussion of the effect of technology on human evolution. As he notes, the internet has enabled minds to meet even more effectively than before. There is little reason that two minds cannot share information given our technology. It is pretty indisputable that this sharing of communication has given rise to an acceleration of scientific knowledge gathering and technological insight. It has also enabled people who otherwise might regard each other with suspicion and hate to form bonds of common humanity.

Suddendorf points out - correctly - that the technology of modern communication isn’t really new, however. It is a “logical extension of a long historical trend.” We desire to meld our minds, to connect, to share, discuss, complain, and even gossip. Our networks are bigger, but they are not some new impulse to be feared, as the older folks often do. Rather, they are a natural outgrowth of our humanity, our need to understand and be understood. Like any tool, they can be used for good or for evil - but the same is true of language itself.

This is a fascinating book, well researched, well written, and full of the sort of wonder that I have always loved in science.

I enjoyed reading it, and I enjoyed being able to appreciate it without feeling compelled to defend theological sacred cows, and that makes me happy.


Just a note on the theological implications. Peter Enns sums it up well:

The fact that evolution causes theological problems does not mean evolution is wrong. It means we have theological problems.

Normally, we all know that we cannot judge if something is true on the basis of whether that truth is disruptive to us. We know it is wrong to assume one’s position and then evaluate data on the basis of that predetermined conclusion.

We are also normally very quick to point out this logical fallacy in others. If an atheist would defend his/her own belief system by saying, “I reject this datum because it does not fit my way of thinking,” we would be quick to pounce.

The truth of a historical Adam is not judged by how necessary such an Adam appears to be for theology. The proper response to evolution is to work through the theological challenges it presents (as many theologians and philosophers are doing), not dismiss the challenge itself.

Enns correctly points out that evolution does put a different spin on the Fall, for example. I personally have believed for a long time that the idea of sin being primarily a breaking of arbitrary rules was both harmful and did violence to the story in Genesis itself, which is pretty obviously a parable, not a literal account. (Seriously. Talking animals? Magic trees? I mean, the ancients never wrote these sorts of parables, right?) Looking at the fall from an evolutionary perspective refocuses the issue back on the meaning of “knowledge of good and evil.” At some point, mankind or our ancestor species gained sentience - and with it the ability to morally reason. Perhaps we did this before we were ready for the burden - and chose hate and violence instead of love. (I think it is no accident that right after the fall we have the first murder.) This idea also shifts the emphasis from the Evangelical obsession with rules (particularly sexual rules and gender roles) toward the goal of being loving in all we do. (Hey wait! Didn’t Christ himself say something about that?)


  1. "Eventually, some of the children justify their choices by reference to internally consistent theories about moral principles."

    Interesting that only SOME of the children actually get to the point of bothering to think through their choices and beliefs and cohere them together into a rational worldview. But sadly this generally matches my experience with most adults. Picking and choosing whatever you feel like at the moment usually doesn't add up to anything internally consistent or logical at the other end. Kind of like this that I found just yesterday:

    Only virtue can save America! So we are morally obligated to vote for the most unvirtuous guy currently available. No internally consistent worldview, or if there is one it's being…er…"trumped" by political motives.

    Funny story relevant to nothing: I may have accidentally walked past Metaxas when I was in England two summers ago. He was on the faculty of a Lewis festival that visited the cathedral my choir was singing in, and an official-looking guy (who IIRC had faculty tags) who matched what I kinda recall Metaxas looking like, passed me in the aisle of the church. I did a double take, but apparently my future-oriented memory had decided Metaxas' face was of no survival value to me and dropped it. Now I'll never know for sure…

    1. Yeah, the whole embrace of Le Toupee has really shown a light on the lack of ethical thinking within the Religious Right. At minimum, they owe Bill Clinton an abject apology.

  2. Two thoughts came to mind (I need to read this book):

    1. On the connection value of the internet--I am so grateful to be alive in the time when it existed. There are a LOT of minds that I would never have met (and I would be poorer for it), but one of my best friends is someone I have never seen in real life, a Muslim neurosurgeon in Malaysia. Because I know him--a pacifist--it's very very difficult for me to buy Islamophobia. I consider that a great gift.

    2. On the literalness or nonliteralness of Genesis--first of all, I think the story we have is the one that we can understand. People don't seem to realize this about the mysteries of the faith; it's not that if we just ARGUED HARDER we could figure out how to define the Godhead or describe the exact process of salvation or quantify exactly how the fall worked. Our brains are too limited to get there. So what do we get? A story that everybody can wrap their minds around: "God said don't. You did it anyway. Now there are problems and He will have to rescue you." In this sense it doesn't really matter whether Adam was an actual guy or not. (I tend to lean toward him and Eve existing, although I think "made from dust" is an expansive phrase that can encompass whatever it needs to. After all, *somebody* had to be the first humans who could reason morally. But like I said, it's almost unimportant--especially if you realize that the rest of the Bible is *also* "the story we can understand".)

    Secondly, I think the overwhelming desire for connection could very well be one way in which we are "in the image of God". Because connection could be termed "love"--we're supposed to love, and even in our biology we know this. (We just suck at it. Hence, sin and the need for redemption and sanctification.)

    Anyhoo, interesting thoughts on a Sunday morning. Thanks. ;)

    1. I should also clarify, that the Bible is the story we can understand *throughout history*--so stuff that is more opaque to us probably didn't used to be to others, and stuff that might have been a bit opaque to them is less so to us (although we still seem to have a hard time believing Junia was a chick, so...). That's just one of having to communicate across cultures and languages.

      That's the thing that I feel a lot of people who try to find a proof text for everything ignore--the Bible cannot just speak to our narrow little time, place, and culture, so if your proof text is for something REALLY specific, like "should women be cops?", then I do not think it means what you think it means. You're treating the Bible like the study booklet from the DMV.

    2. "the facts". "One of the facts of having to communicate..."

      Sorry, I wish blogger would allow comment editing.

    3. Last one, sorry--I realize that the "God said don't" sentence I used above seems to argue against your interpretation that the story is more about knowledge of good and evil, and I didn't intend to; I meant to illustrate that whatever stage of moral reasoning we are at (a la Piaget), the Genesis story works. But as we mature, the story can mature too. As long as we don't insist on staying four years old, it's a feature, not a bug. ;)

    4. Yes, I highly recommend reading this book. Regarding #1 above - yes! The internet can indeed help to build those bridges. It also helps the loonies find each other, but I think the good outweighs the bad.

      Love your other points, as usual. I particularly love the line, " You're treating the Bible like the study booklet from the DMV." I may steal that line.

      I share your frustration with Blogger and the lack of editing.