In his zoo work, [Richard] Garner invented what we would today call the primate playback experiment. . . .
This re-emergence [of the playback technique] is mainly due to the work of the British ornithologist-turned-primatologist Peter Marler. . . .
The Amboseli vervets made scientic history. When the vervets heard a played-back call originally uttered in the presence of an eagle, they fled into the bushes. For leopard and snake calls, they responded in distinct but similarly adaptive ways. Seufarth, Cheney and Marler proved that the calls contained not just high-arousal cues but specific information about the environment.
"Linguists," [Pinker] writes, "call the inventory of concepts and the schemes that combine them 'conceptual semantics'. Conceptual semantics--the language of thought--must be distinct from language itself, or we would have nothing to go on when we debate what our words mean."
Consider two drawings, one sharp-edged and spiky, the other soft and cloudlike, that grace a page of the book. Which is the malooma and which is the takata? People tend to agree on the answer (the cloud is malooma), because our brains are prepared to make sense of sound symbolism.
Pinker occasionally back-pedals from the reductive abyss. He reassures readers, for instance, that the patterned regularities he discusses are not "necessarily direct reflections of the genetic patterning of our brains; some may emerge from brains and bodies interacting in human ecologies over the course of human history". For those who approach human behavior by working to understand acts of meaning-making between people, far stronger support exists for embodied and distributed cognition than is hinted at by Pinker.
One example comes from neuroscience, where research reveals the great plasticity of the human brain. In a dynamic and iterative process that unfolds according to each life's experiences, our brain circuits are sculpted and resculpted. Another example comes from a thought experiment. What if we rigged up one of Richard Garner's cages and settled inside, on an urban street, in a remote rural village, or along a forest path, to witness human interaction unfold? How far would conceptual semantics take us in interpreting what we would hear and see? Anthropologists have been there, and done that (minus the cage). Humans everywhere, they know, mak meaning together in song-laden sacred rituals, loud messy conflicts, or calm conversations. It is in creative, contingent, unpredictable and emotional meaning-making that our human nature truly lies.
from Raymond Tallis's Commentary "License my roving hands: Does neuroscience really have anything to teach us about the pleasures of reading John Donne?"
For the extraordinary thing about human beings--and what captures what is human--is that they transcend their bodies; that human experience is not solitary sentience but has a public face; it belongs to a community of minds. This is a process that has developed over many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years since hominids parted company from the monkeys. The neuromythologist, trying to find citizens and their worlds in neurones, stuffs all that has been created by the collective of brains back into a stand-alone brain; indeed into a small part of such a brain. True, we require a brain to participate in the community of minds; but that participation is not to be reduced to activity in bits of brains.
It is important not to suggest that it is only in rather special states of creativity--say, reading or writing poems--that we are distanced from animals. This is a mistake. We are different from animals in every waking moment of our lives. The bellowing on the lavatory that I referred to earlier demonstrates a huge gulf between us and our nearest animal kin. But if we deny this difference (invoking chimps etc) even in the case of creativity--and the appreciation of works of art--then no distance remains. That is why one would expect critics to be on the side of the poets, with their sense of this complexity, rather than siding with the terribles simplificateurs of scientism.
from "Then and Now," from Gore Vidal's review of M. A. Screech's translation of Montaigne's essays:
"In every work of genius", wrote Emerson, "we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty." After four centuries, Montaigne's curious genius still has that effect on his readersm and, time and again, one finds in his self-portrait one's ow most brilliant apercus (the ones that somehow we forgot to write down and so forgot) restored to us in his essays . . . .