Empathy and invention

(based in part on a New Scientist article of 5 December 2020)

Last week, there was a report in the press about a female bonobo living in the jungle in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She had decided to take a two year old orphaned bonobo from a different social group under her wing. According to the Japanese researchers who have been watching this jungle since the ‘70s, such an action had never before been seen. It means that the adoptive mother is looking out for the infant and having to find food for it and, as far as I’m aware, bonobo offspring, whether actual or adopted, don’t support their mothers in old age. Her action is therefore, on the face of it, to her disadvantage. It looks like a display of altruism. We tend think of altruism as particular to the human species but, if you go on to the web - to the click-bate sections – you won’t actually find it difficult to see dogs befriending cats or cats befriending chickens, so I’m not sure that we do have a monopoly. When looking at ourselves as a species in contrast to others, we can easily believe that we really are different, when in fact we are on a continuum with them.
However, particularly in the case of our much vaunted intelligence, the result of being further along the continuum can mean that we benefit from a step change in what that ability can do for us, as compared to others. Intelligence is not though a simple thing to describe. Professor Sir Simon Baron Cohen, a clinical psychologist, has for many years been researching autism, empathy and inventiveness. He argues that there have been relatively recent, parallel, revolutions in human cognition. Although the empathy we have developed underpins human society, his view is that another equally critical set of changes in our development as a species has taken place: the evolution of a pattern-seeking brain network, what he refers to as a systematising mechanism, which provides the foundation for human invention. So then, intelligence 2.0.

But let’s first look backwards. According to the experts, if we take the long view of human evolution, simple tool use dates back more than 2 million years. There is evidence of some advancement in early technology – more sophisticated hand axes emerged around 1.7 million years ago. But among early hominids, for about 2 million years, stone tools mostly had just a few basic functions: to smash, cut and scrape. For millions of years there was no obvious sign of further development. They didn’t show an ability to invent in the sense that we understand it, showing leaps of imagination, each change building on the last.

But when our species, Homo sapiens, first emerged around 300,000 years ago, we began to see signs of more invention with tools and specific kinds of blades. However, we started to see a real explosion of invention in the archaeological record about 100,000 years ago, with evidence of the first engravings and the first examples of jewellery. Around 70,000 years ago, there were the first signs that modern humans were using “stealth weapons”, such as the spear and bow and arrow. Perhaps more peacefully, sewing needles appeared 60,000 years ago. 44,000 years ago, we start to see the earliest known evidence of counting, engravings on a bone that look like a tally. So what changed? In his book, The Pattern Seekers, he proposes that two circuits in the brain that drove this cognitive revolution began to evolve, surprisingly, about the same time, between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago.

One of these, the empathy circuit, enabled there to be new behaviours, including the ability to deceive others, teaching, self-reflection, social “chess” and flexible communication that relied on shared reference, including storytelling. These explain why modern humans could make stealth weapons and jewellery: we were keeping track of what others might think, intend, feel, want and believe. It seems that empathy uses a complex network of at least 10 brain regions. It has at least two components: cognitive empathy,  the ability to imagine another’s thoughts; and affective empathy, the drive to respond to another person’s mental state with an appropriate emotion. Although there is some degree of empathy in non-human animals, there is no evidence that other animals can for example attribute false beliefs to another animal or that they engage in flexible deception - unlike a 4-year-old child.

Empathy depends in part on upbringing, but it is now clear that genetics influences this ability, producing the usual bell curve distribution. In recent studies with 80,000 people, the associations between genetic variants and particular traits were looked at: it was found that certain genes were associated with where each of us falls on the curve. But the mere fact that empathy is partly genetic indicates that it was the result of natural selection. It might have been highly advantageous, helping people to build traps into which prey would fall, for example, or to read the mind of preverbal infants to attend to their complex emotional and physical needs so that they survived to the age of reproduction, to pass on genes. Empathy can explain why we see jewellery, musical instruments, sculpture and cave paintings in the archaeological record – we were thinking about an audience and what they might be interested in. But it isn’t enough to explain how modern humans became capable of these sorts of inventions in the first place.

To fully explain the cognitive revolution in our capacity for invention, humans must have developed a second new brain circuit. This is where the systematising mechanism comes in. This allowed us to seek patterns in the world in a new way. Our hominid ancestors could see simple patterns using associative learning: A is associated with B - using a hammer to crush a nut is associated with getting the tasty reward, for example. This enabled them to make simple tools. But modern humans were looking for more complex patterns. This allowed them to invent advanced tools, and today enables modern medicine and space travel. We had an ability to use Boolean logic well before the days when George Boole invented it, or perhaps we should say recognised it. The idea that we could apply the logic statement IF x AND y THEN z meant that we could link what happened if we tried out different ways of doing things. if we take an input and perform (or observe) an operation on the input, then we may see a change in the output.

The most interesting of these are causal operations, ones that change the input to a new output for a particular reason. The “and” in the if-and-then algorithm is the magic word. The systematising mechanism enabled us not only to find such if-and-then patterns, but to confirm their truth through repetition. Humans became experimentalists. An example is the making of a bone flute. if I blow down a hollow bone, with a hole in the side, then I make sound A. If blow down it and I cover the hole, then I make sound B. Changing the “and” variable leads ultimately to invention. You can see the same logic underlying the invention of any complex tool.

When Professor Cohen and his colleagues looked at more than 630,000 people as part of their Brain Types study, they found individual differences in systematising that again had a bell-curve distribution. In a subsequent genetic analysis of 50,000 people they found that, as with empathy, genetic variants were associated with where each of us fell on the systematising curve: whether we are barely interested in if-and-then patterns, are average at systematising or systematise non-stop - so called hyper-systematisers, people we would often describe as autistic, like Isaac Newton or Thomas Edison. A high correlation with systematising has been found with University students in the STEM subjects.

What they also found was that most people are biased either towards systematising or towards empathy, but not both. That suggests that being more dominant in either one or the other might have been adaptive in different ecological niches. So then, it seems that empathy and systematising must in their different, symbiotic, ways be useful to society. So then, blessed are the nerds for they shall take pleasure in fashioning a world which the empathisers will then enjoy, but in a totally different way!

Paul Buckingham

21 March 2021

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