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EUROPEAN SOCIETY FOR THE STUDY OF COGNITIVE SYSTEMS Genoa 2-4 July 2008 ABSTRACT The Evolution/Machine: Reconsidering La Mettries L'homme machine Robin.

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Presentation on theme: "EUROPEAN SOCIETY FOR THE STUDY OF COGNITIVE SYSTEMS Genoa 2-4 July 2008 ABSTRACT The Evolution/Machine: Reconsidering La Mettries L'homme machine Robin."— Presentation transcript:

1 EUROPEAN SOCIETY FOR THE STUDY OF COGNITIVE SYSTEMS Genoa 2-4 July 2008 ABSTRACT The Evolution/Machine: Reconsidering La Mettries L'homme machine Robin Allott


3 In 1748 La Mettrie published, in Holland, L'homme machine, an extension of Descartes' automata concept from animals to man. The book was publicly burned and La Mettrie was forced to seek protection from Frederick the Great at Berlin, until his death in 1751. The following (condensed freely from the English translation) gives some idea of the argument in LHomme Machine:

4 Let us conclude boldly that man is a machine. The human body is a watch, a large watch constructed with such skill and ingenuity. To be a machine, to feel, to think, to know how to distinguish good from bad, as well as blue from yellow, in a word, to be born with an intelligence and a sure moral instinct, and to be but an animal, are therefore characters which are no more contradictory, than to be an ape or a parrot and to be able to give oneself pleasure. In general, the form and the structure of the brains of quadrupeds are almost the same as those of the brain of man; the same shape, the same arrangement everywhere, man the one whose brain is largest, and more convoluted.

5 The transition from animals to man is not violent, The springs of the human machine are such that all the vital, animal, natural, and automatic motions are carried on by their action. In a purely mechanical way the eyelids are lowered at the menace of a blow and the pupil contracts in broad daylight to save the retina, the pores of the skin close in winter so that the cold cannot penetrate to the interior of the blood.

6 Reconsidering Lhomme machine in the light of advances in neuroscience and evolutionary biology What do we share with animals? What dont we share with animals? How have we acquired the things we do not share with animals ? What part has language played? How did we acquire language ? How did human brain size and intelligence increase so rapidly and remarkably ?

7 La Mettrie proposed that the human is 100% machine How much of a machine should we think we are now?

8 There is little in the detail of what La Mettrie said which nowadays would be disputed. Research in molecular biology and in neuroscience every day is showing how wonderfully the springs of human and animal action function. As shown by the following examples of the essential machinery we share with animals (even, at the cell level, with yeast ! )

9 These videos present, in real time, what Francis Crick called the central dogma of modern biology, how DNA makes protein and also suggest how neurons change to respond to incoming information and to the cell environment

10 DNA TRANSCRIPTION: The DNA strand (purple) is held in the cell nucleus by the polymerase complex (blue- grey), collects the complementary codons (yellow) and is read out into messenger RNA (yellow)

11 TRANSLATION: mRNA (yellow) emerges from the cell nucleus and is captured by a ribosome (blue), collects transfer RNA (green) with amino-acids attached (red tips) and exits as a protein (red) haemoglobin

12 NEUROSCIENCE Brain Remodelling I

13 Dendrite(blue) spines growing in real time (recorded in 2006) Spines grow on the surface of the neuron, on the dendrites

14 NEUROSCIENCE Brain Remodelling II Kandel Nobel Lecture December 2000 The Molecular Biology of Memory Storage: A Dialog between Genes and Synapses The strategies used for storing memory are the same from mollusks to mammals. There are no fundamental … differences between the nerve cells and synapses of humans and those of a snail, a worm or a fly. The biology of the mind has now captured the imagination of the scientific community

15 Science shows us how more profoundly we are machines Evolutionary theory suggests we are machines in a broader sense

16 Evolutionary biology has introduced a completely new dimension – which La Mettrie no doubt might have welcomed as further demonstrating how the human is a machine.

17 La Mettrie listed the easily visible aspects of the machine. Now we know and, in the illustrations can see, the working of the hidden machinery. Apart from the massive clearly mechanical aspect of the human being demonstrated, what else in the human is machine ? Evolution has brought with it behavioural machinery.

18 The central feature of evolution is the genetic programming for maintenance of the species, programming male and female behaviour for reproduction. This has been most fully investigated in one of the standard experimental animals, the drosophila or fruit fly.

19 Brain of Drosophila Melanogaster

20 Courtship is an innate sexually dimorphic behaviour that can be observed in naive animals without previous learning or experience, suggesting that the neural circuits that mediate this behaviour are developmentally programmed. In Drosophila, this involves a complex yet stereotyped array of dimorphic behaviours that are regulated by Fru M, a male-specific form of the fruitless gene. The gene is expressed in about 2,000 neurons in the fly brain. [extracts from Greenspan R. 2000 Courtship in drosophila Annu. Rev. Genet. 2000. 34:205–32]

21 A male fly can perform the entire courtship sequence even if raised in complete isolation from egg to adult and then presented with a female as its first encounter with another creature.

22 This conjunction is planned by evolution. The same pattern of behaviour can be seen over a very wide range of species, including humans. Reproductive behaviour is built into the DNA, expressed through the genes and built into brain organisation of humans and other species in terms of specific male and female neural complexes.

23 Crudely the evolutionary duty (or compulsion) of the drosophila is to produce more drosophilae. There is the same duty (or compulsion) for people to produce more people. Evolution requires the overwhelming genetic importance in the brain, body and behaviour of every animal of the drive and mechanisms for reproduction.

24 Present-day much unconditional surrender to evolutionary drives ? The gorilla in the living room ? The perennial struggle against the blind animality of the evolutionary process

25 What else is machine besides the clearly biochemical machinery? What else do we share with animals? Feeling as part of the machine - I feel … hungry, thirsty pain, desire. The senses: tasting, smelling, hearing, seeing, touching. Emotions, guilt (Do not walk on the grass !)

26 What made it possible for man not to be altogether a machine? To be a modifiable machine? How comes it that lhomme machine can now re-jig the machine? Can be a self-transforming machine ? Unexpected applications of the brain/machine: synthetic biology, on the point of creating life in the laboratory (Venter).

27 What do we not share with animals?

28 A sensory-motor cortex 5 times larger than for the chimpanzee Speech and spoken language certainly (and writing) - but much else Mind Consciousness? Laughter Amazing bodily skills Music Clothes (perhaps the first nearly universal cosmetic) The (human) predictive (planning) power. The elaboration of mental simulation and imagery.

29 Mind is the dynamic system manifesting in thought and action Consciousness as an idea is closer to feeling and degrees of feeling. Animals and all life may have varying degrees of consciousness But it is less certain whether any animals have mind as an originating, controlling and predictive system

30 Understanding of the human mind and human consciousness has advanced surprisingly little since La Mettries time (despite Darwin)

31 The question remains how human beings advanced from shared mechanical animality to the achievements which have left other animals far behind. How to explain the emergence of the individual and social superstructure which humans have erected on the same physical base as the ape, the dog, the drosophila?

32 La Mettrie asked what was man before the invention of words and the knowledge of language. The contribution of language to the ascent of the human being is no novel discovery (Aristotle, Darwin and many others). How has language made us into the humans we are individually and in groups ? What did it do for the ascent of mind? How did it function to increase intelligence and power?

33 Separate what language does: In the brain – Internally – In the human group – Externally –

34 Internally (in the brain)

35 Role in ? creating mind creating the self creating I and You making possible prediction and the planning of action stabilising understanding discriminating past present and future > time labelling memory > history analysing and mirroring the external world reshaping the brain - increasing intelligence

36 Externally (in the group)

37 Language operating at a distance - and writing at a further distance, in time as well as in space Family relationships made conscious by naming Communication in the group and the stabilisation of groups Classification of objects Accumulation of knowledge and invention A language as externalised mind ?

38 Language distances us from the immediate reality - mirrors our world and allows us to operate in the mirrored world. Mind has offered the possibility of freedom from evolutionary drives, which otherwise make humans, like all animals, into evolutionary puppets

39 WORDS Language is a system of words It is through words that language has changed human beings

40 How could words do all these things? Because:.Words are not arbitrary.Words are not symbols.Words change the structure of the brain.Words increase the size and complexity of the brain.Words are integrated with and form part of the motor system of the brain.Words form a network in the brain, a network of linked interacting neurons.Words accumulate and integrate.Words allow a distance between immediate experience and the experiencing self.Words create the self in time and space

41 .Words actively mirror the world.Words transmit experience from one person to another.Words change the other persons mind and brain.Words can program action for the individual.Words can program the action of others.Words can program action for the group..Words can be an instrument for power of the group.Words can change the environment for individual selection.Words can change the environment for group selection.Words change fitness and so survival of individuals with bigger brains and greater effectiveness in the physical and cultural environment

42 Words have made humans into what they are now But where did the words come from: Words came from gestures.

43 Words and Gestures Where do the gestures come from? Gestures come from perception (visual, auditory and other sensation) of the world, of the human beings own bodily experience - shapes, sounds, movements etc.

44 The universality of gesture? Seeing gesture as at the origin of language (Condillac) Gesture manifests the relation between language and action. It was at the origin of language and is of central importance in the relation between motor articulation and the motor storage of the concepts and percepts from which individual words derive their meaning

45 Was each gesture as arbitrary as traditional linguistics says that each word is? Clearly not. Gestures of all kinds were generated by imitation of actions, shapes and sounds. These were stored as motor programs before humans acquired speech. The discovery of mirror neurons may provide a new, though still sketchy, neurobiological basis to account for the emergence of language (Gallese)

46 From gesture to speech

47 Neuroanatomically, the step from genetically determined controlled vocal patterns is associated with the emergence of a direct connection between the motor cortex and the laryngeal motoneurons, a connection lacking in subhuman primates (Jürgens, Uwe. 2000. [German Primate Center, Göttingen] A computational model has been constructed which allows prediction of the fMRI images in the brain associated with individual words. (Mitchell et al. Science 30 May 2008)

48 Cerebral reorganisation provided new direct connections between the motor cortex, the tongue and the larynx. There was a great increase in the innervation of the articulatory apparatus generally. Motor programs from gestural origins were transduced automatically into articulated words structured by the gestural programs. The meanings of words were automatically linked to the actions, sounds and shapes to which the gestures referred.

49 The process by which words were formed was the inverse of the process by which gestures and sounds can be generated from existing word-forms - a reverse application of motor equivalence. On seeing some one hitting something, the action patterning was by motor equivalence converted into articulatory patterning to produce a speech-sound structure, a word, directly related to the action patterning seen. Similarly on hearing an animal sound, the typical sound of a cat, a hyena, a wasp or a wolf, the sound- patterning is transduced by motor equivalence to form a word whose structure is derived from the sound heard.

50 The Ascent of Intelligence through language

51 Brains, and particularly human brains, have much increased in size and complexity in the course of evolution. The increase must have brought survival benefits. However intelligence is measured, greater size and complexity have moved in step with greater intelligence. The growth in human brain size and complexity can be related to and explained in terms of the acquisition and continuing growth in language and particularly rapid increase in the number of words acquired. Language in the group will account for an ever-larger segment of total cultural input to the brain and will also act as a powerful instrument in shaping the social system. A ratchet effect is established which goes to promote a persisting increase in brain-size. (Evo-Devo and the Baldwin Effect)

52 Animal and Human Gesture: Illustrations








60 Repeating some illustrations from Last Year in Groningen

61 Animal names are derived from animal sounds The sound-structures of animal names can reverse the process and regenerate the animal sounds




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