You’ll see me put up more TED videos over the next few months. I’ve had one in the drafts folder since Christmas, but I need some photos to go with it, and haven’t had the chance to get them. The prod is that I’ve applied for a TED fellowship. I don’t have a realistic chance of getting one, but I thought it might help with organising a TEDx event in Leicester. I’ll be visiting TEDxWarwick to see how they do it next week.
Temple Grandin is an interesting person to post regardless of anything else. I first heard of her after reading an interview in NewScientist. I put in an order for Animals in Translation when it came out, that sadly has sat on my shelf since waiting for quality free time for me to read it. Temple Grandin has a radically different view of autism to the common stereotype pushed by the press. I hadn’t realised there were many people who see Autism and Asperger’s as positive aspects to their lives. In the video below Temple Grandin reframes the autistic spectrum as a need for different kinds of minds, which quite literally requires a whole new way of thinking about the mind.
If Grandin is right then this is a major spanner in the works of Evolutionary Psychology. EP as it’s sometimes not so affectionately known, is based on the idea that the human mind is more or less unchanged from the Pleistocene era, so our actions and cognition should be understood with reference to a Palaeolithic world. The video above torpedoes that assumption. First we have to remove the idea that evolution is a linear progression from there to here.
Instead we have three kinds of mind according to Temple Grandin, and a social and educational system set up to discriminate in favour of verbal minds. She’s also very clear about the idea of a spectrum, so there could be people at the extremes of all three kinds of mind, and the rest of us in the middle with plastic minds. We get shaped to develop verbal minds because of the primacy of verbal communication and the outcome is a population that develops verbal cognition to the detriment of other forms of thinking, and is unaware that it is doing so. Like she says, it’s natural to assume everyone thinks the way you do. The ability to digest milk is a relatively recent adaptation in humans, but it spread quickly. The advantages verbal cognition could mean that the modern mind is different to non-literate minds. It opens up whole minefield of educational policy that I’m completely unqualified to talk about. It also has implications for SETI because it seems we have been rubbish so far at recognising a different kind of mind in our own species.
The idea that autistic people might be more sensually aware than the average person doesn’t fit the stereotype, unless you think of cute savants. Nonetheless it makes a serious alternative cognitive model. A lot of what I’ve read in SETI is pretty inflexible. It’s still the default position that mathematics could be a universal language. It relies heavily on Platonic ideals in mathematics, and the question of whether or not you need a Plato for a Platonic philosophy. There is the question about the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics. Sundar Sarukkai has debunked this (PDF) (in my opinion) by showing mathematics is a language. Everything in the universe can be described in English, but no one would say English is unreasonably effective. It’s possible that mathematics appears to work because of an inherent structure in our cognition and not a structure in the universe, a spandrel of a verbal mind. If that’s the case then mathematics is a sign of a kind of mind and we will need to radically rethink what we look for in intelligence to recognise intelligent extra-terrestrial life.
That’s why I think Temple Grandin has an important message for SETI, but equally she also has an important message for Earth. It’s a topic which should be of interest to anyone who’s planning to do some thinking in the future.