Sunday, 9 February 2014

The Chicken and Egg problem for Embodied Cognition

Man - The Ultimate Tool Maker
Embodied cognition is a broad school with numerous views on the body and its relationship with the mind, the body can be seen as a distributor, as a regulator or as a constraint. An important factor that seems to underpin this approach though, is that the mind and body should not be seen as distinct entities but as having a symbiotic relationship or indeed embodied. While this may be the case today, I think it is worth asking the question, which of these came first, our minds, our bodies or was it a case of co-evolution.

It was believed for a long time that co-evolution was the answer, that our bodies evolved in tune with our enhanced mental ability, for example we became bi-pedal, our hands were freed up and we began to use tools. Their always has been a strong focus on our, that is Homo-Sapiens, ability as tool makers. This ability was seen as our defining characteristic, serving as the tag-line to our species description, we were ‘Homo-Sapiens, the tool makers’. The importance attached to tool-making was probably due to the fact that when we look at our nearest relatives, the Apes, the main difference between our species and theirs is that we are bipedal and we use tools. It was then assumed, by Charles Darwin and others that the reason we became bi-pedal was to free up our hands so we could make and use tools, it all seemed so simple.

Then it was found that not only do Apes use tools, along with a wide variety of other animals but Apes also modify items to make tools, that is they engage in tool making. Another blow to this view came with the findings that there was a time lag or discrepancy between when our Ancestors started to use tools and when they became bi-pedal. A discrepancy of one and half million years at least, that may stretch as far as 5 or 6 million years.

Bipedalism it seems evolved long before the use of stone-tools, long before the emergence of the large human brain and an incredibly long time before language. It would seem that we were walking around with two free and empty hands for millions of years before we gained the insight to pick up a piece of Chert and fashion it into a scraper or knife. This then begs the question, what were we doing for all this time with our idle hands? Charles Owen Lovejoy thinks that freeing up our hands allowed us to carry food and so better feed our young, that males started to play a more active role in family life. 

While this may be an interesting footnote on human evolutionary history, one may question the exact significance that this has to do with embodied cognition. It would seem then co-evolution no longer holds and that our higher cognitive functioning developed millions of years after our body. This is a somewhat simplistic outline but the point to take note of, is that by better understanding our evolution, then an embodied approach that takes heed of this may make better inroads with its goals. This can be seen in two separate approaches taken in Robotics to the issue of walking. AISMO, the robot, is billed as the world most advanced humanoid robot. He or she, is anthropomorphic, can walk, can dance but is incredibly complex, relying on complex feedback loops, numerous controls and a powerful on-board computer. An alternative approach has shunned complex computation and taken a more passive approach to bipedalism, passive in this sense meaning the lack of active power and it has shown that such robots can engage in bipedalism without any form of feedback control. Given what we know about human evolution I would favour the latter approach, as it is simpler and lacks any complex control, with the body regarded as a distributor of control. Maybe something as ‘simple’ as getting Robots to walk will tell us more about ourselves than those chess-playing immobile robots.

1 comment:

  1. Of course the "chicken and egg" question is trivial to answer, and the answer is . . . "the egg"! By many millions of years. Egg based reproduction was in full swing long before any arbitrary boundary that would distinguish "chicken" from proto-chicken.