Seeing the wood for the trees

A while back I wrote a piece about bonobos and chimpanzees – how different they are and how human political differences might be a reflection of these two ways of life.

One thing that struck me about bonobos is that they are separated from chimpanzees by nothing more than a river. The Congo River is apparently what separated two populations of their common ancestors a couple of million years ago and prevented them from interbreeding. One population went on to become modern chimpanzees and the other bonobos. Once their genes were no longer able to mingle, it was inevitable that they would diverge from each other in both physiognomy and behavior.

What was it about the south side of the Congo that favored collaboration and appeasement instead of dominance and aggression? I have no idea, but it needn’t have been very much at all. The tiniest difference in habitat could lead to a change in culture (such as a shift in the roles of males and females) and this in turn would have knock-on effects. Positive feedback would soon lock in these changes and drive an expanding wedge between the two populations.

In modern humans, chimpanzee-like right-wing behaviors and bonobo-like left-wing behaviors coexist, but very uneasily. Empathy, for instance, serves different purposes in each mode: “socialism” (with a small “s”) is fundamentally based upon empathy in the form of sympathy – the understanding that other people suffer like we do, and if we help and support each other we can minimise this suffering for all. “capitalism”, meanwhile, makes use of empathy to outwit other people. A CEO who can walk into a business meeting and immediately grasp what everyone around the table is thinking will come away with a better deal. The consequences of this difference are profound. To a libertarian conservative, for instance, government is an unwanted imposition – a Them who controls Us. It’s an Alpha Male to be feared, opposed and ideally got rid of. Meanwhile, from the perspective of a liberal, the government actually is us; it is the collective will; the way we look out for each other. It’s no wonder the two sides fail to understand each other. In America and the UK this tension is very strong at the moment and it sometimes makes me feel that humans must be descended from the interbreeding of two previously separated species, because the two points of view aren’t very compatible and evolution might have been expected to opt for either one or the other. Bonobos and chimpanzees certainly did.

All this came back into my mind this morning when I read this article in Machines Like Us. The gist of it is that Australopithecus afarensis appears to have walked upright on two feet, in roughly the front-of-foot way that we humans do, rather than the bowlegged way that other primates do. And they did this almost four million years ago at the latest – around the time the human bloodline separated from the chimp/bonobo bloodline.

It made me wonder what kind of “Congo river” might have separated the two lines, and it’s really not hard to imagine. Chimpanzee and orangutan feet are designed for living in trees – their mastery of the arboreal mode of transport is astounding from the perspective of a human being, whose feet are utterly useless for dangling from branches. Every time I watch a primate leap confidently from branch to branch I find myself in awe and not a little envious.

But suppose the trees thin out? There are clear limits to how far apart branches can be whilst still being able to support two hundred pounds of leaping flesh. When trees get too thin on the ground, primates have to climb down and walk. For a quick dash, followed by a rapid climb back into safety, chimpanzee feet are ideal, but there will come a point when efficient running becomes far more important than efficient climbing and leaping. There are no tigers in the trees (which is basically why primates live in them), so being a bit ungainly in the canopy is not nearly as serious as being unable to reach the safety of the next trunk. The evolutionary advantage of good running feet would very quickly be tested, once running became necessary.

And what then? Once you perform better on the ground than in the canopy, you can free your hands. You have to watch out more carefully for predators and find ingeneous ways to thwart them (even using sticks as weapons, maybe). Sex becomes different. Meetings tend to happen face-to-face instead of face-to-ass. Perhaps females carrying young need protection. You are presented with vistas that exceed a mere wall of leaves. A thousand things have suddenly changed, and each of those thousand things would go on to create a thousand other changes. And all because the trees got too far apart to leap between.

Perhaps this was all it took to make the human race? Perhaps we’re just the descendants of incompetent leapers who had to evolve bizarre and expensive tricks like literature and intelligence in order to survive on the ground when we could no longer stay hidden in the trees. As we dash (by elevator) from the safety of our office-trees to the safety of our house-trees and climb the wooden stairs to bed, on feet and hips that are very much designed for the ground, it’s sobering to think that most of what we see around us might have been caused by a bit of a lingering drought, four million years ago.

Maybe I should go for a run…

About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

16 Responses to Seeing the wood for the trees

  1. Jamie says:

    You see I just knew there had to be a logical reason why I prefer two story houses. It all makes sense now!

  2. photojack53 says:

    Steve Grand, We’ll have to research the chocolate likes of Chimps and Bonobos. That could answer which one we evolved from! I’m a confirmed chocoholic as well. 😉
    Overall a great article. Is there an anatomical difference in the feet of Bonobos and Chimpanzees? That might come closer to showing which one is our closest ancestor also. I thought the genomes showed our closer relative was the Bonobo, for which I’m glad. It could help resolve and explain why Republicans are more like Chimps! The Democrats are certainly the more humane of the two parties. Great food for thought!

    • stevegrand says:

      Dunno anything about bonobo feet, but bonobos and chimps split from each other quite a while after their bloodline split from ours, so I guess that makes us equally related to both. The chocolate theory would be the clincher, though…

  3. Very interesting post! Evolution just needs a tiny and seemingly insignificant catalyst to make a series of enormous changes. It’s amazing what four million years can do!

  4. harryosh says:

    Some of the discussions here have been amazing thank you. However on this particular one I have contrasting viewpoint to this particular post (but not others), that I cannot refrain from expressing. It has been expressed before. There is nothing new under the sun. Perhaps it will help to see the “wood for the trees”

    What is evolution? Evolution is an object in my mind that has a name and a function. The object exists in the process of my memory recollection and reconstruction. I effortlessly recount it’s name and it’s function time and time again. Each and every time I do that, I lay the ground to experience that object once again in a future I cannot know when.

    In other words “evolution” is nothing that I can actually know! It serves a purpose in my mind. We use it to describe something we don’t actually understand. But the description is no different to me describing anything! I am describing to you a concept right now that has a name and a function in the memory of my neuronal fabric. Do I actually understand it? Ultimately we are people of faith no matter what we describe.

    Mathematics is a language. It describes something. But mathematics does not tell you what is actually going on. It merely describes something as all languages do. The description never has any absolute validity except to exist for some function we have assigned it. Do you notice that the language of mathematics either get’s used to do something, or if not, it merely stands on it’s own as does a beautiful poem! But the poem is doing something too when it is re-read….

    So it is with Evolution. It is a description of something we do not understand. We say that because the description matches with what we perceive for the nth time, that it must be a fact! But we have forgotten that all that has happened is that our memories of what we believe evolution to be, have been recalled and re-experienced. So it is with our declaration of “fact”. It too is merely an object concept in our mind that we give a name and a function.

    And so the story of “evolution” is merely a descriptive story. We like to tell each other the story because we are familiar with it and it makes us feel more secure. We are children, all of us. But actually the story is describing something. It is describing a journey. There is no problem with a journey. Journey’s are good!

    I put to you that all of us experience the past, but exist in the present. There is no exception right down to the reconstructed memory of my day to day world that I seem to experience this instant. Even when I sense something “new”, I will assign it something familiar, something “old” rather than to leave it unassigned. Everything that is “new” I actually do not perceive at all! Perhaps the objects in my mind will transform by cause and effect. But always they are simply memories. Discussions of evolution are reflections of that.

    Everything in my world, my feelings, my house, my life are reconstructed memories in the conveyor belt of my mind. The tree outside the window seems so undeniably real as does the wood that it is made of! Evolution feels so undeniably real and so does mathematics! But so does my body! So do my feelings. I think to myself “I feel lethargic today, the feeling is so absolutely undeniable”. But I tell you that the feeling simply has a name and a function in my memory. My lethargy is a reconstructed memory that makes up the fabric of what I think I am. It is part of the process of my identity, and the feeling reinstates that sense, at the moment I remembered it.

    How do I escape my object self, if this is true? It is really simple. I escape myself by trying to find the genuine “other” to myself. What is that genuine other? That is the journey of the mind. Ultimately we have one right in this life. That is the right of the mind to experience one object that leads the mind to a genuine reduction in turmoil (the process of peacefulness). The subject mind does not exist without an object. This is why we have that right, and there is almost nothing to accumulate in that process but for that one object. It is merely what object leads to what experience in that mind.


    • stevegrand says:

      Hi Harry,

      That’s an interesting perspective. Are you a Buddhist?

      I don’t see why you say we don’t understand evolution, though. I agree that mathematics just describes things (and I’m constantly surprised when it makes predictions that turn out to be true – there’s no apparent reason to expect that to happen). But we understand evolution to the degree that it is philosophically possible to understand anything. We can’t go back in time and see what actually happened, but we can make predictions and see if they are true. Evolutionary theory is founded on thousands of such predictions. Darwin himself made some, long before we knew about DNA, etc., and yet we can look at the DNA of a creature for which we’ve formed an hypothesis about how it got that way, and, every time, the DNA evidence matches what we, or Darwin, would have expected to find if that hypothesis were true. Evolutionary theory is not “merely descriptive” – it has help up over many such predictions. If evolution isn’t true, there is no other theory that can account satisfactorily for the facts; not even remotely. And we can do other kinds of tests, like simulating evolution and seeing if it comes up with results that map onto those we find in nature, which it does – I’ve seen this with my own eyes. Evolution is no more a “story we tell ourselves” than gravitation or atomic theory are. We can’t see atoms, but we know damn well they are there, because new facts ALWAYS (with occasional tiny amendments) conform to what atomic theory says they should. That’s the way science works – if a single fact fails to fit the theory then the theory is wrong and either we must go back and change it or abandon it. Evolution hasn’t failed that test yet. So although its truth is not directly available to us, any more than any other truth is available, we have millions of pieces of evidence confirming it and none denying it. That’s better than a mere descriptive story, surely? And unlike gravitation, no mathematics is required.

  5. Colin Wright says:

    Harryosh, I would in fact say evolution is a process not an object, much as dancing or breathing are associated with processes not objects. Of course like all language it’s a group of associations in your mind that describe a concept be it process or object.

    In terms of experience you could say the present we experience is always based on information recorded in the past (or believed to have been recorded in the past) and the future we imagine resulting from that past because we never experience the actual present moment since nerve conduction and the integration of such information takes time.

    I agree you cannot say anything is an absolute fact or truth but the things we hold as established scientific theories have two important characteristics;

    1 – They fit all the know data.
    2 – They are predictive.

    In the case of evolution it is at it’s heart a theory for predicting how imperfectly replicating systems will over generations of replication adapt to be better suited for survival and reproduction in their environments. A number of A-Life programs (computer simulations involving a simulated environment containing agents which are imperfect replicators) will allow you to see evolution at work. There is also evidence to be found in molecular biology e.g. the relationship between DNA of species and in the fossil record, not to mention embryology and several other fields on enquiry.

    There are still a number of interesting questions around the mechanisms of biological evolution, e.g. the role of sexual reproduction and of viral DNA, random mutation is not the only driver of imperfect replication and sexual reproduction is not the only way genes are exchanged. But the general theory is well established with the criteria above.

    While your point about the symbolic nature of language and all concepts both abstract and otherwise is very Zen and it’s certainly worth remembering that the map is not the territory it doesn’t make the map any less valuable or useful.

    Language itself remember has evolved because being able to exchange concept and ideas is a useful survival trait.

  6. Ruairí says:

    heya, i just recenctly came acrodd your blog after a utilitarian i was talking to compared insects to norns and so i googled “norns and insects” and came to a post about grandroids which i read about and find absolutely facsinating!:D

    as a utilitarian (someone who wants to make the maximum amount of happiness and stop the maximum amount of suffering) i have a few questions as regards grandroids;

    will they really actually be concious?
    and if so what can you tell me about the conciousness of other organisms?
    the reason if found myself here in the first place was that i am very interested in the possibility that insects can suffer and if they can i would be very interested in making painles pesticides.
    also if grandrioids will be concious will they also be able to suffer?

    oh and as regards the feet i encouarage you to research “persistence hunting” , running after animals until they die, perhaps the reason why humans are so good at endurance running and also perhaps why we came out of the trees 🙂

    many many thanks!


    • stevegrand says:

      Hi ruairi,

      I’m a utilitarian too, sort of.

      It remains to be seen whether my new creatures are conscious and what that actually means. I think they will have some of the prerequisites for what we humans think of as conscious experience, but I can’t tell you if these are the necessary and sufficient conditions. Nobody can agree on what consciousness actually means, so it’s a massive open problem. I hope these creatures will make a contribution to the debate, but I’m quite sure they won’t solve it!

      As for other species, all I can say is that I think there are certain structures you need in your brain if you are to be conscious in the way we normally think of ourselves as conscious. The fact that we think AT ALL requires structures that many creatures don’t have. To think, you have to have a mental model of the world and be able to disengage it from reality so that it can imagine things that aren’t currently actually happening. Cogitation, speculation, hopes, dreams, fears, worries, ideas and plans all require us to be able to do this. In mammals I suspect this capacity involves neocortex, and as far as anyone knows, insects don’t have anything that works like neocortex. I’m not aware of any evidence that insects have free-floating internal thoughts, only stylized reactions to what is going on. Whether they can suffer is a really difficult problem. They almost certainly feel pain, but do they FEEEEEEL pain? We could say that a thermostat would “feel” something like pain if you prevented it from switching on the heater when it gets cold. It’s “suffering”, in a way. But there’s (presumably) nobody THERE to feel this pain. The system itself “senses” that something it “wants” is being denied it, but it has no thoughts on the matter; no fear of it; no hatred or wish that it would stop. For it to have those things it would have to have the disengagable mental model of the world that I was talking about. It seems likely that insects are more like thermostats than they’re like humans – they react to things but they are incapable of holding opinions on them. Can you suffer without holding an opinion on what’s happening to you and knowledge that it needn’t be happening?

      So from a utilitarian perspective it’s a tricky question. Can an insect be happy? It can certainly be “comfortable”, perhaps even “very satisfied” in practical terms, but does it KNOW that it is? I very much doubt it but until I know what it means to know something I can’t say for sure. Utilitarianism requires us to achieve the most happiness for the most people (ideally for the longest time, otherwise it’s hedonism), but it requires this because we know that people WANT to be happy and don’t WANT to suffer. Can an insect want to be happy? If it dies prematurely, I don’t suppose it’s going to suffer a pang of disappointment that the great plans it had for its life will no longer be fulfilled. It won’t feel regret or sadness. It doesn’t exactly STRIVE for happiness, only the avoidance of pain. But it does “try” to avoid pain, in small ways like avoiding noxious substances, so in a limited sense we could say it doesn’t WANT to be in pain. But I think the sense in which people (and presumably a number of other species) want not to be in pain, and want to be happy and fulfilled, is qualitatively somewhat different. I would say that insects are indeed like norns – unconscious reactive systems, and that my new creatures may have the glimmerings of something special that neither insects nor norns have. It may, perhaps, possibly, in some small way, mean that these new creatures deserve moral rights. Yet I can’t prove any of it. It’s a question that really vexes me! It’s a big part of why I do what I do. Trying to build something is a good way to make sure you ask the right questions about it!

      Yes, I’ve read the theory about persistence hunting too, and it seemed very plausible. It’s certainly the best explanation I’ve seen for why we have no fur.


  7. Hello Steve. At first I need to apologise for my bad English, it

    because I from Ukraine. I have not found another way, except this, to

    contact with you. We are not familiar with you, but i think, you is

    that man, who was taken part in making of game Rome: Pathway to Power

    in 1992 year.
    It is one of my favorite games of childhood. I would like to translate

    this game into Russian language, to give possibility for another people

    who dont know english, to play this game more easily.
    But i have a problem – i dont understand the structure of Isochars.gfx

    and Narchars.gfx files. If you is that man I searching and you have

    some free time, then – please, contact me by one of this ways.
    skype: xopbatgh, or icq: 413-471-449, or email:, or in

    that way .
    Best regards, Viktor.

  8. Herni says:

    Hi, Steve!
    Just a small request. Any chance you could make a short blog post regarding the overall development of your project, for those of us who didn’t make it on time on kickstarter, but are still very anxious and eager to know?
    I’d kill for a snapshot or a piece of info of any kind.

    Best wishes!

    • stevegrand says:

      Hi Herni,

      Ah, the price you pay for not giving me any money! 😉

      That’s an excellent idea. I’m away at the moment but I’ll make a note to post something when I get back.

      Btw, if you just missed the deadline but would have liked to be a part of it, drop me an email: steve at cyberlife hyphen research dot com. No pressure intended at all, but I’m keeping a few slots open for those who missed the chance.

  9. ruairí says:

    sorry i dont mean to take up more of your time but i had (to me) a mad cool idea

    when you say “unconscious reactive systems” do you mean as in they have a vast number of reflexs, INCLUDING a reflex to make new relflexs? which gives the appearance of conscious learning?

    so basically it would go like

    damaging stimulus —-> reflex which creates new reflexs to stay away from damaging things creates a new reflex —-> insect/norn stays away from said stimulus

    is that the way norns work?

    the way you’re going with the whole imagination visual imagery thing is really cool cause we can kinda experience and learn before an event, in a way without external stimulus

    if you could let me know if the above is the way norns work that would be great thanks

    many many thanks,


    • stevegrand says:

      Pretty much, yes. Almost everything that happened to a Norn would alter one of their drives in some way (hunger, coldness, loneliness, etc). Their brain would be fed various kinds of sensory data about what was going on at the time, and they would eventually learn which aspects of this sensory information probably caused the change in drives. Lowering a drive (like eating food lowers hunger) would reinforce the relationship between what they experienced and what they did about it, while anything that raised the drives would punish the relationship so that they’d be less likely to respond that way in future. So the end result was pretty much a reflex response -a conditioned response to experiencing similar stimuli.

  10. ruairí says:

    awesome thanks 🙂 so can you think of some experiment which could test if insects might be like this too?

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