What makes a biological species such an intriguing concept is its stasis. From out of a near maelstrom of biological and evolutionary dynamics—selection, genetics, generation—a species emerges as something obstinately distinct, stable and enduring. Darwin himself was puzzled that nature does not formulate instead into a mishmash of morphologies and traits, with a more gradual and more frequent variation across space and across time. This puzzlement, an aspect of what is often referred to as Darwin’s dilemma, has never been completely resolved. The modern explanations for nature’s tendency to coalesce into well-delineated and persistent species usually center around such notions as reproductive isolation and costs of rarity, but in many respects these accounts miss a good deal of the point, because a species is not only static and conservative in its morphology and reproductive viability, a species is also static and conservative in its overall behavior, to the point of being almost perfectly predictable across the entirety of its existence. If for instance one were to film a documentary about almost any plant or animal species, place the film inside a vault for a hundred thousand years, one could then retrieve the documentary and present it as still accurate and up to date, with scarcely the need for a single edit. This dogged constancy across the entire reach of the phylogenetic network appears to be the evidence of an underlying biological invariance, a law if you will, a law that has not been adequately determined.
And to make the matter still more puzzling, there is the one notable exception to the law—the one case of the law having encountered a blatant violator. That is to say, the human species.
Humanity certainly did not begin as the most obvious counterexample to the law of species stasis. The genus Homo and its predecessors had for millions of years been unfolding into an entirely standard set of stable and generally durable groupings: afarensis, africanus, habilis, ergaster, erectus, heidelbergensis, neanderthalensis. And for quite some time Homo sapiens too appeared to be slated for the same usual course, its members passing through typical and mostly unvarying animal lives within the more hospitable corners of the African continent. But it was around fifty thousand years ago that an unprecedented behavioral transformation began to take shape within the species, a transformation that has only accelerated throughout the intervening years and today shows no signs of abatement. In the early twenty-first century almost no characteristic of human behavior would be recognizable to anyone who could have observed or recorded man’s earlier days on the savanna. And although it is indeed behavior that constitutes the most clear-cut difference between the humans of today and the humans of the past, with the advent of everything from dental implants to artificial knees, from Viagra to augmented bosoms, from in vitro fertilization to stem cell technologies, it is evident that much of the morphological and reproductive intransigence still lingering within the human species is now on the verge of disappearing as well.
And thus there are two fundamental questions to be investigated regarding the concept of a biological species. One, what compels a species, across all its generations, to maintain such consistent and stable behavior? And two, how is it that the human species has managed to escape this compulsion?
To better understand the reasons for the widespread stability underlying species behavior, perhaps the best place to begin is with a depiction that might not seem at first to be all that related—namely the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. But Kant was the first to fully confront the challenge of describing how a persistent biological consciousness can arise from the continuous multitude of sensory impressions that each organism receives, impressions that in their rawest form would be little more than chaotic and overwhelming, would be little more than useless noise. One of the goals of the Critique of Pure Reason was to outline the process whereby sensory impressions can transcend their inherent chaos and become the basis for effective and consistent behavior. And although Kant’s approach, including his heavy reliance upon syllogistic logic, was perhaps not entirely adequate to the task, Kant’s groundbreaking effort still managed to capture the essence of what would have to be incorporated into any proposed solution to the problem of biological consciousness, namely a recognition that in order for consciousness to arise at all, an organism’s multitude of sensory impressions would have to be unified under some kind of structure or rule. Or to put it in the parlance of modern data science, each organism’s raw sensory input would have to be sorted, filtered, mapped and reduced, resulting finally in the kind of perceptual foregrounding and targeted awareness that could serve as the basis for productive action. Kant’s depiction is too often taken to be merely philosophical or as applicable to human reasoning alone, but in fact it is the most informative when applied biologically: the early pages of the Critique of Pure Reason outline a general framework whereby a manifold of biological stimulus can be transformed into precise and targeted response—something no lion on the prowl could ever do without.
Kant was also the first to recognize that the means of any sorting, filtering, mapping and reducing would have to be provided by the organism itself, and that the general form of these means would be the primary determinant of the organism’s perceptual content, and therefore the primary determinant of the organism’s resulting behavior. Kant often used the somewhat vague and magical-sounding term faculty to highlight these organism-provided means, but of course it has to be remembered that Kant was writing well before the advent of Darwin, Mendel and an accurate rendition of Earth’s biological timeline—so some vagueness and magic are to be excused. Today, post the advent of Darwin, Mendel and an accurate rendition of Earth’s biological timeline, the a priori means that underlie sensory unification and perceptual foregrounding are now more richly detailed and more deeply understood, having shed their vagueness upon a wealth of observable information regarding biochemistry and genetics, and having cast off their magical aura behind a well-described evolutionary process that spans hundreds of millions of years. In the biological kingdom, what drives the means for sorting, filtering, mapping and reducing, what shapes the structure and rule behind stimulus unification and targeted response, are the ongoing requirements of survival and procreation—physically manifested within each organism’s biochemical structure and honed into effectiveness through enormously long stretches of selection and generation.
The capstone of Kant’s description, his list of conceptual categories—organized under such headings as quality, quantity, modality, plurality and negation—was arrived at in an attempt to achieve maximum generality. But in a certain sense, all this ardent abstraction vastly overshoots the mark when applied to a biological context, where really only concreteness will do. Because if one were to search from the treetops of the Amazonian rain forests all the way to the depths of the ocean floor, it would be a frustrating endeavor to find anywhere a biological consciousness unified around such notions as quality, quantity, modality, plurality or negation. And yet by contrast, it would be little more than child’s play to find a biological consciousness unified around such categories as food, water, danger, shelter, family, sex, predators, prey, conspecifics. In the experienced world, it is concrete biological need that determines the primary structure of biological perception, and it is the pervasive and unyielding impetus behind these biologically determined categories that provides the primary reason for why biological behavior remains so consistent and stable. In the experienced world, survival ceaselessly asserts its decrees, procreation fervently presses its demands, evolution ruthlessly carries out its mandate. Each organism, both outwardly and inwardly, must adhere to these strict regulations or else disappear. And so in a broad and inexorable lockstep, the members of the biological community must aim their rapt and conscious attention towards food, water, danger, shelter, family, sex, predators, prey, conspecifics—and then each must respond accordingly, and thus each responds mostly the same.
Of the biologically determined categories, conspecific awareness and recognition holds special significance. It is the primary catalyst, at least within the animal kingdom, behind each species developing a strong tendency to coalesce—both territorially and behaviorally. Each organism possesses a predisposition to foreground first and foremost those sensory impressions that are directly associated with the other members of its own species; lions perceive and attend primarily to other lions, geese perceive and attend predominantly to other geese, ants perceive and attend chiefly to other ants (and of course humans perceive and attend first and foremost to other humans). The principal inducement towards this nearly universal characteristic of an intra-species awareness is that it is the most direct solution to what would otherwise be a haphazard reproductive challenge. Successful mating requires that the male and female conjoin at the same time and same location, a rendezvous that would be made problematic, if not downright impossible, should each member of the species be unable to distinguish and foreground its own kind from all the remainder. Even in those rare instances where organisms live solitary lives, and egg-laying and fertilization are separated significantly in time, the species is still bound together by the perceptual foregrounding of the expected location of egg-laying and fertilization, an effective proxy for conspecific prominence.
And beyond the logistical requirements of procreation, many species make extensive use of conspecific foregrounding to advance a broad range of beneficial behaviors. Nurturing of the young for instance necessitates that adults carry a perceptual preference for the offspring of their own kind—lest lions find themselves randomly rearing goslings, geese find themselves indiscriminately raising ants, and so on. Successful foraging, pack hunting and herd defense all require a keen perceptual attention to the other members of the population, even when those members occupy no more than a minuscule portion of the entire sensory field. But perhaps most importantly of all, conspecific awareness and recognition allows tried-and-tested species behaviors to be passed along from generation to generation, without the inefficient obligation that each and every behavior be imprinted genetically or be made completely instinctual. The maturing members of many species go through a period of time in which their main occupation is to scrutinize parents, siblings, extended family and other models within the population, imitating observed activities and eventually taking on those activities with an increasing faithfulness (and thereby becoming models for the next generation). This recurrent cycle of learned and transmitted behavior is always confined to the species itself—lions do not learn from leopards, geese do not model sparrows, no organism imitates non-biological objects. Each organism is a fully engaged student of its own kind—and is nearly oblivious to everything else.
Thus the trait of conspecific awareness and recognition has both the powerful and restrictive impact of making a species insular. Conspecific foregrounding encourages a species to cluster, it turns the species’ members inwards for mutual protection and predatory assistance, and it promotes generational continuance of the species’ more successful behaviors. But the unrelenting narrowness of this characteristic also has the consequence of effectively blinding the species to any alternative information that the sensory field might have to offer—whether that information would come from other species or from the non-biological world. Nearly all sensory impressions not directly connected to the species itself, or to the immediate requirements of survival and procreation, are relegated to the sensory background and never gain perceptual prominence, and thus never influence biological attention or behavior. As a result, the species is provided little opportunity or incitement to change, since perceptually speaking, nothing ever differs from generation to generation. So powerful and so confining is the impact of conspecific awareness and recognition that it needs to be considered a fundamental and essential component of the definition of a species, because a species is determined not only by its morphological similarities and its reproductive sufficiency, it is also determined by the mutual awareness and recognition among all its members, the glue that holds the species together and assures its unvarying continuance.
Each organism’s inherent perceptual inclination towards its conspecific neighbors, along with each organism’s corresponding disinclination towards the members of other species, suggests there must be a boundary somewhere between these two extremes. On the near side of the boundary, conspecific awareness and recognition functions within a certain degree of tolerance, for despite there being varying levels of genetic and morphological difference among species members, with no two members forming a perfect genetic or morphological match, conspecific foregrounding still manages to remain effective and active throughout the population, with every member gaining targeted attention and every member receiving prominent recognition. But this tolerance clearly must have its limits. It does not extend so far as to encompass the members of other species, and thus it can be assumed that as the conspecific distance increases between organisms—a function of increased morphological and/or genetic difference—a boundary will eventually be reached where the tolerance becomes fully extended and then finally exceeded, with a corresponding attenuation and loss of any conspecific awareness and recognition.
These concepts of conspecific distance, conspecific tolerance and conspecific boundary play an important role in assessing the expected outcome for any organism introducing genetic alteration into a species. A unique genetic signature carries capacity for a transformed species dynamic, with the degree of uniqueness determining the potential for change. But the mechanisms of conspecific awareness serve to work against these species alterations, promoting instead an ongoing conservatism, a conservatism that remains well inside any extant conspecific boundary. It is those species members that carry genetic differences that are insignificant in effect and/or infrequent in number that will be the species members that remain well inside the conspecific tolerance range, and it is these same species members that will experience and share typical conspecific foregrounding, along with all the resulting conspecific perceptions and behaviors. And thus it is these same species members that will become the fully participating members of the species community, markedly improving their chances and opportunities for procreation and continuation, preserving nothing more subversive than a few non-transformative mutations. To some extent this scenario plays out with nearly every offspring, because although each organism does possess a genetic signature that is distinct in some degree, in the large majority of instances this distinction will be too insignificant to interfere with conspecific awareness, and will be too insignificant to alter the species dynamic.
In comparison, those species members that carry genetic differences that are potent in effect and/or frequent in number will be the same species members that experience an increased conspecific distance from the remainder of the population, a distance that should it become great enough will strain and surpass the conspecific tolerance range. Such organisms would then be perceptually set adrift, less able to recognize and foreground their population partners, while they in turn would be less able to recognize and foreground it. These circumstances would markedly reduce the chances and opportunities for procreation and continuance, meaning that those genetic alterations that are more likely to transform a species are the same genetic alterations that are more likely to be thwarted. To take an extreme example, one could imagine a lion being born with such an exaggerated level of genetic mutation that it might effectively be deemed a leopard, meaning that this newborn and its “conspecific” lion neighbors would be destined to become perceptual strangers, with the newborn’s chances for survival and procreation almost guaranteed to turn nil. But even at a much lesser extreme of conspecific distance, challenging biological consequences can still be anticipated, and thus conspecific distancing almost certainly plays a role in the warding off of significant genetic change, a primary mechanism whereby conspecific recognition contributes to the ongoing stasis of a species.
Although the odds of continuation are indeed negligible for an organism outside the conspecific tolerance range, the prognosis is more ambiguous, and in some ways more intriguing, for an organism nearing the conspecific boundary—near enough that conspecific awareness and recognition is weakened to some extent but not so near as to make survival and procreation essentially impossible. There are several distinguishing characteristics that can be predicted for such an organism. Mating for instance, although not precluded, will certainly be more problematic, since the organism’s inherent perception for its potential mates, as well as their perception in turn for it, will be more nebulous than is the case for the remainder of the population, leading to courtship behaviors that might seem awkward or strange. In species that make heavy use of conspecific foregrounding for mutual defense and combined attack, any member stretching the conspecific limit will of necessity be a weaker participant in these population activities and might come to be regarded as an encumbrance by way of result. And perhaps most importantly of all, the maturation process for a more conspecifically distanced organism will almost certainly be more difficult and more delayed than for the majority of its peers, the relative inability and disinclination to scrutinize others in the population and to imitate their behaviors hampering the typical transmission of species behaviors. Such an organism would not only genetically become an outlier to the population, it would also perceptually and behaviorally become an outlier as well.
For such an organism, however, there is a potential compensation. Recalling the lessons from Kant, it needs to be noted again that the primary purpose behind any form of perception is to unify sensory impressions—impressions that would otherwise remain chaotic, overwhelming and useless. To the extent that an organism’s perceptual mechanisms are diminished by its biological circumstances, as would be the case for an organism experiencing an increased conspecific distance, the corresponding unification of sensory experience will be diminished as well. This weakening of sensory unification will give rise to an assortment of sensory difficulties—hypersensitivity, hyposensitivity, synaesthesia. The affected organism, less able to organize its sensory experience around the foregrounded features associated with conspecific awareness and recognition, will find itself struggling with almost every aspect of sensory input. Thus in order to ameliorate these sensory difficulties, a conspecifically distanced organism will be driven towards alternative means of sensory unification—which is to say, it will be driven towards alternative means of perception. And it is these alternative means of perception that provide the potential for compensation, because they effectively open the door to a much wider awareness of the entire sensory field, including those features associated with other species, and more significantly, including those features associated with the non-biological world. As it happens, the non-biological world provides a prodigiously rich framework of organizing principles that can serve as the basis for unification of sensory experience—principles that go under such headings as symmetry, repetition, pattern, structure and form. The irony is that these alternative organizing principals are in theory available to every organism, but the restrictive impact of biological perception in general, and of conspecific awareness and recognition in particular, pushes awareness of these non-biological features well into the sensory background, and thus it is only those organisms that somehow get loosened from the strictures of conspecific awareness and recognition that can thereby gain the opportunity to foreground these alternative features from the surrounding environment, and can thereby gain the potential to achieve a much broader and deeper awareness of the entire sensory field.
If a population were to contain only one such conspecifically distanced organism, or perhaps just a few, then there would likely be little impact on the species as a whole. But if the population were to somehow incorporate a significant number of such organisms, and if that number were to remain stable over a reasonable period of time, then the species dynamic could begin to change. All the necessary conditions for a change would be in place: the broader population would have a conspecific relationship to the population’s more distant members (albeit a looser relationship than normal), and the more distant members would have access to a wider array of perceptual experience. The natural workings of conspecific awareness and recognition would prompt the broader population to begin to notice the new behaviors and new perceptions being originated by the more distant members, an awareness that might eventually encourage imitation. In this manner the enhanced perceptual experience of the population’s more distant members would begin to infiltrate the perceptual experience of the species as a whole, and with this change in overall species perception would come a corresponding change in overall species behavior. In defiance of the universal expectation of a continual species stasis, this species would be on the verge of a behavioral revolution.
Of course considering the biological fragility that haunts the conspecific boundary, and observing the non-changing behavior of every species currently to be found in the natural world, it would seem that any talk of a behavioral revolution being driven by conspecific distancing would have to be characterized as little more than an academic exercise, as little more than some hypothetical musing. And indeed that would be the end of the discussion if it were not for the one piece of unfinished biological business—namely how to account for that one species that has emerged suddenly and prominently as a blatant violator of the tenets of species stasis, how to account for that one species that has broadly expanded its perceptual experience of the sensory world, how to account for that one species of which it can no longer be said that it can be found in the natural world. How to account for the human species.
The behavioral revolution of the human species has been nothing short of stunning in both its scope and its speed. There is little in the way of evidence to suggest that prior to around fifty thousand years ago Homo sapiens individuals lived much differently than all the other animals—riding the ebbs and flows of survival and procreation, gazing out upon an entirely natural landscape, confined to the African continent alone. And then suddenly everything began to change. Art, symbolism, categorized tools, sophisticated weaponry—all began appearing in ever-increasing numbers and with ever-accelerating technique. Humans began to spread geographically and did not stop until the entire planet had been covered. They extincted many other species along the way and bred a chosen few into domesticated abundance. Today, very few humans gaze out upon an entirely natural landscape—artificial environments have become vastly the human norm.
One notable aspect of this human revolution is that it has been accompanied by—indeed it has been driven by—a broadened perceptual awareness of the sensory world, and in particular a broadened perceptual awareness of the non-biological world. Nearly all the changes that have become the hallmark features of modern human existence have been built upon a backbone of non-biological constructs, everything from the grammatical patterns of language all the way to the structured symmetries of towering skyscrapers. Literally everywhere one looks, one finds profuse application of the organizing principles of pattern, symmetry, repetition, structure and form—principles that would have never reached the surface of human ken not that long ago, but that today constitute the proliferating and artificial embodiment of man’s ever-burgeoning intelligence.
Thus it is that the characteristics of the human behavioral revolution can be seen as matching almost word for word the description given above for a species change brought about by the influence of conspecific distancing. The enormous human behavioral change has been accompanied by an equally enormous human perceptual change, by an expanded perceptual awareness, one that goes far beyond the restrictions of biological perception alone and one that captures instead an entire panoply of artificial domains. And although humans still retain their conspecific awareness and recognition for one another, and although they still possess sensory instincts for survival and procreation, humans are no longer constricted by these biological demands—the human species has been freed almost entirely from its former perceptual prison.
The predictions of conspecific distancing would suggest that this liberation must have been catalyzed through the influence of a significant and stable subpopulation of conspecifically distanced members, human outliers who driven by biological and sensory necessity would have been the first to explore an alternative means of perceiving their sensory world—the species’ pathfinders to an expanded form of perception. And thus the question can be asked: within the human population, is there a recognizable subgroup of members who can be seen as possessing the distinguishing behavioral characteristics, including all the inherent challenges, of a conspecifically distanced organism? Are there discernible individuals who evince the telltale weakness in conspecific foregrounding and who compensate for this weakness by gravitating instead to alternative perceptual targets, targets such as the non-biological world and its underlying principles of pattern, symmetry, repetition, structure and form?
Within the human population there are indeed individuals of this kind, and over the past century they have begun to be recognized. They are described most commonly as autistic.
Autism has given the scientific community a very difficult time. The condition was once regarded as extremely rare and almost always debilitating, but as evidence has accumulated over the years it has become more and more apparent that at least one percent of the human population can be accurately described as autistic, and along with such numbers has come the inevitable corollary that in the large majority of circumstances the condition cannot be all that debilitating. Autistic individuals certainly face some challenges, challenges that can vary in degree, but that has never prevented autistic individuals from blending in with the rest of the human population, so much so that they have gone virtually unrecognized for dozens of millennia. Nonetheless, even in the face of these undeniable facts, the scientific community has been unable to let go of its need to medicalize the condition, somehow convinced, without the slightest shred of evidence, that autism must be the result of biological defect. And so the research and studies have been growing like weeds—searches for defective genes, searches for defective neural pathways, searches for defective metabolisms—massively funded and massively peopled efforts that have now become laughable in the combined fruitlessness of their results. More troubling still, and certainly more shameful, has been the scientific community’s willingness to heap insult and torment upon its autistic subjects, branding them with an assortment of inaccurate and unsupported labels (burdens, tragedies) and stifling them with an assortment of damaging treatments and so-called cures (applied behavioral analysis, stupefying drugs). The scientific community’s current approach to autism is destined to become one of that community’s more disgraceful hours.
The more informative approach to autism is to regard it as a condition of increased conspecific distance. The core characteristics of autism, what nearly every autistic individual shares in common, are the same characteristics predicted for an organism nearer to the conspecific boundary than the majority of its peers. Autistic individuals show less inclination for and less attention to their conspecific neighbors, a trait often presumed to be the evidence of damaged social functioning, but which is more precisely described as a diminished human awareness, an attenuated human recognition. Autistic children, less drawn to the activity of conspecific imitation, mature more slowly than do their non-autistic counterparts, sometimes taking well into adulthood to assume a fuller role within the broader population. Autistic individuals experience an assortment of sensory difficulties—hypersensitivity, hyposensitivity, synaesthesia—conditions with no discernible physical cause, meaning that these anomalies stem not from physical defect but instead from a generalized difficulty with the attainment of sensory unification. Finally, and almost invariably, autistic individuals compensate for their diminished conspecific awareness and recognition by focusing instead on alternative perceptual targets, including a predominance of targets from the non-biological world. In the youngest autistic individuals this characteristic is most often seen in the rapt attention given to such objects as spinning toys, symmetrical figures, repeating sounds and recurring scenes, while in older autistic individuals this tendency often coalesces into specialized and deeply learned interests. Misguidedly, the term repetitive and restricted behaviors is often used to disparage these concentrations on alternative perceptual targets, betraying a complete misunderstanding of both their essential purpose and their liberating consequence. For these concentrations on alternative perceptual targets are both the creative antidotes to what might otherwise be an overwhelming sensory chaos, and they are also the species’ opening doors onto the organizing and intelligence-producing principles of pattern, symmetry, repetition, structure and form.
Concerto for Intelligence home page
Copyright © 2017 by Alan Griswold
All rights reserved.