Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Do spiders have extended minds?

For years I’ve been fascinated by the “extended minds” thesis, the claim that we should regard our minds not as confined to our brains, but including brains, bodies and technologies. (Andy Clark, author of Natural Born Cyborgs, is one influential exponents of the concept.) It’s an idea that guided my book The Distraction Addiction: my contention that we shouldn’t regard technologies as inherently dehumanizing, but instead should be see the best of them as tools we use to become better versions of ourselves, builds on the idea of extended minds.

So I clicked pretty quickly when I saw an article titled “Does a Spider Use Its Web Like You Use Your Smartphone? on The Atlantic Web site. It turns out that for almost the last decade, Brazilian biologist Hilton Japyassú has been conducting experiments on spiders, learning how they use their webs to sense the world and solve unfamiliar problems. He and a colleague now argue that “a spider’s web is at least an adjustable part of its sensory apparatus, and at most an extension of the spider’s cognitive system.”

The whole article, which touches on octopus cognition, other spider species, and Haller’s Rule, is worth reading.

And here’s the abstract from the essay “Extended Spider Cognition” by Hilton Japyassú and Kevin Laland:

There is a tension between the conception of cognition as a central nervous system (CNS) process and a view of cognition as extending towards the body or the contiguous environment. The centralised conception requires large or complex nervous systems to cope with complex environments. Conversely, the extended conception involves the outsourcing of information processing to the body or environment, thus making fewer demands on the processing power of the CNS. The evolution of extended cognition should be particularly favoured among small, generalist predators such as spiders, and here, we review the literature to evaluate the fit of empirical data with these contrasting models of cognition. Spiders do not seem to be cognitively limited, displaying a large diversity of learning processes, from habituation to contextual learning, including a sense of numerosity. To tease apart the central from the extended cognition, we apply the mutual manipulability criterion, testing the existence of reciprocal causal links between the putative elements of the system. We conclude that the web threads and configurations are integral parts of the cognitive systems. The extension of cognition to the web helps to explain some puzzling features of spider behaviour and seems to promote evolvability within the group, enhancing innovation through cognitive connectivity to variable habitat features. Graded changes in relative brain size could also be explained by outsourcing information processing to environmental features. More generally, niche-constructed structures emerge as prime candidates for extending animal cognition, generating the selective pressures that help to shape the evolving cognitive system.

“To get into elite colleges, one must train for standardized tests with the intensity of an athlete”

Dylan Hernandez has an excellent piece in the New York Times about class and the SATs. Hernandez grew up in Flint, Michigan, in a working-class family, and talks about spending time in a summer program at Phillips Exeter.

His classmates that summer were in the main from families that were far better-off, and were “impossibly sporty, charming and intelligent, with perfect smiles and impeccably curated Instagram profiles,” as well as “truly interesting people.” But he was surprised to find that they were also serious SAT grinds:

The majority of low- and middle-income 11th graders I know in Michigan didn’t even sit for the preliminary exams. Most took the SAT cold. Few were privy to the upper-middle-class secret I discovered that summer: To get into elite colleges, one must train for standardized tests with the intensity of an athlete….

Don’t get me wrong. My newfound friends worked extremely hard, but they also seemed to have access to a formula for success that had been kept from the rest of us. It just wasn’t something our overworked guidance counselors could teach.

As a result, all the drilling they did for an exam that is supposed to be an equalizer in ranking students according to raw test-taking skills was only widening the American achievement gap.

This seems to me a pretty accurate reflection of the way advantage and merit work in America today: most kids from advantaged backgrounds work hard to leverage the benefits of their upbringing; but they still enjoy those advantages.

“Alabama senate votes to allow church to form own police force”

I suppose the most charitable way to spin this is to note that Birmingham does have a history of church bombings…

Alabama senate votes to allow church to form own police force

Lawmakers on Tuesday voted 24-4 to allow Briarwood Presbyterian church in Birmingham to establish a law enforcement department.

The church says it needs its own police officers to keep its school as well as its more than 4,000 person congregation safe.

Enough with the ironic Trump voter stories

Alexandra Petri has a great summary of “Every story I have read about Trump supporters in the past week” in the Washington Post:

Next to her sits Linda Blarnik. Like the rusty hubcaps hanging on the wall behind her, she was made in America 50 years ago, back when this town made things, a time she still remembers fondly. She says she has had just enough of the “coastal elitist media who keep showing up to write mean things about my town and my life, like that thing just now where you said I was like a hubcap, yes you, stop writing I can see over your shoulder.” Mournfully a whistle blows behind her, the whistle of a train that does not stop in this America any longer.

Much as I appreciated the first couple articles in this genre, I’m getting pretty weary of them, and coming to see them as really pretty problematic.

DSCF6876

First, they look like investigation, but they’re really condescension. Reporters who a year ago (and ten years ago) should have gone to rural Pennsylvania, or the former factory town in Ohio, or that corner diner in Kansas, are finally doing their jobs — or so it seems. But too easily the pieces fall into condescension, and turn into stories about people being hurt by the person they thought would save them. The stories could all be headlined,

Local Man’s Fate Feeds Our Confirmation Bias About His Political Stupidity

Second, they reduce politics to a narrow set of transactions: I vote for you, you give me a bridge contract, or a job, or deport my Spanish-speaking neighbors (but not the decent one who owns the factory, he’s okay.) Contrast this with the high idealism of Clinton supporters, casting their votes to shatter that final glass ceiling, and make America even greater.

My old elementary school

Finally, they unintentionally reflect a world-view that is very, very Trumpian: they turn politics into the pursuit of personal gain, the satisfaction of tribal grievances, and the narrowing of a vision of America. These stories only work as irony (or tragedy) if the authors accept the premise that politics is about making great deals, not the expression of ideals.

But sometimes people vote to express their ideals, not to maximize their short-term interests. People with teenage sons in 1944 who voted for FDR probably weren’t hoping that their sons would be killed; but they recognized the dangers of fascism, and that its destruction was important. When people choose to make sacrifices for the long-term benefit of groups, or when they accept the burdens of doing things like defending their country, they’re not being saps.

And even if you enjoy stories of voters being hurt by the people they elected, you need to ask how the experience is going to affect their choices next time. Don’t take for granted that Linda Blarnik will switch parties next time; worry that her next vote will go to someone who promises to make Trump look like an scion of the Establishment.

Vision and the movement of fish from water to land

Specimens at the California Academy of Sciences
Not a land-dwelling fish, by the way. Just a cool picture.

Ed Yong in The Atlantic writes about new research on the relationship between the evolution of vision and the movement of fish from water to land. Scientists have long known that some species of fish started hanging out near the shore, then venturing on land, and eventually living on land full-time, starting about 385 million years ago. During this process, Yong writes, “their flattened fins gradually transformed into sturdy legs, ending in feet and digits. Rather than paddling through water, they started striding over solid ground.”

Naturally the evolution of legs has gotten lots of attention among paleontologists, but in a new article, a team led by Northwestern University professor Malcolm MacIver argues that changes in vision played a very significant role in the transition, too. Continue reading

The myth of personal branding

An article in today’s Quartz discusses Indiana University anthropologist Ilana Gershon’s new book Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (Or Don’t Find) Work Today and its argument that Personal branding “is largely a boondoggle advanced by inspirational speakers and job trainers.” What Gershon finds is that

It doesn’t help people get jobs. But it does make us more accepting of an increasingly dehumanized job market that treats workers as products rather than people.

For one thing, the employers and hiring managers Gershon talked to didn’t look for, or even notice, personal branding. Gershon concluded that despite all the hype, finding your personal brand doesn’t help job-seekers. Its primary function is to make people feel like they have control over their working lives in an increasingly hostile job landscape.

According to Gershon, the concept of personal branding developed over the last 30 years as the concept of work itself became more precarious.

In essence, companies tend to treat employees in a more transactional manner now, and the personal brand is the employee’s attempt to define that relationship on their terms, and to “reconcile oneself to an economy that provides less and less security.”

“he who bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow.:”

Another quote from Seneca:

Everyone hurries his life on and suffers from a yearning for the future and a weariness of the present. But he who bestows all of his time on his own needs, who plans out every day as if it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the morrow. For what new pleasure is there that any hour can now bring? They are all known, all have been enjoyed to the full. Mistress Fortune may deal out the rest as she likes; his life has already found safety. Something may be added to it, but nothing taken from it, and he will take any addition as the man who is satisfied and filled takes the food which he does not desire and yet can hold.

“There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn.”

From Seneca’s “On the Shortness of Life:”

everybody agrees that no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is busied with many things… since the mind, when its interests are divided, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it. There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn.

Visit to Charles Darwin’s Down House

After I finished my London publicity tour for Rest (which is coming out with Penguin Life in February 2017), my wife and I spent the weekend being tourists. On Saturday I did something I’ve long wanted to do, but never got around to: we went to visit Charles Darwin’s house in the village of Downe. I’ve written about the house, the nearby Sandwalk, and Darwin’s time there in my last two books, but I’ve never actually been there until now.

Darwin moved to Downe in 1842, to give himself more privacy and room to raise his growing family. He and his wife Emma both wanted to be in the country, and they intentionally chose a place that would not be very easy to get to.

It still isn’t.

First, you get to Charing Cross station, then take the train to the town of Orpington.

DSCF0852

From there, you get the number R8 bus that makes the rounds through the country, and stops at Downe. You then walk about a third of a mile to Down House. All told, it’s about 90 minutes to get from Charing Cross to Down House, but in reality, it’s longer: the trains and buses aren’t likely to sync up perfectly. In our case, that was a bit fortuitous, as it allowed us time to have lunch at the Maxwell pub in Orpington.
DSCF0854

After that, it was on the bus to Downe. When the roads are open, the bus stops right in front of Down House. This time, it didn’t, so we had to get off and walk.

However, this gave us a chance to visit the church in the village, which is really quite lovely.

DSCF0875

There’s also a “Darwin Bar,” rather inevitably.

DSCF0867

From the village, it’s a few minutes’ walk to Down House. However, it’s worth noting that much of the walk is along a narrow country road with hedges on either side and no sidewalk, so you really have to keep to the very edge of the road and yet let cars know that you’re there so they don’t accidentally run you over.

Eventually, though, you arrive at Down House.

DSCF0917

The house itself has been part of National Trust for a few years, and they do a good job with the exhibits. The upstairs has been converted into an exhibit space, while the downstairs, with Darwin’s study, billiards room, dining room, etc. has been restored and looks like it did when Charles was living there.

Unfortunately you can’t take pictures there.

For me, though, as big a draw as the house was, the Sandwalk was almost as big an attraction. The Sandwalk is a circular path that Darwin laid out on the property as a place where he could go walk and think, and he went out there at least a couple times a day, every day.

To get to it you go through the gardens, and down a path on the edge of the property.

DSCF0939

At the end of the path you come to the Sandwalk itself, just past the age tree on the left (which I believe Darwin himself might have planted).
DSCF1001

The path is a couple hundred yards long.

DSCF0948

At the end, there’s a little place where one can sit if it’s raining. To the left, you can see the path turning and starting to circle back.

DSCF0956

The return is through a darker grove of trees, but still quite pleasant.

DSCF0977

After we were finished, we walked back to the village, and waited a while for our bus back to Orpington.

DSCF1006

All in all it was a very pleasant afternoon. And having come with me on my thing, my wife then took us to see In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about life in Brooklyn.

Goodreads giveaway

REST will be out in just over two weeks, and to celebrate, I’m starting a Goodreads giveaway.

I’ll be giving away ten autographed hardcover copies of the book. Goodreads will select the winners, and I’ll send the books out after the contest ends on December 15. (They might make it for Christmas, they might not. I can make no guarantees!)

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Rest

by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Giveaway ends December 15, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

 

Head over to Goodreads to enter, and good luck! And of course, you can also preorder the book online, or look for it in your local bookstore on December 6.

« Older posts

© 2017 Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑