FACEBOOK Redeemed? Co-curation of visual heritage

John Terrell

Social media in general, and FACEBOOK in particular, have taken a lot of heat lately for a range of social and political misdeeds centering on, but not limited to, the misappropriation of the personal data of 87 million people.

I generally believe the seemingly trite wisdom that when given a lemon, you should make lemonade.

Teop Island from the Bougainville mainland.

Back in 1969—or almost 50 years ago—while I was doing my  dissertation field research in Pacific archaeology on Bougainville Island in the North Solomons, I lived for a number of months on beautiful little Teop Island just off the northeast corner of Bougainville, one of the largest islands in the Southwest Pacific.

Buin, 1970

Several months ago I discovered that lots of people from Teop are now on FACEBOOK. It turns out some people there even remember me and where the house was I lived in (it is no longer there). Some may remember, too, the clan name I was given back then.


I started “friending” folks there, and vice versa. Then I began posting my old pictures of people and events on the island to local applause.

Several of us at Field Museum in Chicago are now working remotely via email and FACEBOOK with Geoffrey Purupuru and others from Teop to create a forum at our website PacificAnthropology.org (now undergoing a major reworking thanks to Anthropology Collections Assistant Julia Kennedy and others at the museum) where all of my photos from Teop back in 1969 can be seen, commented on, and freely shared with others.

An unexpected way of “returning” that would only be possible today. Thanks be to FACEBOOK.

But more to the point I want to end with here, we see this collaborative venture as further demonstration of how museums today can form partnerships with communities beyond their walls to celebrate world cultural heritage, And share old memories, too.

A sample of the photos soon to be available on the Internet.
Canoe-making on Teop Island, Bougainville, 1969
Sampson Purupuru, Teop 1969
Vasipuana ceremony, April 1969
Vasipuana ceremony, April 1969

Prehistory and Plug & Play Genetics

June 2, 2018

As noted earlier this week at SCIENCE DIALOGUES, the popular science monthly Scientific American has now published a lengthy and decidedly critical commentary on current practice in the new field of paleogenetics .

At present it looks like the hype promoting paleogenetics research far exceeds the actual performance.

But who knows what the future will bring once human geneticists realize that there are no simple ways to connect the dots between human genes and the realities of human history.



Moving past “Systematics Wars”

Beckett Sterner, Arizona State University, and Scott Lidgard, Field Museum of Natural History, have written a new interpretation of a critical period in evolutionary biology leading to how scientists classify organisms: the “Systematics Wars” of the late 1960’s through the 1980’s.

Beckett Sterner (left) and Scott Lidgard (right)

This was a time when prominent biological systematists fought bitterly along partisan lines. They critique philosopher David Hull’s historical account in Science as a Process, which began what later became the common view that one camp, cladistics, straightforwardly “won” over another camp, phenetics.

Hull prioritized theory over practice and the conflicts of a few leading theorists over the less polarized interactions of systematists at large. He treated cultural evolution and biological evolution as forms of the same general process; cladistics and phenetics as holistically opposed theories can only interact by competition to the death.

Sterner and Lidgard instead analyze what systematists actually did in this period, the workflow that they followed, the methods they used, and the common problems that arose and were solved to the benefit of both camps.

They hope this opens a new window of different perspectives on how we classify organisms—the mathematization of systematics.


© 2017 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Challenging our assumptions about the antiquity of trade and social networks in Middle Stone Age Africa

Nature human behavior has just published a research highlight written John Carson about work at the Sibilo School Road Site in Kenya done by Nick Blegen, Harvard University, that has recovered large quantities of obsidian along with Middle Stone Age (MSA) tools . The finds are thought to date back at least 200 kyr.

As Carson summarizes: “Geochemical analyses demonstrated that the majority of obsidian pieces had their provenance at a source site >160 km away, indicating long-distance transport of raw materials during the MSA.” Previously, East African sites evidencing long-distance resource transport have all be less than <50 kyr old.

Evidently known MSA sites of this age are rare in East Africa. If more sites can be found and excavated, the “big story” usually told about the evolution of human social behavior may need updating: far-reaching resource networks and/or intergroup trade in raw materials could have developed earlier than generally believed in the history of our species. If so, then in Carson’s words: “we may gain greater insight into the timeline of social evolution that eventually led to our modern group behaviours.”

Blegen’s report was just published (unfortunately behind a paywall) in the Journal of Human Evolution. Here is the abstract you will find available there for free:


This study presents the earliest evidence of long-distance obsidian transport at the ∼200 ka Sibilo School Road Site (SSRS), an early Middle Stone Age site in the Kapthurin Formation, Kenya. The later Middle Pleistocene of East Africa (130–400 ka) spans significant and interrelated behavioral and biological changes in human evolution including the first appearance of Homo sapiens. Despite the importance of the later Middle Pleistocene, there are relatively few archaeological sites in well-dated contexts (n < 10) that document hominin behavior from this time period. In particular, geochemically informed evidence of long-distance obsidian transport, important for investigating expansion of intergroup interactions in hominin evolution, is rare from the Middle Pleistocene record of Africa. The SSRS offers a unique contribution to this small but growing dataset. Tephrostratigraphic analysis of tuffs encasing the SSRS provides a minimum age of ∼200 ka for the site. Levallois points and methods of core preparation demonstrate characteristic Middle Stone Age lithic technologies present at the SSRS. A significant portion (43%) of the lithic assemblage is obsidian. The SSRS obsidian comes from three different sources located at distances of 25 km, 140 km and 166 km from the site. The majority of obsidian derives from the farthest source, 166 km to the south of the site. The SSRS thus provides important new evidence that long-distance raw material transport, and the expansion of hominin intergroup interactions that this entails, was a significant feature of hominin behavior ∼200 ka, the time of the first appearance of H. sapiens, and ∼150,000 years before similar behaviors were previously documented in the region.

© 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved

Zambia paleo dig yields new insights on Permian-Triassic environments

Mark Alvey

Please note: this news story, recovered on 28-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 27-August-2014.

Ken Angielczyk in the Luangwa Basin of Zambia holding two specimens of the dicynodont Diictodon. Photo by Roger Smith.

Associate Curator Ken Angielczyk of The Field Museum was part of an international team of collaborators that conducted paleontological fieldwork in Zambia between June 22 and July 31. Ken and his collaborators focused on Middle Permian (~265 Mya) to Middle Triassic (~240 Mya) rocks in two areas of the country, the Zambezi Basin in southern Zambia and the Luangwa Basin in northeastern Zambia. The team had done preliminary work in the Zambezi Basin in 2011 and 2012, but only spent a total of about 5 days working there. This time, they spent about two weeks there and their discoveries include multiple species of archaic amphibians and dinocephalians and dicynodonts (both ancient mammal relatives) from the Middle Permian, extremely well preserved fossil wood, and evidence that two temporally-distinct faunas are preserved in the Permian rocks in the Zambezi Basin. They also collected a large amount of geological data that will help complete the picture of the environments in which the plants and animals were living.

Ken’s colleagues Sebastien Steyer and Charles Beightol excavate a dinocephalian skeleton preserved in Permian rocks in the Zambezi Basin of Zambia. Photo: Cristian Sidor.

The team had conducted more extensive fieldwork in the Luangwa Basin in 2009 and 2011, and this year their work focused on rounding out their previous collections and collecting more geological data to understand  paleoenvironments. Among their discoveries is evidence of strong associations of particular dicynodonts with specific environments in the Late Permian rocks of the Luangwa Basin, and strong evidence of increased aridity and changes in the nature of river systems in the area moving from the Late Permian to the Middle Triassic. Ken and his collaborators will use these data to investigate the role environmental changes played in shaping the end-Permian mass extinction (the largest extinction in Earth history) and the recovery following the event.

Ulemosaurus svijagensis – primitive tapinocephalian from Middle Permian of Tatarstan. Illustration by Dmitry Bogdanov. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulemosaurus#/media/File:Ulemosaurus22DB.jpg.

And one important result of fieldwork like that: scientific publications.  Ken and colleagues have a paper in the July issue of Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology describing fossils of tapinocephalids from Southern Zambia.  Tapinocephalids are hippo-sized, herbivorous mammal relatives that lived about 265 million years ago; the fossils were discovered by Ken and his collaborators during short exploratory trips to the Zambezi Basin in southern Zambia in 2011 and 2012. They are the oldest known tetrapod remains from Zambia, and demonstrated the potential of the area for further paleontological exploration (as in previous item). This is also the second time that Ken and his teammates have discovered tapinocephalids in an area from which they were previously unknown (the first time was in 2008 in Tanzania).

© 2014 Mark Alvey. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES

Birders and botanist join forces to shed new light on an age-old riddle of avian migration

Mark Alvery

Please note: this news story, recovered on 28-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 5-Sept-2014.

A team from the University of Chicago, The Field Museum, and the University of Minnesota has been working for three years on a topic that has long confounded avian biogeographers: the origins and evolution of bird migration. In the August 19 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the team—U of C Ph.D. student Ben Winger, FMNH Associate Curator Rick Ree, and Minnesota prof Keith Barker—published a paper aimed at resolving that question for one of the largest groups of migratory birds.

Ben Winger measuring specimens in the Field Museum Bird collections.

Traditionally, there have been two schools of thought on where migration began and how it evolved: one theory proposed that ancestors of migratory birds spent the whole year in temperate regions, and that migration patterns evolved over time as these birds’ winter ranges gradually moved to the tropics. The other theory held that these ancestors were originally found in the tropics, with breeding grounds shifting to more temperate locales like North America.

To solve this riddle of migration the team used an innovative phylogenetic model designed to infer the historical biogeography of migratory birds. Ben and Rick developed this new model based on an existing biogeographic method that Rick developed called the “dispersal-extinction-cladogenesis” model, which has been widely used by biogeographers. They applied the model to New World “emberizoid” songbirds, a large group of migratory birds that include warblers, cardinals, sparrows, tanagers, and orioles, using a comprehensive phylogenetic tree developed by Keith and a group of colleagues. “We named it the ‘domino model’ because the breeding and winter ranges of species were coded in 3×2 grids of binary values, like dots on domino pieces,” Rick explains. “The computational challenge was to reconstruct the most probable evolutionary shifts from one domino to another.” Examining common ancestors of migratory and non-migratory species over time using the phylogenetic data, the team concluded that there was more evidence supporting the idea that birds lived year-round in North America and began migrating further and further south, resulting in today’s birds migrating thousands of miles every year.

Another result of the study suggests that many tropical species of birds are descendants of migratory ancestors that lost migration and stayed in the tropics year-round. “This is an interesting result because species diversity in this group is much higher in the tropics,” notes Ben. “Previously, more species in the tropics led to the assumption that temperate, migratory species are derived from tropical, non-migratory ancestors; however, the results of our phylogenetic study suggest that the opposite pattern happened often in this group.”

This study received nice coverage by National Geographic, among other outlets, and will soon be featured on the Field’s Science Newsflash web feature.

“Geneticist at work.” In The Field Museum’s Pritzker Lab for Molecular Systematics and Evolution.

So what’s that about botanist and birders joining forces? Well, Ben and Keith are ornithologists, and Rick is a botanist, but with deep experience in biogeography and genomics, which he has applied beyond plants (e.g., butterflies, Amazonian amphibians, lichens). Natural history museums are places where scientists in nominally different fields, but with congruent interests—like biogeography and genomics—can cross paths, and disciplines. Which is one of the things that makes them particularly fascinating places to work.

Here’s the full citation for the article: Benjamin M. Winger, F. Keith Barker, and Richard H. Ree. Temperate origins of long-distance seasonal migration in New World songbirds. PNAS, August 4, 2014 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1405000111

© 2014 Mark Alvey. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

In the works: Mating, variation, and speciation: An interdisciplinary conversation

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Limenitis_archippus_mating_2.jpg

While using network theory and visualization techniques to map the genetic structure of species in space and time is in its infancy, reconfiguring how science grapples with the inherent complexity of evolution as an ever unfolding process using network approaches has the promise of making it easier to explore how comparable or dissimilar species are in their strategies for survival and reproduction. Looking long and hard at what other species do to survive and reproduce may also make it easier for all of us to see just how toxic our own social strategies—and the assumptions supporting them—can be.

Network science: The language of integrative research

Please note: this commentary, recovered on 9-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 16-May-2015.

Mathematics, they say, is the language of science. When it comes to what is happening—or has happened—down here on earth, it is beginning to look like the right dialect of mathematics to learn is what is now being called (somewhat confusingly) network science.

When the goal is integrating research discoveries across disciplines as diverse as archaeology, primatology, neurobiology, and geochemistry, the mathematics of networks is the Esperanto of choice.

Field Museum in Chicago is one of the world’s largest natural history and anthropology museums. Scientists working there study the world and its human inhabitants from scores of different research directions, both pure and applied. Integrating these often seemingly disparate specialities so that the results of so much scholarship can be communicated to the public through exhibits and publications has always been a problem.

Under the leadership of Thorsten Lumbsch, Ph.D., the Director of Integrative Research at the Museum, “The Field” as it is affectionately known in Chicago is pushing back against research specialization using network science. Here is one example.

A social network is a set of actors defined by their ties, links, or relationships with one another (e.g., friendship networks, ecological networks, global trade networks, and protein interaction networks) rather than by their individual characteristics (attributes) as actors. Since the research focus is on relationships rather than on characteristics, statistical methods  in network science are being developed that do not need to assume—unlike in traditional statistical analyses—that the observations being studied are independent of one another.

Dr. Termeh Shafie, who is currently a Visiting Bass Scholar at the Field,  arrived in mid April from the Algorithimics Department at the University of Konstanz in Germany to help the Field’s scientists apply the statistical methods and models of network science to their research datasets which are as seemingly dissimilar as gorilla social interactions, sharks swimming in the ocean, the genetics of lichens, and the decorations on prehistoric American potshards.

When asked about her work at the Field Museum in Chicago, Termeh Shafie explains:

"The first step will be to learn more about the empirical data at hand, the hypotheses about these data being considered, and how to embed a network approach to them. The second step will be to develop network models based on these hypotheses. This requires the mathematical formulation of models, programming these models using statistical software, and then running simulations. Goodness-of-fit tests can be used to test the fit of the models to the data. Once suitable models are identified, statistics can be used to measure different properties of the networks under study and unlock information in them using the models as predictive tools. Within a level of certainty, we can then predict trends and behavior patterns even for parts of the networks we don’t yet have data for."

On Wednesday, May 13th, Dr. John P. Hart (Director, Research & Collections Division, New York State Museum), Dr. Mark Golitko (Regenstein Research Scientist), and James Zimmer-Dauphinee (2015 Regenstein Intern) participated with Shafie in a small-group Network Science Workshop at the Museum exploring ways to apply network analysis to a large database of information about pottery designs on ancient vessels from 102 archaeological sites to help unravel how communities across southern Ontario coalesced between ca. A.D. 1350 and 1650 into the larger regional populations that ultimately became the historically documented Huron confederacy.

Left to right: John Hart, Termeh Shafie, James Zimmer-Dauphine, Mark Golitko
Left to right: John Hart, Termeh Shafie, James Zimmer-Dauphinee, Mark Golitko

Shafie will be at the Field until August 15th, but even after she returns to Germany, she will continue to be the “networks link” between scientists at the Museum and the Algorithmics Unit under the direction of Professor Ulrik Brandes in the Department of Computer & Information Science at the University of Konstanz.


Thinking about thinking 4. Our social baseline

John Edward Terrell and Gabriel Stowe Terrell

Please note: this commentary, recovered on 9-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 16-April-2015.


“The first thing in a visit is to say ‘How d’ye do?’ and shake hands!” And here the two brothers gave each other a hug, and then they held out the two hands that were free, to shake hands with her.

Alice did not like shaking hands with either of them first, for fear of hurting the other one’s feelings; so, as the best way out of the difficulty, she took hold of both hands at once . . .

Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, 1871

AT THE HANDS OF SOMEONE like William Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf, humans may come off sounding complex, cantankerous, and downright mean at times, but often and also kind, noble, loving, and at least momentarily wise and intelligent. On the other hand, portrayals of our species in the reckonings of science are often far more one-sided and two-dimensional. Thus according to the zoologist Edward O. Wilson (2012) we are a tribal eusocial  species committed to killing outsiders for the good of our home group. The evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker (2011a) maintains that we all have in effect if not in fact violent demons lurking within us that must be tamed by reason, compassion, and good governance. The social scientists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis (2011) have expressed a more favorable view of human nature, but again like Wilson and Pinker, they have described our willingness to cooperate with one another as an evolutionary mystery in need of resolution given that humans are selfish at heart and can be self-serving in their motivations.

The most parsimonious proximal explanation of cooperation, one that is supported by extensive experimental and other evidence, is that people gain pleasure from or feel morally obligated to cooperate with like-minded people. People also enjoy punishing those who exploit the cooperation of others, or feel morally obligated to do so. (Bowles and Gintis 2011: 3)
Dubious assumptions

There are two major assumptions at the ground level of most current scientific analyses of human nature. The first is that selfishness is one of the prime movers of biological evolution. The second is the claim that human cooperation is based on reason, shame, and good gamesmanship. “The most important psychological contributor to the decline of violence over the long term may instead be reason: the cognitive faculties, honed by the exchange of ideas through language, that allow us to understand the world and negotiate social arrangements” (Pinker 2011b: 310). Both of these assumptions are questionable.

Neo-Darwinian determination

The fundamentals of evolutionary thinking as a way of explaining what we are seeing in the world of today and in the past have changed over time since Darwin’s day (Amundson 2014). Tom Clark has shown in his series of commentaries at SCIENCE DIALOGUES on Darwin’s use of “use and disuse” that during the latter half of the 20th century, the neo-Darwinian assumption that genes and environments were sufficient causes of observed behavior “turned natural selection from an animate doing into a physical happening. Attributing behavior to stable causes both inside (molecules) and outside (environment) turned animals into spectators, along for the ride.”

Clark underscores that how we tell our story of what it means to be human and how we have evolved to be the sort of animal we are directly leverages or constrains how well we handle our individual and collective impacts on the earth and our fellow human beings.

As Michael Ruse (2014) has observed, today natural selection is the mechanism seen by most experts on evolution as the chief reason  for organic change. It is perplexing, however, that when it comes to our species, attempts to explain our general willingness to cooperate with one another often take it as self-evident that selfishness, infra-specific competition, and gamesmanship (Potter 1947; Rand et al. 2013) rule the day even when we seem to be acting in kind, considerate, and evidently caring ways towards others (Terrell 2015: 111–117).

Such scientific cynicism may make perfect sense given the ruling assumptions of neo-Darwinian theory today, but the picture looks quite different if it isn’t accepted from the get-go that selfishness has to be a part of every permissible Darwinian explanation for life’s diversity and history on earth.

Social baseline theory

The psychologists Lane Beckes and his colleague James Coan are studying empathy and cooperation based on a radically different view of what it means to be human, a research tactic they call social baseline theory (Beckes and Coan 2011). Their working assumption is one that many would accept with little disagreement: being a social animal gives any species a genuine and practical advantage in the Darwinian struggle for survival and reproduction. And for humans at least, having the capacity to live and work closely with others also gives us a social baseline of emotional support and security. So much so, they say, that our social ties with other people are in effect an extension of the way the human brain interacts with the world. As a consequence, when we are around others we know and trust, we can let down our guard and relax.

From this perspective, the experienced payoffs are more than emotional. When we thus feel safe and secure, we are literally able to devote less energy—and we would add, less time—to staying alert for possible threats and uncertainties. Indeed, they have argued that the human brain has evolved to assume the presence of other people. In their words: “In our view, the human brain is designed to assume that it is embedded within a relatively predictable social network characterized by familiarity, joint attention, shared goals, and interdependence.”

On the other side of the mirror

Beckes and Coan have said a major saving grace of human sociality is the energetic cost benefit of not having to be the only one looking out for number one (Beckes and Coan 2011; Coan and  Maresh 2014; Coan and Sbarra 2015). While we would grant that there may be be such a cost benefit, we are uncertain how decisive this savings has been in shaping human evolution. After all, the probability of survival is determined not only by how much effort you have to put into the struggle. It can be argued that we are such strongly social animals for other reasons, too. First, we critically depend on social learning to know how to survive in the first place. Second, many of us—but admittedly not all—are predisposed socially and emotionally to be caregivers because our offspring wouldn’t survive the first years of their lives if we weren’t (Terrell 2015: 190–191).

To survive and reproduce, organisms must take in more energy than they expend, a principle of behavioral ecology called economy of action. Social baseline theory (SBT), a framework based on this principle, organizes decades of observed links between social relationships, health, and well-being, in order to understand how humans utilize each other as resources to optimize individual energy expenditures. (Coan and Maresh 2014: 221).

Furthermore, there is the matter of time. It may be true that time is money, but we humans are pretty good at wasting time for apparently no good reason, energetic or otherwise. And certainly there is no denying that when we feel safe and secure, many of us are willing to invest both time and energy in seemingly unproductive ways.

Consider, for example, the metabolic cost of the continuing mental activity in what has been dubbed the brain’s default mode network (DMN) when we are not task-engaged. The reward of not having to attend closely to the practicalities of the world around us when we feel safely embedded in nurturing social networks may be the excitement Alice must have felt in Lewis Carroll’s story after she had slipped through the looking-glass to explore the hidden wonders to be found therein (although judging by his singular account, Alice evidently did not find doing so as addictive as some today find the similar cognitive experience of playing online computer games). Just as those incarcerated in our penal system may be given time off for good behavior, so too, sharing the demands and burdens of life with others gives us time off to play with whatever takes our fancy on that landscape between our ears.

Previously in this series:
"Thinking about thinking 1. Cognitive niche construction"
"Thinking about thinking 2. Through the looking-glass"
"Thinking about thinking 3. Free will"

Amundson,  Ron (2014). Charles Darwin’s reputation: How it changed during the twentieth-century and how it may change again. Endeavour 38: 257–267.

Beckes, Lane and James A. Coan (2011).  Social baseline theory: The role of social proximity in emotion and economy of action.  Social and Personality Psychology Compass 5: 976–988.

Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis (2011). A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Coan, James A. and Erin L. Maresh (2014). Social baseline theory and the social regulation of emotion, pages 221–236. In J. Gross, ed., The Handbook of Emotion Regulation, 2nd. ed., pp. 221–236. New York: Guilford Press.

Coan, James A. and David A. Sbarra (2015). Social baseline theory: The social regulation of risk and effort. Current Opinion in Psychology   1: 87–91.

Pinker, Steven (2011a). The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes. New York: Viking.

Pinker, Steven (2011b). Taming the devil within us. Nature  478: 309–311,

Potter, Stephen (1947). Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship. New York: Henry Holt & Company.

Rand, David G., Corina E. Tarnita, Hisashi Ohtsuki, and Martin A. Nowak (2013). Evolution of fairness in the one-shot anonymous Ultimatum Game.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A. 110:  2581–2586.

Ruse, Michael (2014). Was there a Darwinian revolution? Yes, no, and maybe! Endeavour 38: 159–168.

Terrell, John Edward (2015). A Talent for Friendship: Rediscovery of a Remarkable Trait. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, Edward O. (2012). The Social Conquest of the Earth. New York: Liveright (a division of W. W. Norton).

John Edward Terrell is Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at The Field Museum, Chicago, IL 60605. His latest book A Talent for Friendship: Rediscovery of a Remarkable Trait was published on December 1, 2014 by Oxford University Press. Email address: terrell[at]fieldmuseum.org

Gabriel Stowe Terrell is a freelance writer living in Madison, Wisconsin.




© 2015 John Edward Terrell and Gabriel Stowe Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

Thinking about thinking 3. Free will

John Edward Terrell and Gabriel Stowe Terrell

Please note: this commentary, recovered on 9-Jan-2017, was originally published in Science Dialogues on 24-March-2015.


THE BEHAVIORIST B. F. SKINNER was famously opposed to “mentalistic explanations” for human behavior. By this he meant attributing to the world of the mind an active “top-down” role (Baumeister and Miller 2014) in determining what we think, say, and do. In his eyes, trying to explain our overt behavior by appealing to inner states of mind, feelings, and other elements of an “autonomous man” inside our skulls was utterly foolish, unscientific, and a waste of time. “The ease with which mentalistic explanations can be invented on the spot is perhaps the best gauge of how little attention we should pay to them” (Skinner 1971: 160).

Instead, according to Skinner, the “task of a scientific analysis is to explain how the behavior of a person as a physical system is related to the conditions under which the human species evolved and the conditions under which the individual lives” (1971: 14). As distasteful as some might find such a realization, “the fact remains that it is the environment which acts upon the perceiving person, not the perceiving person who acts upon the environment” (1971: 188).

Even Skinner was willing to concede the “indisputable fact of privacy.” Nonetheless he stuck to his staunch environmentalism. “It is always the environment which builds the behavior with which problems are solved, even when the problems are to be found in the private world inside the skin” (1971: 194).

In a scathing review of Skinner’s 1971 book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, the linguist Noam Chomsky thoroughly rejected Skinner’s scientific claims. “His speculations are devoid of scientific content and do not even hint at general outlines of a possible science of human behavior. Furthermore, Skinner imposes certain arbitrary limitations on scientific research which virtually guarantee continued failure” (Chomsky 1971).

Unfortunately Chomsky’s spirited defense of human freedom and dignity against Skinner’s denial of both offered few concrete hints on why we are not the automatons Skinner said we are. But how are we not controlled by the world around us and by all that life deals us, both painful and pleasurable? How and how much does Skinner’s nemesis “autonomous man” have any real say in what we think, feel, and do? Chomsky left these critical issues unexplored and undocumented.

The mind-body problem

The philosopher Jerry Fodor noted in 1980 that traditional philosophies of mind can be divided into two sorts: dualist theories and materialist theories. “In the dualist approach the mind is a nonphysical substance. In materialist theories the mental is not distinct from the physical; indeed, all mental states, properties, processes and operations are in principle identical with physical states, properties, processes and operations” (Fodor 1980: 114). Since then cognitive psychologists and experts in neuroscience imaging have come down more or less firmly on the side of materialist theories, although exactly how the neurological hardware and software called the brain processes information and arrives at conclusions remains more an educated guess than a demonstrated reality.

Awkwardly what has traditionally been called the “mind-body problem” has often been seen in both science and philosophy as a conundrum about the consciousness of our thoughts and decisions. Yet as Max Velmans (2008) has observed, “it is now clear that ‘mind’ is not quite the same thing as ‘consciousness,’ and that the aspect of body most closely involved with consciousness is the brain. It is also clear that there is not one consciousness–brain problem, but many.” In other words, reading “mind and body” to mean “consciousness and brain tissue” is far too restrictive, too limiting.

Recently Ralph Adolphs (2015) at the California Institute of Technology surveyed what we do and don’t know about consciousness as a mental phenomenon and finds that there is little agreement about what it is and how it works. He helpfully divides the unsolved problems in neuroscience into four basic categories ranging from those that are now solved or will soon be to those that may never be decided. Discouragingly, he puts three key issues in the latter category. (1) How does the human brain compute? (2) How can cognition be so flexible and generative? (3) How and why does conscious experience arise?

His final conclusion is equally sobering. “In a nutshell, then, the biggest unsolved problem is how the brain generates the mind, conceived of in a way that does not simultaneously require answering the problem of consciousness.” However, on a more promising note, he adopts the framework proposed by David Marr (1982) to suggest that memory at least can be understood as the “ability to predict the future by learning.”

This comment is worth emphasizing. Unlike old Father William in Lewis Carroll’s famous poem who elected to stand on his head again and again after learning he had no brain, we see the design and decision-making that are both so fundamental to human niche construction as tangible proof that the human brain is capable of stimulus-independent, self-directed thought (Bonn 2013)—a roundabout way of saying that like Father William, the cognitive manipulations and innovations happening in our minds can lead to top-down, not just bottom-up causation (Foulkes and Domhoff 2014).

Evidence favoring this admittedly far from surprising conclusion can be seen readily enough in what happens on the landscape between our ears during that mysterious cognitive activity called dreaming.

Dreams and dreaming
Sir John Tenniel’s hand-colored proof of Cheshire Cat in the Tree Above Alice for The Nursery “Alice”, ca. 1889. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tennel_Cheshire_proof.png

It is an enduring folk belief that we live our lives on-again off-again in dichotomous ways. We are either happy or sad, awake or asleep, conscious or unconscious, rational or emotional, and so on.

Cognitive psychology today, however, is discovering that a great deal that is happening in the brain instrumental to our survival, success, and emotional well-being is (1) largely disengaged from our conscious awareness of what’s going on both inside and outside us (e.g., Mudrik et al. 2014; Soto and Silvanto 2014), and is (2) more dependent on our feelings and emotions than conventionally seen (e.g., Inzlicht et al. 2015).

Dreaming, like consciousness, is one of those arenas of mental life about which much has been written and yet much remains to be understood (Domhoff and Fox 2015). Here we offer two observations. First, dreaming is more a top-down brain activity than generally envisioned (Foulkes and Domhoff 2014). Second, nobody who has ever recalled a dream needs to be told by anyone else that our brains are capable of creating often credible but truly off-the-wall situations, scenarios, and storied experiences that may not only have lingering emotional impact long after awakening, but can also be a source of great inspiration and creative insight. In short, cognitive niche construction does not need to be either conscious or wakeful.

Free will

Saying you know for sure what free will is or isn’t has long been a reliable way of provoking debate (Monroe et al. 2014). Nonetheless, here are three claims based on what we have been discussing thus far in this SCIENCE DIALOGUES series. First, human beings can think about things and actions—past, present, or future—without being aware that they are doing so (Bonn 2013). Second, human beings can act in accord with the worlds they construct for themselves in their Leslie minds. Third, free will does not have to be rational if by rational we mean “makes sense” in terms of the external world and the laws of physics, etc. Cognitive niche construction may begin with our own experiences of the world, but it does not have to end there. And as we shall discuss in later commentaries in this series, therein lies a problem.

Forthcoming in this series: "Thinking about thinking 4. Our social baseline."
Previously in this series: 
"Thinking about thinking 1. Cognitive niche construction"
"Thinking about thinking 2. Through the looking-glass"

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Velmans, Max (2008). How to separate conceptual issues from empirical ones in the study of consciousness. In R. Banerjee and B. K. Chakrabarti (eds.), Models of Brain and Mind: Physical, Computational and Psychological Approaches 168: 1–9.


We thank Tom Clark and Kevin Kelly for their comments and suggestions for improvement.

John Edward Terrell is Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at The Field Museum, Chicago, IL 60605. His latest book A Talent for Friendship: Rediscovery of a Remarkable Trait was published on December 1, 2014 by Oxford University Press. Email address: terrell[at]fieldmuseum.org

Gabriel Stowe Terrell is a free-lance writer living in Madison, Wisconsin.




© 2015 John Edward Terrell and Gabriel Stowe Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.