Notebooks

## Universal Images and Cultural Universals

22 Mar 1995 18:15

Universal images first. Are there any? If so, what? Where did they come from? How effective (affective?) are they? Are they hardwired, or the result of common, unbiased human smarts acting on common bits of the environment (so that they could be changed if the environment changed), or what?

One possibility: human learning is not unbiased; certain representations and habits are easier for us to acquire than others. This is certainly the case with many animals, and it is sometimes claimed that, e.g., it is much easier for people to learn to fear snakes, big cats, and other traditional predators than it is for us to learn to fear, let us say, rabbits. I haven't looked at this literature in any detail, to have an opinion as to whether or not it's bogus, but it certainly sounds plausible.

Even if there aren't strictly universal images, are there significant commonalities across all human cultures? If so, are they at all shared with other primates? (That is: if, say, it does turn out that, as the Victorians believed, red aids the digestion, does this also work for chimpanzees?) Other mammals? Other vertebrates?

Just at that point the subenmadchen trod on the cat's tail, and the cat let fly a frenzy of cat-profanity. I asked, with caution:
Is a cat's opinion about pain valuable?''
A cat has no opinion; opinions proceed from mind only; the lower animals, being eternally perishable, have not been granted mind; without mind, opinion is impossible.''
She merely imagined she felt a pain --- the cat?''
She cannot imagine a pain, for imagining is an effect of mind; without mind, there is no imagination. A cat has no imagination.''
Then she had a real pain?''
I have already told you there is no such thing as real pain.''
It is strange and interesting. I do wonder what was the matter with the cat.''

---Mark Twain, Christian Science

How do we know the cat is in pain? My answer, based on comparative neurology, the evolutionary history of the placental mammals, and the communicative needs of social animals, is, Because she's screaming like a thousand banshees.'' But I admit this doesn't get us very far on the road to aesthetics.

In his translation of the Analects, Arthur Waley claims that all gestures of making oneself small denote respect, or subsmission, or inferiority --- to bow, curtesy, genuflect, prostrate, kneel, crouch or otherwise abase.'' Query: does there anywhere exist a contracting gesture denoting superiority? (There are signs of inferiority which do not involve contraction: blinking, avoiding or breaking off eye-contact, flushing. Staring at your feet is ambiguous.) Does there anywhere exist an expansive gesture denoting inferiority? (Yes: C. Niswander reminds me that Europeans are supposed to stand when their betters enter the room, presumably so as to forgoe the pleasures of sitting.)

Body language has perhaps the best candidates for universal signs. Presumably the genetic component would not extend beyond very general templates or schemata, which would be focused (or even allowed to lapse?) by education --- recall the chicks and hawk-shadows. (You don't know the story? Well. Newly-hatched chicks will run for cover when they see the shadow of a bird moving on the ground. As they grow older, they become used to the more common types of shadows, and ignore them, but predators are necessarily rare, so they don't habituate to predator-shadows, and still run from them. A neat hack. --- Has anyone done the experiment of raising chicks, under mesh, near a nest of hawks, but isolating them from sparrows, and then letting sparrows fly over the cage?) --- Presumably the human mechanism would be the reverse of the chicks', so that we respond more strongly to gestures we've seen repeatedly, gradually becoming numb to strange ones of the same genus. This would rule out any archetypal form'' of the gesture; and even if you extracted what was common to all gestures descending from the same template, it should be very weak!

Vocal tricks. Cantonese (to be frank) always sounds a bit like an argument; can non-Cantonese speakers distinguish arguing from amorous Cantonese? What about Australian aborigines?

See:
• Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea
• Ian McDonald, Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone
• Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works
• Walter Jon Williams, Aristoi