Psychophysics: Are We Biological Billiard Balls?


Psychophysics secretly permeates our people-sciences (it assumes we’re motivated by physics-like forces). But as every infanteach a great causality detectorknows, but many scientists ignore, people aren’t biological billiard balls.

1. Locke became “the Newton of the mind,” (emulating his friend) by seeking the mind’s laws of motion (e.g. pleasure’s pull was basically “gravitational”~1689).  

2. Bentham’s utility principle declared “pain and pleasure… alone…determine what we… do” (1789). Utility became the keyword that locked away libraries of work on our complex motivations.

3. Fechner (1860) used the term psychophysics to describe quantifiable experimental psychology (he studied variation of intensity of sensations with stimulus).  

4. Darwin (1871) contra Bentham wrote: “The common assumption that men must be impelled to every action by experiencing some pleasure or pain may be erroneous.” Many acts are independent of “pleasure or pain felt at the moment.”

5. JS Mill (1877) declared “Laws of mind and laws of matter are so dissimilar…that it would be contrary to all principles of rational arrangement to mix them.”

6. But utility remains attractive: Kahneman’s Nobel work included the “psychophysics” of utility (2002). Yet utility also confuses Kahenman

7. Clearly, people obey the laws of physics. But nothing in physics chooses. Its rigid causations have no liberty. And physics (like the best Buddhists) feels only the present and it’s forces. But human psychology is different precisely because it evolved to choose between the attractions of different futures.

8. Physics was developed for situations like: Everything of type X always does Y under conditions Z, where X, Y and Z are mathematically related. Imagine how complex Newton’s “billiard ball” law (every action has an equal and opposite reaction) would be if every action had many different possible reactions (depending on each billiard ball’s feelings that day).

9. In psychology, the same physical stimulus doesn’t always cause the same reaction. E.g. consider Darwin’s observation that a “Hindoo…[can be] stirred to the bottom of his soul by [eating]…unclean food.” The same food eaten unknowingly, or by an unbeliever, doesn’t cause that same reaction.

10. One-year-olds use “contingency patterns” to distinguish things (with physics-like regularities) from people (exhibiting agency). They’re on Mill’s side.

11. Unmathematical narrative-like beliefs and contingency patterns influence our reactions and decisions. Their if-then, unrigidly causal, multifactor logic differs from that typical of the number-struck physical sciences.

Free will, real or not, changes practical predictability. More scientists should be as practical as babies.

 

Illustration by Julia SuitsThe New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.