[ExI] "Animal-monitoring modules"?

Richard Loosemore rpwl at lightlink.com
Fri Sep 28 17:15:02 UTC 2007

hkhenson wrote:
> At 06:07 AM 9/28/2007, Jef wrote:
>> On 9/28/07, Josh Cowan <jcowan5 at sympatico.ca> wrote:
>>> It won't come as a surprise humans are more attuned to spotting moving
>>> animals than moving minivans but a brain module just for such an event?
>>> hmmm? What if they had moved berry bushes or potential mates instead of
>>> minivans? Do other humans fall under this animal monitoring module?
>> I haven't read this item, but I would expect it's not so much an
>> "animal module" but rather an evolved sensitivity for perception of
>> intention and therefore intentional agents including animals, humans,
>> spirits, etc.
> I would bet you *long* odds that if you redid this work with the 
> people under function MRI you would see that there really is a 
> module, that is to say a part of the brain that specialized in this task.

I have just finished writing a critical analysis, with Trevor Harley at 
Dundee U, in which we take several examples of famous "brain imaging" 
studies (mostly involving functional MRI) and ask whether the claims 
made are meaningful.

(The paper is due to appear in M.Bunzl & S.J.Hanson (Eds.), 
Philosophical Foundations of fMRI. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.)

In every case, we found that the claims made were either completely 
incoherent (that was a paper co-authored by Christof Koch), or trivial, 
or could easily be invalidated by changing the theoretical assumptions 

Which means that I bet you *long* odds that if you find an fMRI paper 
that claims there is a particular module in the brain, I can show you a 
localisation claim that is both simplistic and unbelievable.

I haven't read the Cosmides & Tooby article yet, but my guess would be 
that there are several other explanations that would be just as 
plausible as the "specialized module for detecting moving beasts" 
explanation.  I am not against the existence of such an innate module in 
principle, but by the sound of it their evidence is much too weak to 
distinguish that possibility from others .... like:

   1) Detection of intention, as Jef suggests, or

   2) Detection of pattern rearrangement within the percept (possibly 
greater for elephant than for minivan), or

   3) Contextual effects like the supportive activation between elephant 
image and surrounding image of the savannah, or

   4) Rapid assessment of risk from a minivan that is probably fouled up 
in an acacia bush right now and isn't going _anywhere_, versus an 
elephant that can turn on a dime and nail you sometime in the next 30 
seconds, if it feels like it. ;-)

Richard Loosemore

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