Jan 13th, 2007 by ravi
[Not so] Black and White

If there is one valuable insight that philosophers of science and sociologists have demonstrated it is that issues in science (and metascience) are frequently decided (or at least argued) in quite non-“scientific” ways (by which I mean what is generally claimed to be the scientific way — in truth a formalisation of rationality, common sense, and long-standing methods of human reasoning). In the skirmishes within science, certain “paradigms” take hold not because of their technical superiority but often because of certain very human prejudices. The idea that selfishness precedes (and even excludes) co-operation, is an example, and one that is beginning to deservedly face resistance, not just in popular science writing through which it has gained its hold, but also in more serious analysis which it had constrained in the past:

For Human Eyes Only – NYT


Why should humans be so different? And yet we are. We can’t fool anyone. The whites of our eyes are several times larger than those of other primates, which makes it much easier to see where the eyes, as opposed to the head, are pointed. Trying to explain this trait leads us into one of the deepest and most controversial topics in the modern study of human evolution: the evolution of cooperation.


In a recent experiment, our research team has shown that even infants — at around their first birthdays, before language acquisition has begun — tend to follow the direction of another person’s eyes, not their heads. Thus, when an adult looked to the ceiling with her eyes only, head remaining straight ahead, infants looked to the ceiling in turn. However, when the adult closed her eyes and pointed her head to the ceiling, infants did not very often follow.


Why might it have been advantageous for some early humans to advertise their eye direction in a way that enabled others to determine what they were looking at more easily? One possible answer, what we have called the cooperative eye hypothesis, is that especially visible eyes made it easier to coordinate close-range collaborative activities in which discerning where the other was looking and perhaps what she was planning, benefited both participants.

If we are gathering berries to share, with one of us pulling down a branch and the other harvesting the fruit, it would be useful — especially before language evolved — for us to coordinate our activities and communicate our plans, using our eyes and perhaps other visually based gestures.

Infant research, too, suggests that coordinating visual attention may have provided the foundation for the evolution of human language. Babies begin to acquire language through joint activities with others, in which both parties are focused on the same object or task. That’s the best time for an infant to learn the word for the object or activity in question.

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