Collective Learning How symbolic language drives collective learning and how this is one of the truly differentiating aspects of human beings relative to the rest of the animal kingdom
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- There are many things that differentiate human beings from other species,
- but the one thing that probably differentiates humans even from our closest relatives in the animal kingdom
- in a really big way is the notion that humans are collective learners.
- Collective learners.
- And to understand that, let's think about how even our closest relative in the animal kingdom,
- the chimpanzee, might communicate.
- So you might have one chimpanzee and over the course of his or her lifetime,
- they're able to learn a bunch of cool experiences, and they're even able to learn to use tools,
- manipulate tools, and who knows? Maybe even make tools.
- Maybe even get a twig someplace and take off the leaves, and then use that to go get ants out of a hole or whatever else.
- So they're able to learn all of this stuff over a lifetime.
- Now unfortunate for chimpanzees, well what IS fortunate for chimpanzees, is they do teach some of these
- things that they've learned to other members of their group, often their offspring.
- But what's unfortunate for chimpanzees is that they don't have a great way to communicate with each other.
- So for most chimpanzees, the way that they're able to teach is essentially by, kind of...showing.
- Not showing and telling, just showing.
- And so because this is such a, this is such a, a unprecise, or, or...not exact
- and, and such an inefficient way of communication,
- the really...all of the nuances of what this chimpanzee might be able to accumulate over his or her lifetime
- aren't able to be conveyed to the next generation, or to the other chimpanzees around,
- so you have tremendous energy loss.
- And in particular, all that can be conveyed are maybe the specific movements, or what you might be able
- to kind of observe in the present.
- All of the other things that maybe the chimpanzees are learning about...
- the times of year where this is be appropriate, or maybe they can convey some of that by showing
- them at the right times of year.
- But other nuanced aspects of it, or particular ways to hold something or twist something
- can only be shown. It can't be described in a very precise way.
- So you have all of this loss of experience, just loss of information.
- And then over the course of these animals' life, they may be able to learn the same amount again,
- they're able to learn maybe the same amount again, but then when they need to communicate it, they have the exact same problem.
- It's hard to communicate it with their, with what they have at their disposal,
- which is really just showing the other chimpanzees what they've done,
- and so once again, you have a loss of information.
- And what you have in this type of circumstance is, generation after generation,
- even though there is learning over the course of an individual chimpanzee's life,
- and even though they can communicate to, some of that, to each other,
- that form of communication is so, it loses so much information, and so much nuance
- that you never have an overall accumulation of knowledge, and wisdom in this chimpanzee population.
- Now humans, on the other hand, have something called symbolic language.
- And I'll talk about this in a second, but it's, it's, for now it's safe to say that human language is
- far more precise and far more efficient than just being able to show someone something.
- Imagine if you had to learn how to do something without being able to communicate verbally,
- you'd just have to look at someone else's actions.
- And then you'd have a good idea of how difficult it is for chimpanzees to teach other other.
- But in the case of human beings, we have this thing called symbolic language, that's a very precise,
- a very efficient way of communicating.
- So from one human being to another, you could actually communicate a good deal.
- Maybe not every single nuance and every single experience, but a good chunk of it.
- So right here I'm drawing about that much of it, to the next, to some other human being, maybe it is the offspring, maybe it
- is another member of the tribe, or the group, whatever it is,
- and then this human being might come up with some other innovations.
- They're able to build off of all of this learning from that previous generation or from that other human
- being that's around, and they're able to come up with their own, their own nuances, and their own innovations.
- And this one right over here might come up with his or her own nuances and innovations,
- and because they have a good communication mechanism, this one could even communicate to that one
- what he's learned, or what she's learned, and communicate a good chunk of that.
- Maybe not all of it, but maybe a reasonable bit.
- They can describe exactly how they do something, the times of years,
- when it's good to do it, when it's not good to do it,
- how to plan for the future, what's the history of this new learning.
- And so what you have going on here is because of this strong communication mechanism.
- So strong, precise, precise, efficient communication, efficient communication, communication.
- What you'd have is a human group, or eventually a human civilization,
- is able to have a collective memory. Is able to have a collective memory,
- In the case of the chimpanzees, in every generation, every chimpanzee is having to
- relearn the things that the other chimpanzees might have already done in previous generations.
- They're not able to really move forward or build on those in significant ways.
- In humans, as information is learned and experienced again,
- a good bit of that is able to be passed on to other humans.
- So this might be passed on. So all of this might be passed on,
- or a good chunk of this could be passed on to the next generation.
- And I'm not even talking about written language yet. This could even, this could still just be
- oral communication, which is still a very strong, precise, efficient means of communication.
- Written communication takes it to another level,
- but then this person over here, maybe she comes up with other innovations.
- And at some point you might say, well look, if everyone keeps having innovations and they
- keep learning what everyone learned in previous generations, maybe this will tap out
- the total amount of memory that a human being even has.
- And there's actually a case, and maybe this is why humans even have larger memories,
- because there is all of this collective knowledge to gain from one generation to another,
- from one human being to another,
- but there are some limits to this, and this is the other element where this collective aspect
- of collective memory and this collective learning becomes really powerful.
- A human being, because of this strong communication mechanism,
- is not just limited to the knowledge and the experience in their memory,
- they are able to tap into, so this human being right over here does not have this skill set,
- and that skill set maybe gets passed on to another human being.
- So let me copy and paste that, so let's say you copy...say you paste that...
- This other human being that's maybe living at the same time,
- and when that becomes relevant, when that becomes relevant, they could
- actually tap into it, and maybe they could learn it from that human being,
- or maybe it's in a different part of society, and this human being can build certain tools,
- or build certain things using this information, using that knowledge right over there
- and then this human being doesn't need to know that information,
- they can just leverage the output of that information to then build on top of it.
- So what allows human beings to do is not only convey information and build on information
- from generation to generation, human to human, it allows all of the human
- brains collectively, at any given point of time, to be one collective memory bank,
- that can be used to develop or innovate in specific domains,
- and adapt to specific parts of the ecosystem, or to teach other other.
- So all of a sudden, this is really unique as far as we can tell, in the animal kingdom.
- All of a sudden, it's not all about the brain, or the memory, of one individual member of a species,
- it now becomes about the brain, or the memory, of the entire civilization, or the entire group of the
- species. And just as an example of that, there's, as far as I know, there's no human being
- who knows how to do everything that all humans know how to do.
- I could imagine that there are, there is a chimpanzee that knows how to do everything
- that any other chimpanzee knows how to do.
- There are no humans that can be a fighter pilot, a doctor, a gymnast, a...lawyer,
- understands philosophy, speaks twenty different languages.
- As far as I know, that human being does not exist. And that's okay, because they can tap into the experiences,
- the abilities of other human beings to build up their civilization.
- None of us, as far as we know, knows how to do everything that we need to actually build our civilization.
- But the information is in our collective memory to actually do it.
- Now the next thing you might say is, okay, I started with this premise that we have a
- strong, precise, efficient means of communcation, and that other animals don't,
- but don't other animals actually have some form of language?
- So for example, don't...for example, even monkeys,
- wouldn't they screech when they're, when there's, when they're in danger?
- That's a form of communication, maybe a form of language.
- Maybe certain animals: birds, monkeys, maybe they have a song that they sing that can convey certain things.
- Maybe it's when they're, maybe it's when they're looking for a mate.
- Isn't that a form of communication?
- And these are, these are a form of communication, and a form of language,
- but these don't really come in play in terms of the teaching-learning.
- You don't see one chimpanzee making screeching sounds for learning sounds.
- They might do a little bit of it just to warn, maybe as a warning.
- But there's no deep nuance, or deep precision that's being able to convey by these, by these
- one off sounds, or even one off gestures.
- And what's particularly powerful about human language is that it is a symbolic language.
- It is a symbolic language.
- And when I say it's a symbolic language, I'm even saying it in a broader sense
- than even just written symbols.
- I'm talking about even the sounds themselves.
- So let's go to a time where we did not even have writings.
- And when we talk about symbolic languages, let's think about a non-symbolic language,
- so in a non-symbolic language, you might have some sound, let's call it sound one,
- and it has some meaning. Let's call it meaning one, meaning one.
- So this might be a certain type of scream, it means that a predator is approaching.
- And then you might have something like a sound two, or gesture two,
- and then it has some other meaning, it has meaning two.
- It might be a certain type of song, which means that I am in the mood to reproduce, or whatever else.
- You might have gesture three, gesture three, that has some direct meaning.
- It might mean that I have found food, or something like that. So meaning three.
- What humans have, they can do this, where particular sounds have particular meanings.
- So for example, in humans, you could have sound one, it refers to meaning one.
- I'll just refer it to meaning one.
- You could have sound two, that refers to meaning two.
- You could have sound three, that is, refers to meaning three.
- So these are just direct representaions.
- But what is really powerful about symbolic languages is that these, these, oral symbols
- can be combined according to set rules, or grammars,
- to have an infinite number of meanings!
- So what, this is what really makes human language transcend other languages,
- and really makes it this robust, precise communication mechanism,
- is you could have combinations.
- Sound one, sound two, sound three will now have another meaning, meaning four.
- Then you could maybe have a combination where you have sound three, sound one, and sound two,
- might have meaning five.
- And if you have tens of thousands of sounds, and, really, our oral words are those sounds in a given language,
- then all of a sudden you can have infinite meanings by putting them in different combinations.
- And if you think this is a little bit abstract, imagine that sound one is the sound,
- me saying the word "dog".
- And I'm not even gonna write it down, 'cause I wanna imagine a world even before written communication.
- So sound one is the sound "dog".
- Sound two is the sound "eats".
- And sound three is the sound "man".
- So, literally, sound one, if you heard "dog", you'd think
- okay, I'd visualize a dog of some type, and well, you'd have some visualization of a dog.
- And we all have one maybe.
- Sound two, if you heard "eats", you'd say okay, I imagine eating in some way.
- And sound three, "man", you have some visualization on it.
- And if it was a non-symbolic language, that's all you could get out of those three sounds,
- but now, in a symbolic language, we could combine those.
- We could say "dog eats man".
- So once again, we just reuse the three sounds, the three symbols,
- but now they're referring to a whole new, a much more complex meaning
- than just referring to certain objects or certain actions.
- Or you could have "man eats dog", which is not pleasant, but I guess in a desperate situation...
- But once again, it is another meaning that we can get out of the same sounds.
- And what these symbolic languages do, besides giving you an infinite number of meanings,
- they're allowed to give you more nuance, and really refer to things that are abstract.
- And including,and maybe most importantly, things like the present, the future, the past,
- kind of hypothetical things that really are necessary in order to really communicate,
- or optimally communicate all of the experiences, or the learnings
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