Re: [xmca] reciprocity continued

From: Derek Melser <derek.melser who-is-at>
Date: Tue Dec 23 2008 - 18:07:34 PST

Steve, Mike:

Steve, Yes, I do mean 'biologically determined'. It's important to be clear
just what is biologically determined. The normal infant is born with the
ability and the desire both of which must somehow be pre-programmed in
his/her brain to participate with others in joint activity. However, just
what *kind* of joint activity it is (that the infant is drawn into, early on
and later) is culturally determined.

Because of the prior advent of evolutionary theory, the question to what
extent human behaviour is biologically determined was the central question
of 20th century philosophy. It has significant political implications too.
The philosophy and the politics are still being negotiated. Although
evolutionary theory is a delight, and maybe the most interesting scientific
discovery ever, I am strongly biased in favour of the idea that people's
behaviour is almost entirely (if not entirely) determined by non-biological
cultural and personal factors. How is this possible?

It is possible just because of our innate urge to joint activity. This is
the door through which we (the infant included) escape from biological
determination into culture. We are post-biological creatures. From birth on
(almost), all our survival problems are handled by culture. In the case of
the human species it is whole cultures that are the biological players, the
survival units, not individuals. Our job as individuals is just to get on
board culture as early as we can. If our infants were not pre-programmed for
culture-acquisition (thanks to the success of culture as a survival strategy
and consequent evolutionary influences on our genome) their survival
chances, and ours, would be nil.

If you are interested in my various thoughts on this particular issue of the
biological determination of our culture-acquisition ability, you could look
in the notebooks on my site, as follows. Notebook 2007: entries 20, 23.
Notebook 2006: entries 14, 35, 37. Notebook 2005: entries 1, 2, 7, 35, 40,
47, 80, 95, 107, 115, 117, 118, 120, 125, 126, 133. Notebook 2002-2004:
entries 109, 110, 113, 125, 133, 136, 138, 153, 165. These are at: **

   Mike, My harping on about the Nagy and Molnar paper [ *download PDF
* ] is because I think it shows that it is not just imitative ability that
the infant is born with, but a genuinely social, 'participant' and
'contributor' instinct as well. Participating in concerted (or synchronised,
collaborative, joint, etc.) activity requires not just the ability to
imitate: it also requires the ability to be demonstrative, to 'put out', to
solicit and direct others' attention. The other participants have to be able
to tune in to your behaviour too. I had assumed that this (what Nagy and
Molnar call) 'provocative', 'soliciting' ability which is, incidentally,
the basis of communication both non-verbal and verbal was something the
infant acquired from interactions with others over the first few weeks or
months. The Nagy tells me that evolution has pre-wired us up for that too.
And this is good news, surely. Anything that says we are *naturally* geared
to concerted and collaborative (communicative) activity is reassuring, no?

In addition: imitation by itself is perhaps susceptible to a traditional
'biological' explanation in terms of the self-interest of an individual
organism imitation being a way for the individual to acquire behaviours
useful to its own survival, say. However, the provocation finding is not
susceptible to such an explanation. Provocation is incomprehensible as
self-interested behaviour. It is a matter of the individual's
'altruistically' giving the benefit of his/her own experience to the group;
it reflects an urge to *contribute*.



2008/12/23 Steve Gabosch <>

> Derek,
> These days, "inherent," as in
> "people have a very strong inherent motivation to participate in
> synchronous activity. It's enough that there's
> a game on, for people to want to pitch in. How strong is this motivation?
> There ain't none stronger."
> is usually taken to mean biologically determined. Is that the way you mean
> it?
> - Steve
> On Dec 21, 2008, at 4:52 PM, Derek Melser wrote:
> Mike, Andy:
>> This 'Synchrony and Cooperation' paper may help us connect a few dots. The
>> authors are looking at 'synchronous activity', which has also been called
>> 'concerted' activity which term I think is better at capturing the
>> deliberate nature of the conforming of actions. I mean,
>> 'synchron*ised*activity' would be better. Anyway, it is a good
>> foundational concept for
>> activity theory. Plenty of alternative labels, of course: 'collective
>> activity', 'shared activity', 'joint activity', 'entraining', etc., or
>> even,
>> at a slightly more sophisticated level, 'collaborative project', say. The
>> thing is, as some of the people cited in the synchrony article
>> (particularly
>> McNeill and Ehrenreich) insist, people have a very strong inherent
>> motivation to participate in synchronous activity. It's enough that
>> there's
>> a game on, for people to want to pitch in. How strong is this motivation?
>> There ain't none stronger. And that's good for a small group confronting a
>> lion, or two. Another book of Ehrenreich's, 'Blood Rites', makes this
>> clear.
>> Maybe you just don't need any other 'motive' to get *activity* going.
>> And how basic in our repertoire is synchronous activity? Is the motivation
>> to it 'innate'? Look at the Nagy and Molnar finding.
>> *
>> *
>> It might be appropriate also for me to respond to Andy's (17th Dec)
>> criticisms of my 'verbal behaviour' paper in the context of this
>> discussion
>> of 'synchronous activity'. Here goes. Andy's remarks are in black, mine in
>> blue.
>> A central feature of your essay I find attractive, that is, the effort to
>> make what you call the "acting in concert" of just two individuals the
>> starting point of your analysis. But I have a lot of problems with how you
>> go about it. Let me note a few:
>> * the archetypal mode of interaction for you is *doing the same thing*,
>> which I find to be really odd. I don't think I have ever had such an
>> interaction. It seems quite at odds, to me, as an archetype of human
>> interaction;
>> Examples of two or more people 'doing the same thing' in concert are:
>> shaking hands, having breakfast together, dancing, joining forces to lift
>> a
>> heavy suitcase, drying the dishes together, exchanging a smile.
>> * you base this idea on firstly the "mirror neurons" hypothesis, which is
>> pretty recent, entirely speculative, and actually, I just don't believe
>> it.
>> I think it's a neuroscientist's attempt to avoid cultural psychology and
>> deduce social action from neurons. In any case, by ditching socially
>> derived
>> interaction in favour of mirror neurons, you abandon cultural psychology
>> in
>> favour of neural reductionism, in my opinion.
>> As far as I know, neither any expert in this area nor me has ever regarded
>> the mirror neuron findings as anything more than circumstantial
>> corroborative evidence of a basic urge to concerted activity. See, for
>> example, Djyksterhuis' and Kinsbourne's respective contributions to
>> *Perspectives
>> on Imitation: From Cognitive Science to Social Science*, S. Hurley and N.
>> Chater, eds., MIT Press 2005. My own bias in the 'brain-mechanism or
>> culture' version of the chicken-and-egg debate is towards the view that
>> brain mechanisms evolve as a result of the survival value of cultural
>> innovations (in this case, the foundational cultural innovations
>> concerted
>> activity and empathy). This 'culture maketh the brain' view was first/best
>> propounded by Ralph Holloway, or perhaps Donald Hebb.
>> * You support this hypothesis with "Presumable" reconstructions of human
>> evolution based only on the evdience that "presuambly" it happened this
>> way,
>> because you claim that it ended this way. Tautological speculation.
>> My main 'presumably' is that the pleistocene development by hominins of
>> culture, verbal communication, consciousness and thinking must closely
>> parallel the development of these skills by the modern infant. (The latter
>> process can be observed if you know what you're looking for and have a
>> terminology capable of describing it.) The 'presumably' is that the
>> developmental steps are much the same in each case. Given the fact that
>> you
>> can reproduce much of this development, via the same steps, in chimpanzees
>> (see Savage-Rumbaugh et al.) and the fact that the hominins we are talking
>> about are at least half-way on the evolutionary road towards modern humans
>> (esp., infants), I would say it is a reasonable assumption that a similar
>> development, via similar steps, took place then.
>> * You further support this hypothesis on observations of infant behavour
>> which I find questionable: newborns imitating adults before they even know
>> about an objective world, though it is outside my area of expertise.
>> The 1983 Meltzoff and Moore findings on neonatal imitation have been
>> massively corroborated since. What I find particularly interesting, and
>> what
>> strongly suggests that it is concerted (joint, shared) activity that is in
>> question, and not mere imitation, is the 2004 Nagy and Molnar finding that
>> the newborn is also able to 'solicit' or 'provoke' a synchronous response
>> from an observer. That is, from the very beginning, the infant can not
>> only
>> join in with what others are doing but also invite others to join in what
>> he/she is doing. As for where 'the objective world' comes in: one of the
>> beauties of making concerted activity primary is that it enables a very
>> simple and plausible account of objectivity in terms of the concerting
>> (and
>> concertability (shareability), repeatability, etc.) of perceptions. The
>> infant masters the concerting pf perceptions (and thus first encounters
>> 'things in the world') in the first year.
>> * You erect on ths basis of this implausible speculation, a theory of
>> pedagogy which I would never dream of implementing in the classroom. I
>> wonder do you have any empirical evidence that this method of
>> demonstrate-and-imitate works in the classroom? I would be surprised. I
>> think kids would laugh.
>> I have never been a schoolteacher but I grew up in a teaching family. My
>> parents, John and June Melser, were both prominent educationalists. My
>> father founded and was for twenty years principal of a highly successful
>> experimental, arts-based public school (PS3, now the John Melser Charrette
>> School) in Greenwich Village, NY. My mother was a reading expert who
>> conceived, edited, graded, and partly wrote, The Story Box, probably the
>> most successful series of children's readers ever produced, world-wide.
>> Both
>> John and June were both teachers and teachers of teachers. In my
>> childhood,
>> much of the dinner-table conversation concerned classroom technique. For
>> myself, it became clear to me what it is to 'show someone how to do
>> something' or to 'help someone learn to do something' that is, I saw
>> what
>> demonstration-and-imitation is founded on much later, with early-school
>> communal chanting far in the past, when I was copying formulae, notes,
>> diagrams, etc., that the professor was writing on the blackboard in
>> mathematics and zoology classes at university.
>> * Although you develop the initial ideas in terms of a speculative
>> pedagogy,
>> you claim your aim to be for a technique of managing other people's
>> behaviour, which I take to be the definition of behaviourism, which is
>> anathema to me. My aim is emancipation not control. But that's just me.
>> You might be confusing me with Byrrhus Frederick. What I say in the
>> article
>> is that verbal communication is a technique that enables people to manage
>> (plan, organise, initiate, implement, monitor, etc.) their own concerted
>> and
>> cooperative activity. This is Wittgenstein's 'language-game' concept. But,
>> yes: telling someone something, or asking them to do something, could be
>> seen as a form of mind-control.
>> * Your second mode of interaction is what you call cooperation, i.e.,
>> division of labour. But you completely overlook what I take to be the
>> archetypal mode of interaction, i.e., joint action or collaboration,
>> independent subjects working towards the same end, and taking joint moral
>> responsibility for the outcome. In my view this *includes* conflict, and I
>> completely disagree with your characterisation of conflict as treating the
>> other person as an object. I am criticising you now precisely because I
>> treat you as a person. Conflict and cooperation are inseparable in
>> genuine,
>> human collaboration, i.e., two subjects working towards the same objective
>> and really caring about the outcome.
>> My view is that, in your terms, "the archetypal mode" is "joint action",
>> yes. Let's neither of us overlook that. Describing prototype concerted
>> activity without giving ontological priority to the individual
>> participants
>> is difficult, maybe impossible. Yet that's how it happens. Concerted
>> activity is logically and developmentally prior to solo action.
>> 'Independent
>> subjects' are creatures of solo action and thus cannot logically precede
>> concerted activity. The latter is the matrix from which 'independent
>> subjects' or 'independent agents' (see immediately below) emerge. That's
>> the
>> whole point of an 'activity'-based approach, surely. Activity,
>> specifically
>> collective/concerted activity, is ontologically prior to both 'the world'
>> and to 'subjectivity' (or solo agency or 'the individual' or whatever).
>> * I say it is untrue that it is "Standardly assumed" that cooperation is
>> the
>> outcome of rational decision by independent agents. This is a strawman.
>> Maybe among Chicago School economists.
>> You yourself say, immediately above, that joint action is a matter of
>> "independent subjects working towards the same end". This illustrates how
>> difficult it is, using everyday language, to describe concerted activity
>> without 'valorising' (?) the individual in the process. Wittgenstein ended
>> up saying that primary concert is ('forms of social life' are) ineffable.
>> Concert can't be described objectively, only empathised or, of course,
>> participated in. And, although this is fine for us non-academic folks, it
>> ain't so propitious for 'social science'.
>> * Altogether I think your approach is founded on mistaken ideas about
>> imitation and getting other people to do things.
>> BUT ... your aim of founding a psychology and pedagogy on a theory of
>> joint
>> activity is well worth supporting, and I hope you continue to discuss it
>> here. There are scores of people on this list with experience in pedagogy
>> who would doubtless like to contribute ... though they might not want you
>> to imitate them. :)
>> Merry Christmas everyone,
>> DM
>> 2008/12/22 Mike Cole <>
>> The attached article may be relevant to recent discussion of habitus and
>>> need with respect to the
>>> primacy (or not!) of reciprocity. I think Durkheim gets short shrift, but
>>> I
>>> appear to like his ideas better
>>> than most here.
>>> mike
>>> _______________________________________________
>>> xmca mailing list
>>> _______________________________________________
>> xmca mailing list
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Received on Tue Dec 23 18:09:23 2008

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