Nature vs. nurture – set 2
Goal: describe the Relationship organ
A general stereotype about identical (monozygotic) twins is that they are clones. They act alike, look-alike, and are expected to be “identical.” After all, they share 100% of their genes, don’t they? Yes, they do and this is clearly visible to anyone who have spent time with them — telling them apart can be quite challenging!
Well, luckily evolution selected for a set of modules in our brain that are up to the task! These modules are involved in that box in the middle of my system diagram at the end of my earlier article — the Relationship organ — but before discussing how, let me stay focused on the problem of telling identical twins apart for now.
I would bet that the most common question parents of identical twins get is “How do you tell them apart?” Somehow they do and most would just say “I can’t explain, I just do!” The majority of parents do not go out of their way to make this easier by e.g. writing the kids’ names on their forehead with a permanent marker 😉 — they actually make the task harder by using matching clothes, giving them matching hair style, etc.
As they grow and leave the home environment to e.g. join school, other non-family members are faced with the task to tell them apart. We all probably heard anecdotes about identical twins fooling their teachers to get better marks or avoid punishment for causing trouble. While that may be happening, most teachers do manage to tell twins apart after a while.
Telling identical twins apart is advantageous to other people interacting with them — if John stole your lunch box, asking Joe to return it will be of no avail. Probably the most extreme case is when it comes to falling in love in one of them — mistaking one twin for the other in front of the altar can be really embarrassing 😉
If you think about it, telling identical twins apart is just an extreme representation of a general problem every human, with normally developed brain functions, seem to effortlessly resolve — recognizing individual humans. We’re very social animals and even in the early days of hunter-gatherer lifestyle it would be beneficial to you if you could recognize (and remember! — another helpful skill to social animals) the person that shared a piece of their catch when your prey slipped through your hands, so you could return the favor next time.
Recognizing individuals from your species or groups is not specific to humans, of course — parents of most mammals can recognize their offspring in a pack of other “kids”, though other species are less good at that — some birds would not recognize an impostor in their nest and may feed it as theirs even if it is from an entirely different bird species.
Where humans trump all other animals in recognizing individuals is in all the possible ways we can do this and the almost limitless number of clues we can use to do so. If you ever read a book about Sherlock Holmes — a fictional character you couldn’t have possible met — I bet you can easily recognize him after reading few paragraphs on a piece of paper torn from one of those books by picking up on clues ranging from the name of his good friend Watson, to his famous smoke pipe, even lines of reasoning.
If this example doesn’t make you stand in awe in our ability to identify individuals by reading a text describing them or their actions, I have another more “visual”, rather than “textual” example. How often have you found being able to recognize your spouse, kids or friends from afar without being able to see their face? You go by clues like their height (mind you, you successfully account for perspective when doing this!), posture, gait, clothes, etc.
We clearly poses an unprecedented ability among all animals to recognize individuals from our own species. What makes this skill so valuable is the ability to store and retrieve valuable information about a particular individual — and a surprising number of data at that!
Somehow we seem to have an almost limitless memory that can keep loads of information for a person that we acquire in our interaction with them — which doesn’t seem to be limited only to humans, but other species and sometimes even objects we get attached to: Just look at your closet for that old pair of runners you don’t want to get rid of, even though you haven’t used them for a long time, but you can still vividly remember happy moments from the past when you had them on — too much information for a simple object that came from a factory that produced thousands identical pairs!
Our ability to recognize individuals (from the crowd) and store information about them as we’re interacting with them — and “interacting” could mean reading about them in a magazine! — so it can be later retrieved in future interactions with them or other people comes together into the Relationship organ I want to describe here and which Harris suggests and I fully agree is an enabling organ for our personality development — it enables the other two organs to work in shaping who we become as we grow from babies to adults.
We human beings — to (again) quote Dennett in Breaking the Spell — are obsessed about our personal relations with others: worrying about our reputations our unfulfilled promises and obligations, and reviewing our affections and loyalties. Unlike other species, which have to worry all the time about lurking predators and dwindling food sources, we human beings have largely traded in our pressing concerns for others. The price our species has paid for the security of living in large groups of interacting communicators with different agendas and shifting relationships. Whom can I trust? Who trusts me? Who are my rivals and my friends? To whom do I owe debts and whose debts to me should I forgive or collect?
The Relationship organ makes this possible as it lets us recognize the individuals we’re interacting with and keep track of all sorts of information to help us answer such questions and potentially give us an advantage when negotiating the world around us — knowing that Liz doesn’t like you and recognizing Liz from afar may save you some trouble by avoiding her on your way to school.
You can think of this organ as a huge database where each person is represented as a record in a table named “Individuals”. This table is teeming with various columns that distinctly describe the individual (sex: male; height: 190cm; age: 35; etc.) and pointers to other tables with information like history of interactions, what others told you about them, various images, models and maybe even something akin to videos or at least time-lapse snapshots that represent the person’s face from various angles, silhouette, walking movements, etc. (Don’t read too much into my metaphors like videos, the information stored in our memory may be nothing like the stuff we’re used to from working with computers!)
In addition to the information about each individual, the Relationship organ has a lot of additional bells and whistles that can take some of those distinct attributes and convert them into fuzzy representations at a whim — e.g. “middle-age tall man” instead of “35-year-old 190cm tall male”. The boundaries of these representations are blurred and can differ from context to context — e.g. you may be thinking of your friend who is a basketball player as tall at a dinner table in your home, but as mediocre height when he’s with his team — but they play an important role in what is maybe the most amazing whistle that evolution enabled in the Relationship organ: the ability to tell individuals apart from very little observable data!
For those with understanding of relational databases, think of this as having an almost limitless number of indices that can be used for quick retrieval of a single record from the “Individuals” table. It’s the ultimate solution to the problem of searching from a vast number of possibilities and homing in on a single best and always correct (well almost!) result. It’s Google’s I’m Feeling Lucky button, which would take you directly to the first result for your search criteria without having to review the alternatives.
Unlike the I’m Feeling Lucky button, the evolution had a long time to optimize this capability by ruthlessly selecting for those “algorithms” that made fewer mistakes — those that mistaken their enemies for friends didn’t leave any ancestors. Like the I’m Feeling Lucky button, though, sometimes luck fails and we may mistake one person for another — under alcohol influence we may even mistake a street light pole for a person 😉
The problem of telling individual twins apart I started this article with brings this capability into its best — it’s a case where evolution, through long and thoughtless selection, managed to “design” a module that can recognize even the finest differences in what would otherwise seem to be two genetically identical individuals. Or did it really? Could it be that another mechanism is at play on the twins’ side to make them different so our Relationship organ can tell them apart — much like the Zebras may have unique stripes to recognize each individual in the herd? Or maybe something else is going on? This will be a topic in one of my future articles, but I’d suggest you go back to my earlier article and review the discussion about the feedback loops.
I’d like to end this article with a summary of what the Relationship organ is. It is an awesome piece of brain hardware and software that effortlessly stores and retrieves a vast amount of information about an individual — I wonder what did Adolf say about the new Apple tablet last week? It is an almost limitless collection of algorithms and searching capabilities that can grab input from other modules for processing sensor information– I wonder who is that tall blonde sitting at the bar? — and effortlessly recognize and retrieve information about the individuals they’re “sensing”. And I also suggest it is the backbone on which the additional organs — Social and Status — rely to do their working shaping who we become from babies to adults!