Primates Operate on Symbols, Not Data

Primates Operate on Symbols, Not Data

Primates and most other animals have a special relation to computers, and in a lot of ways, we’re not as different as we think (Hardware, Firmware, and Software – Biology, Culture, and Behavior). One such thing, is how we analyze and use symbols to make discrete judgement.

In the early days of 2D video games, a concept of a Sprite was commonly used to differentiate rendered objects from other elements of the game, like the background. Sprites are nothing more than a group of data displayed on a screen together, but humans perceive them as characters that think and act together as a single object. This concept of Sprites came so natural to those of us who grew up playing these games. Humans easily associate meaning with these sprites, one might even say, predisposed to this sort of logic. For example, a famous sprite was Princess Zelda. She was a character, a “good guy”, a symbol to go down in video game history. Notice, how easily that humans identify the Sprite with the character outside the game.

But video games isn’t the only place we find this grouping logic. Natural language processing (NLP), often grouped with Artificial Intelligence, is a computing technique that displays a similar logic of grouping data. NLP is a computing process by which we attach sentiment (feelings) to entities (things). This association process is often refereed to as “training the model.” We later use the “trained” model to quickly identify entities, and re-associate that same sentiment. A similar process is amazing to watch with my 21 month old girl pointing at everything around her. She is identifying entities. As she gets hurt by one of them (often), or discovers that one is delicious to eat, she develops sentiment towards them. Biological intelligence in action.

Pivoting to the more direct application of symbols to the human psyche, the theory of Symbolic Anthropology was developed in the 1960s. This theory states that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning”.[1] A little understood or talked about byproduct of this theory implies that humans don’t interact with the underlying data, and instead make logical decisions based off of these symbols.

We can see Symbolic Anthropology in action in both Cultural analysis and biological analysis of human survival. For example, humans interact with each other as a Symbol, another person. Thus, most if not all of our logic is based on thousands of generations of selective pressures based on these symbolic views of each other (with sentiment attached). For example, young males do not feel compelled to donate their sperm to a sperm bank to increase their survival advantage, because “sperm bank” and “survival advantage” are not a symbols acted upon by thousands of years of selective pressures.  On the other hand, “cute girl” is a symbol and clearly young men are compelled by their hormones to spend time with and talk to young females.

Stated another way, young men do not sit around and dream about successfully raising primate offspring (defined as reproductive age). Instead, they hang out with young women, have sex and eventually feel the compulsion (or are told) that they need to help successfully raise the offspring. As an aside, there is a temporal component to the acts we take on these symbols, we do not understand the whole game at once.

Think about this the next time you make the flippant comment that “people are acting irrationally” – often, they are acting quite rationally on the symbols which would have played a survival advantage for most of human history. Think even further about how our mammalian ancestors operated on these symbols and survived (or didn’t)…

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