[Squeakland] the non universals

Alan Kay alan.kay at squeakland.org
Mon Aug 13 11:52:00 PDT 2007

Hi Bill --

There are various sources for "universals" on the net and off. Quite 
a bit more has been found out about these since the days of Lorenz 
and Tinbergen. One of the several fields that studies these as 
scientifically as possible is called "NeuroEthology" and there are a 
number of good books on the subject. T.G.R. Bower was one of the 
first to study very young humans specifically. An ancillarly field 
that has appeared in the last few decades is called "bio-behavior", 
and there also a number of illuminating books there.

I picked some of the "non-universals" that I thought were important 
(and some particularly to contrast items in the universal list).

To answer your question marks ...

"Theory of Harmony" is kind of like "Deductive Abstract Mathematics" 
in that most traditional cultures have some form of counting, adding 
and subtracting -- and some make music with multiple pitches at once 
(as did Western Culture before 1600). But the notion of harmony 
before 1600 was essentially as a byproduct of melodies and voice 
leading rather than a thing in itself in which chords have the same 
first class status as melodic lines. How and why this appeared is 
fascinating and is well known in music history.

Some of the most interesting composers in the Baroque period 
(especially Bach) tried to make both the old and the new schemes work 
completely together. Bach's harmonic language in particular was an 
amazing blend of harmonies and bass lines with voice leading and 
other contrapuntal techniques (quite a bit of his vocabulary is 
revealed in his harmonized chorales (some 371 or 372 of them)). That 
these two worlds are very different ways of looking at things is 
attested to by a wonderful piece by Purcell "The Contest Between 
Melodie and Harmonie".

As with "Greek Math", history doesn't seem to have any record of a 
separate and as rich invention of a harmonic theory. So it is really rare.

"Similarities over Differences" was to contrast with the standard 
processes of most nervous systems of most species to be more 
interested in "differences over similarities" (which is listed on the 
universal side). At most levels from reflexes to quite a bit of 
cognition, most similarities are accommodated and normalized while 
differences to the normalizations have a heightened significance (of 
"danger" or "pay attention").

Paying attention to differences is good for simple survival but makes 
it hard to think in many ways because it leads to so many cases, 
categories and distinctions -- and because some of the most important 
things may have disappeared into "normal" (in particular, things 
about oneself and one's own culture). So we unfortunately are much 
more interested in even superficial differences between humans and 
cultures and have a very hard time thinking of "the other" as being 
in the same value space as we are....

Part of the invention of modern math by the Greeks was their desire 
to get rid of the huge codexes of cases for geometry and arithmetic. 
This led to many useful abstractions which could be used as lenses to 
see things which looked different to normal minds as actually the 
same. For example, the Greek idea that there is only one triangle of 
each shape (because you can divide the two short sides by the long 
one to make a standard triangle of a given shape). This gets rid of 
lots of confusion and leaves room to start thinking more powerful 
thoughts. (The Greeks accomplished the interesting and amazing feat 
of using normalization to separate similarities and differences but 
paid attention to the similarities.) Calculus is a more subtle and 
tremendously useful example of separating similarities and 
differences. Convolution theory is yet more subtle ...

One way to think of my chart is that a lot of things we correlate 
with "enlightenment" and "civilization" are rather un-natural and 
rare inventions whose skills require us to learn how to go against 
many of our built in thought patterns. I think this is one of the 
main reasons to have an organized education (to learn the skills of 
being better thinkers than our nervous systems are directly set up for).

History suggests that we not lose these powerful ideas. They are not 
easy to get back.

The non-built-in nature of the powerful ideas on the right hand list 
implies they are generally more difficult to learn -- and this seems 
to be the case. This difficulty makes educational reform very hard 
because a very large number of the gatekeepers in education do not 
realize these simple ideas and tend to perceive and react (not think) 
using the universal left hand list .....



At 09:11 AM 8/13/2007, Bill Kerr wrote:
>Alan Kay has a couple of slides in his Europython 2006 keynote, 
>illustrating Universals and Non Universals
>It's right at the start of this video:
> From anthropological research of over 3000 human cultures, he 
> presented two lists, the first were universals, the things that all 
> human cultures have in common. This list included things like:
>    * language
>    * communication
>    * fantasies
>    * stories
>    * tools and art
>    * superstition
>    * religion and magic
>    * play and games
>    * differences over similarities (?)
>    * quick reactions to patterns
>    * vendetta, and more
>He then presented a list of non universals, the things that humans 
>find harder to learn. This list was shorter and included:
>    * reading and writing
>    * deductive abstract mathematics
>    * model based science
>    * equal rights
>    * democracy
>    * perspective drawing
>    * theory of harmony (?)
>    * similarities over differences (?)
>    * slow deep thinking
>    * agriculture
>    * legal systems
>These lists are really important I think as a guide to what our 
>formal education system ought to be teaching - at least a starting 
>point to a discourse on powerful ideas, as distinct from the dumbing 
>down and smothering effect of generalised curriculum statements
>I'm curious as to where alan got his list of "non universals" from 
>and would like more details about them. I put a question mark after 
>a couple I didn't understand but which sounded interesting.
>When I google "non universals" anthropology not much comes up but 
>the search universals anthropology was more successful:
>Bill Kerr
>Squeakland mailing list
>Squeakland at squeakland.org
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