[Squeakland] the non universals

Alan Kay alan.kay at squeakland.org
Wed Aug 15 08:39:20 PDT 2007

Hi Bill --

I'm in a rush, so will reply more extensively later.

But, of course, the non-universals are easy for anyone who 
understands a fair number of the universals and who reads a little. 
Most cultures on Earth have not had writing systems (and probably 
still most today). Etc.



At 08:05 AM 8/15/2007, Bill Kerr wrote:
>hi alan,
>Thanks for extensive clarification of the items which I had left 
>question marks on
> From what you say the "non universals" group originates from you 
> (!) which sort of explains why I couldn't find other references to 
> it on the net
>I have used your lists at a few meetings and it has provoked a 
>response of sorts. On the one hand some people say the "non 
>universals" is an interesting list. However, I've also noticed some 
>reluctance or inability to discuss the items on the list in any real 
>detail or to discuss the implications for the formal education 
>system. ie it seems to come at people from left field
>In his dissertation on the history of the Dynabook John Maxwell asks 
>"what is a powerful idea, anyway?" and also argues that there has 
>been a  decline of powerful idea discourse
>What I'm noticing in educational discussion groups, blogs etc. on 
>the web of late is much talk about "web 2.0", "school 2.0" but this 
>tends to take place outside of a framework that maybe there are 
>powerful ideas that really do have to be taught in some way.
>You do say that the major stakeholders don't get it. What I see 
>there is curriculum frameworks being used as blunt instruments of 
>control. I'm suggesting, too, that many of the "radicals", who 
>describe themselves as "web 2.0" are not getting it either.
>In this context I like the idea of your list of "non universals" and 
>John Maxwells' idea of the need for more powerful idea discourse. 
>However, I'm also left feeling a bit unsure of the status of the 
>"non universals" list, eg. how complete is it? have people argued 
>about it and disputed it?
>I could think of some non universals / powerful ideas that are not 
>on your list, eg. Darwinian evolution, computer-human symbiosis for 
>starters ...
>I'm also curious about its connection with using computers in 
>learning. Clearly etoys and logo can be used to assist teaching some 
>of those concepts in constructionist fashion, esp maths and science. 
>But for others I don't see a close connection at the moment (eg. 
>equal rights, democracy) - although the OLPC project is becoming a 
>part of that.
>Bill Kerr
>On 8/14/07, Alan Kay <<mailto:alan.kay at squeakland.org> 
>alan.kay at squeakland.org> wrote:
>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:
>>tools and art
>>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
>>perspective drawing
>>theory of harmony (?)
>>similarities over differences (?)
>>slow deep thinking
>>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
>><mailto:Squeakland at squeakland.org>Squeakland at squeakland.org
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