[Squeakland] the non universals

Alan Kay alan.kay at squeakland.org
Wed Aug 15 09:48:49 PDT 2007

OK, a few more minutes ...

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

Gathering the behaviors that can scientifically be claimed to be 
universals is what requires diligent work by experts, since literally 
thousands of cultures need to be perused -- and a fair amount of 
experimentation with early childhood behaviors is critical. Once, 
gotten we can easily claim that opposites (like writing and reading) 
are not universal. Deductive math and model based science are also 
easy. As is "equal rights", etc.

>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

It requires some "perspective and knowledge" (which was what 
education used to be correlated with) to do the discussion. E.g. if 
one is not fluent in math and/or science it is difficult to 
understand just how qualitatively different are the modern versions 
of these. Most educational reform stalls in large part from the below 
threshold educations of the adults in the system. For most people, 
most powerful ideas come at them 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

Well, "powerful ideas" is a nice metaphor that Seymour made up to 
heighten people's understanding (and the significance) of the 
relatively few and rare inventions that have made huge differences in 
how humans meet and think about the world. It is normal behavior to 
accommodate to what is present (especially what one was born into) 
and so most people think of the powerful ideas as part of normal, and 
since most Americans have not traveled in a way that gets them to 
appreciate the wide range of situations that humans are in around the 
world, they completely miss the wonder and mystery of "better 
intellectual architectures". This is why there are so few scientists 
(because most people take things as they seem and completely miss 
what deeper curiosity and better methods can find out).

>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.

Most of this is just a cargo cult.

>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?

Neither list is complete. But the important property of the 
universals list is that most the items are well vetted. The 
importance of my non-universal list is just that 5 or 7 items are the 
most important changes that humans have made in their 200,000 years 
on the planet (and most of these came very recently (even 
agriculture)). What more do people need to start thinking with? What 
more arguments about modern science need to be made? (And if they do 
need to be made, then what new kind of argument would work?)

In other words, if the items on my list are ignored then it really 
doesn't matter much what else could be on the list. For example, the 
notion that there are "powerful ideas" could be the number one 
powerful idea, since it should lead to trying to understand powerful 
ideas, and to trying to find more of them.

>I could think of some non universals / powerful ideas that are not 
>on your list, eg. Darwinian evolution, computer-human symbiosis for 
>starters ...

Sure. There are lots (and they should be paid attention to). But 
certainly Darwinian Evolution (and a lot of other things fall under 
Science), etc. Computer-human symbiosis falls under the larger topics 
of how human thinking can be changed by the use of media (for better 
or for worse), etc, For a short list, it's best to use the biggies. 
Similarly, if we listed every built-in human trait (especially the 
zillions of bad ones), the list would be too long for any discussion purposes.

>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.

Some music needs to be sung by human voices, and the best instruments 
in the world won't help (and will usually detract). Similarly, some 
theatrical expressions have to be done directly in person live, and 
will be diminished by inserting even high resolution media. 
Similarly, even the wondrous nature of mathematics often is too 
visible so it can obscure what's most interesting about what is being 

We are talking about human thinking and perspective, not computers here.

However, consider this wonderful phrase from Marshall McLuhan "You 
can argue about a lot of things with stained glass windows, but 
Democracy is not one of them!" He meant that not just non-visual oral 
language, but only written, even printed language was disembodied and 
abstract enough to handle the critical issues and subtleties of this 
discourse. This itself is a powerful insight and a powerful idea that 
most adults in the world today have no notion of, and most would find 
it almost crazy.

In other words, as Neil Postman liked to point out, the relationship 
between human thought and the languages/media used to form and 
express it is not a separated one, but is a non-linear ecology. 
Dropping something like TV into a society is like introducing rabbits 
into Australia. Not really thinking about computing and networking as 
new kinds of rabbits for good and ill can lead (and has led) to 
disastrous effects already. On the other hand, geniuses (like 
Montesorri, Papert, Bruner, McLuhan, Engelbart, etc.) who have 
thought about how environments of any kind condition "normal" and 
thus much of human thought and behavior have come up with very 
powerful and positive ways to use new and old environments to help 
humans more successfully struggle with their less well fitted 
internal behavior patterns.

The basic approach here is to hold focus on what is really important, 
and to design new media and environments to help people learn what is 
important. As Seymour pointed out long ago, not even in the 
educational swamps of America do they use the phrase "paper based 
education" since it is patently ridiculous. But because people don't 
understand computers (and because magical thinking is one of the 
human universals) any new technology is treated as a talisman -- and 
they have no trouble in generating phrases like "computer based 
education" or "computer based curriculum" or "web based learning" 
etc. This is also cargo cult behavior.

Most people "take the world as it seems" as I mentioned above, and so 
they completely miss most of the important properties and issues. 
This is why having general discussions about powerful ideas often 
leads nowhere.

(And most discussions on the web similarly get nowhere -- opinion 
gets exchanged, but opinions have always been exchanged for 200,000 
years with nothing much happening. The concatenation of opinions 
almost never leads to a better set of ideas -- this is a big bug in 
"web myth" and "collective behavior myths" in general. This is 
because the opinions in order to be understood have to share quite a 
bit of the same outlook, but progress usually comes from big changes 
in outlook. What we need are not more opinions and endless 
discussions, but more hooks to find stronger outlooks (aka "powerful ideas").



>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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