Garfloms and Pangolins

Thursday, August 03, 2006

By Wray Herbert

Consider this rather wild scenario. Imagine you are a very early human, trying to eke out a living on the savannahs of eastern Africa. You wake up one morning and head out to forage some breakfast, but you discover that your path is blocked by a robot. That’s right, a gleaming silver robot, with lots of knobs and flashing lights. What do you do?

Well first off, you’ve got to make sense of this thing. Remember, you’re a primitive thinker. You’ve got a couple hundred thousand years of evolving to do before you’ll even know the word robot, much less what an algorithm is. But right now your primitive brain wants to put it in a category. So what do you ask yourself? Do you wonder how it has sex? Or how and what it eats? Or do you instinctively ask yourself: What is this thing’s purpose? How can it serve me?

Psychologists study this question. Well, not this exact question, because that would be impossible and silly. But they do want to know how the modern human mind deals with novelty—basically how we discover the world and put it into some kind of sensible order. What do we know intuitively? One crucial part of that discovery process is learning to tell the difference between two of life’s biggest categories of things: animals and artifacts. How do we sort them out in a meaningful way?

To explore this basic mental process, psychologists study the minds of preschoolers who are just beginning to make sense of unfamiliar things. Yale University’s Marissa Greif and her colleagues showed a group of preschool children pictures of both animals and man-made objects. The animals were real, but unfamiliar, even to many adults: pangolins, for example, and saigas. (Check your dictionary.) The objects were made-up, complete with names and purposes: A garflom, for instance, looks like a wooden foot massager, but its official purpose for the experiment was to flatten towels. A riepank (which looks awfully like a woodworker’s C-clamp) is used to make holes in playdough.

The children, who averaged about 4 ½ years old, were encouraged to ask questions about these things. Their questions (and guesses) were revealing. For example, when the kids asked about action, some questions were appropriate for either an animal or artifact (Does it turn?), while others would only be asked sensibly of animals (Does it climb trees?) or artifacts (Is it for cutting?). As reported in the journal Psychological Science, the children never asked inappropriate questions of either animals or objects. They never asked of a tarsier or pangolin: How does it work? Similarly, they never asked how riepanks reproduce or what garfloms eat, though they did ask such survival questions of the unfamiliar animals.

What this suggests to the scientists is that children have a rich and intuitive understanding of these two fundamental categories of things in the world. At four they are too young to articulate this sensibility, but they know when things have been designed for a purpose, and when they have not. It appears that humans have an autonomous biological thought process for sizing up other creatures, and the only relevant traits in this view are survival traits. This is probably a legacy from those ancient ancestors, who by the way would have known instinctively that a robot is a mere tool, there only for your benefit.

For more insights into human nature, visit the Association for Psychological Science website at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 2:01 PM


At 11:15 AM , Blogger Michelle said...

It would be interesting to see how the younger children, closer to three, reacted. Four and half is much too old to be able to discount the possibility that their parents had already conveyed the rubric of animate versus inanimate objects.

At 9:16 AM , Blogger bsdoerner said...

Being creatures of curiousity, I would say that only a picture of an object, versus the actual object would prompt inquiry. However, being creatures of self-preservation, I would say that seeing and/or being in close proximity to the actual object would cause a level of fear, whether slight to overwhelming. Therefore, if I had been the primative hunter/gatherer, happening upon the robot in my path, I would have run in terror the opposite direction. Thinking further on what it is I just saw, I would then allow myself the capacity to question whether or not it was for my benefit.... :-)